Tips for Getting a Great Letter of Recommendation

May 21, 2020

Many students have questions about letters of recommendation. Do schools really read letters of recommendation? Do you have to get a letter from a faculty member? What if you attended college 10 years ago or took all of your courses online? When do you ask for a letter?


Every law school will have a different letter of recommendation requirement. Some will not require any, while others will require up to three. Look at each school’s requirements before you jump in and start asking for recommendations. Here are our answers to some of the most common questions students have.

Why do schools want letters of recommendation?

A holistic file review means the admissions team will look at more than the LSAT and GPA; they will look at your whole file. Any law school that utilizes a holistic approach to reviewing applications will require letters of recommendation. This gives the admissions team insight into who the applicant is as a person. Otherwise, it is hard to get a good sense of an applicant’s non-academic and non-numeric qualities.

A good letter of recommendation should provide insights into your skills and experience (writing, speaking, analytical abilities, etc.), your character (Do you fulfill promises or exhibit integrity?), your talents (Are you a natural leader or compassionate teacher?), and your passions (Why law school? Why now?).

Who should you ask to write a letter of recommendation?

If you are still in college or graduate school, or you are a recent graduate, we strongly recommend getting a letter of recommendation from a faculty reference. Law school admissions staff tend to prefer letters that highlight a student’s academic potential. Most faculty understand this and can provide compelling details. If you are not able to obtain a good letter from a faculty member, then ask a supervisor at work or at a volunteer organization.

While it might be tempting, please refrain from asking a family member, even if you worked for them in some professional capacity. The best reference for a letter of recommendation is a person who knows you well and can confidently speak to your ability to perform in a challenging environment like law school. This is just another good reason for ambitious students to develop meaningful relationships with their professors and mentors.

Our admissions staff note the following are who you should be asking for letters of recommendation:

  • A professor who knows you well.
  • An academic advisor who you have built a good rapport with (not someone who you only met with once).
  • Someone who has managed you in an internship or a professional job.
  • A professional connection with an advanced degree (should know you well enough to speak to your strengths in a challenging environment).

When should you ask for a reference?

If you plan on applying for the fall semester, you should start asking for letters of recommendation as early as September or October. Believe us when we say it is in your best interest to give your references plenty of time to write them. Don’t wait until April to ask a reference when the deadline to apply is in May. A rushed letter tends to be a weak one. Give your references clear instructions and a deadline that is not right around the corner.

What’s the best way to ask for a letter of recommendation?

Law school admissions experts have several excellent tips on how to ask for a letter of recommendation. First and foremost, you should make sure that the letter is actually going to be positive. This may seem odd, but it’s really important! We’ve gotten letters that were not very positive and even expressed some doubts about the prospective student. It may feel a little awkward, but we highly recommend asking your reference if they are willing to provide a positive and supportive recommendation before picking them.

Another important thing to keep in mind is quality over quantity. Most law schools require two letters of recommendation, so you should have a good reason if you are planning on submitting more. A bunch of low-quality references will not make you more appealing to an admissions team.

You should also make sure that each reference you pick can provide a distinct letter of recommendation. Seek out references who can speak to a specific quality that highlights your potential as a law school student (academic achievements, speaking experience, or work ethic, for instance).

When it comes to asking a reference for a letter of recommendation, you should be clear about what you're looking for. Don’t be afraid to say, “I’m looking for an excellent letter.” This is also why it is so important to ask references you actually have some level of rapport with. Otherwise, you may end up with an empty letter of recommendation. Even if that comes from an influential figure, it won’t look good to a law school admissions team.

What should a letter of recommendation contain?

Law school admissions experts can quickly tell if a letter of recommendation has come from someone who doesn’t really know the prospective applicant. The best letters come from references who have observed a student’s work and also noted how they have grown in their academic or professional pursuits. Specific examples will clearly detail an applicant’s progression in these areas and how they have coped with serious challenges.

Engaging and detailed testimonials

Great letters of recommendation also tend to include detailed and genuine anecdotes about the prospective applicant. Generalized statements like “Susan is a really outstanding student” just aren’t that compelling in reality. Law school admissions teams want to know specifics about an applicant and the qualities they bring to the table.

Evidence of growth

A letter that can effectively show how an applicant has grown and developed in their pursuits goes a long way in humanizing them for the reader. A great letter of recommendation might provide details on how a student has steadily improved their writing skills. This analysis will also help further support the reference’s assessments of the applicant’s best personal characteristics and their assertion that they will be able to succeed in law school.

It should come as no surprise that traits like writing ability, intellectual curiosity, and a proven record of tackling academic challenges head-on will help prospective students stand out to admissions officers or faculty who are reviewing law school applications.

Final tip: Always follow up with a thank you note and, once admitted into law school, let your recommender know where you were accepted and thank them again!

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Topics: Applying to Law School