The Curious Reality of Letters of Recommendation

I'm going to share in this blog an admissions truth that you've probably never heard before and that might sound counterintuitive to you:

Letters of Recommendation don't particularly help

Sounds odd, right? Why would all law schools ask for them if they don’t? And why wouldn’t they help – after all they are about the only part of the application that isn’t either coming directly from you (eg: application, essays, interview, etc.) or a direct result of your performance and track record (eg: LSAT score(s), GPA, etc.). So why wouldn’t a law school be greatly interested in what others have to say about you? The answer is that it all boils down to the one key element that makes admissions what it is.

Differentiation

Letters of Recommendation (LOR) very rarely help because they very rarely differentiate. Applicants don’t ask enemies or strangers for them – so 95% are fawning, glowing statements of similar length (about a page), tone, and sentiment. In fact, as a majority are from faculty, and because faculty often have to write hundreds if not thousands over a career, a significant percentage are actually form letters with minor variations. Indeed, I have seen two LOR that were nearly identical from different faculty for the same applicant, they were sharing the same form letter (and quite surprised when I called their office numbers to ask about it). Interestingly enough, this is about the exact opposite of a Personal Statement where 95% are flawed in strategic topic or writing/narrative arc and where you can really stand out from the masses by being in that elite 5%.

Note though, I didn’t say they don’t matter. I just unveiled the curtain regarding how much they help…very little in almost all cases. LOR can matter a great deal if done the wrong way, because schools can certainly use them to cull the applicant pool if you are in that ominous 5% that aren’t good. Knowing what these look like helps a great deal, and they most often sound like the following:

*Dear Office of Admissions,

I write this letter on behalf of Jon Snow – who tells me he was in my Philosophy 101 course as a freshman. I see from my ledger that Jon got an A- in my course and I wish that I could say it were due to some highly coveted law school attributes, But the fact of the matter is I cannot, because I do not recall Mr. Snow. All I can say is that he did well in one course and that he sent me a politely worded email asking for my help – for which I give it with no real depth.

Sincerely,
Super prominent professor with fancy title and who is on CNN from time to time.*

The mistake in the above, as is often the case in the bottom 5% that hurt an application deeply (because they do differentiate, just not positively) is that the prospective student unwisely chooses a recommender with a lofty title or position rather than one who knows her/him. When looking at who to ask, always tilt towards those who know you better and who will say the fawning, glowing, splashy adjectives about you – generally about a page worth of them. It doesn’t so much matter precisely the form that those take, but rather that you are in the collective group of gushed over applicants. Because any letter of recommendation that starts with “I do not really know this person well…” is what you are avoiding here.

Finally, there are a limited number that really do help. Generally you can’t manufacture these, they come from alumni of the law school, heavy donors, or similarly connected people to the individual school. But without said relationships, I will end on the following. I’ve read numerous LOR from Governors, Senators, Professional Athletes, College Presidents, CEOS, and even from a few from Supreme Court Justices. Hardly any of these really helped the application because most were about a paragraph long and written in broad or templated terms. What was more impressive were the deeply sincere and personal letters from TA’s that spoke to the applicant on a rich and personal level – which had me signing off positively on the LOR and, in ideal situations, thinking back to that exemplary Personal Statement that made me laugh or smile and which really stood out from the masses of “meh.”