LSAC.org–the LSAT and law-school application mothership’s website–has been unreachable all morning. I’ve been trying without success to log on since 6 am to submit a recommendation. It’s a small inconvenience to me; I’ll rely on Plan B, the U.S. Postal Service. I imagine, though, it is deeply frustrating for thousands of anxious law-school applicants. I’m curious about the cause–overload from those hoping to get their score for last Saturday’s exam? Or from those canceling their score?
Frustrated by the many students who make the same missteps my colleague Professor Rachel Spooner penned a terrific short memo about seeking written letters of recommendation. She gave me permission to use it; I’ve excerpted the portions that resonate most with me (which is 90% of it).
For several years I have been spending a significant percentage of my time writing letters of recommendation for my students, current and former. I am happy to do so; my students work hard and I am happy to acknowledge their strengths, and I realize I wouldn’t be where I am without several busy people taking time to write letters for me, so I feel I obligated to do the same. Because I take the time to know my students, in most cases it is easy for me to write a letter expressing a personal view of the student. Occasionally, though, the circumstances present a real challenge. I do the best I can, but the best letters are those that reflect anecdotes and personal details that don’t come through on a transcript. The following is a list of my suggestions on how to get good, personal, and detailed letters of recommendation written for you, whether it is by me or another professor or professional contact.
- Let me get to know you. Simply showing up in class, doing well on exams, and writing good papers is not enough. Often I have “A” students that I barely know. All I can write is about is their performance on tests and papers, which is already conveyed to the Admissions Office/Employer in their transcripts. This is even worse if the student does not get an A. It is easy to let a professor get to know you: talk to see them in office hours, or ask them to meet over lunch or coffee. Some of my best letters have been written about a meaningful conversation I had with a student in office hours that had nothing to do with our course. You do not need an important question or topic to come see me.
- Class participation is only the first step. One way I can start to get to know you is through strong class participation. It is not the only way, and it is not enough, but it is a start.
- You don’t need an “A” to get a good letter. Some of my favorite students received average grades in my course. But because I got to know them outside of class, I could appreciate all their strengths, and write meaningful letters. I include this point so you don’t think all we care about is grades, and to reinforce how important it is to get to know your recommender.
- Provide ample notice. Writing letters isn’t our only job.
- Keep in touch. Even if I knew you well when you were in my class, if you come to me years later, and I haven’t spoken to you since, it will be challenging to remember the type of personal details that make a good letter. Stop by office hours, meet me for coffee, send an email once in a while.
- Let me know the results. It is frustrating to write letters of recommendation and never hear from them again. I want to know where you got in, and what your plans are. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t write the letter. A simple email, or postcard from your study abroad program would suffice.
Here’s the situation. Imagine a student who took only one course with me, a year ago or more. I didn’t know this student well then–the student’s attendance was spotty, or the student participated infrequently when in class, or the student never talked to me outside of class, or at length, or about anything substantive or personal. The student’s course grade, B- or C+, was substantially below the class average of B+. We have no contact during many months or years after the student graduates. Then one day I receive an email from this student who says my course was their favorite course at BU, they remember it well, and can I write them a recommendation letter for law school or graduate school or a job?
What is this student thinking? Do they-
- not remember their mediocre performance in the course?
- think I do not remember or have no way of recalling their mediocre performance in the course?
- think, like one of those delusional cat-screech singers on American Idol, that they actually performed at the top of their class?
- think I have no standards?
- think I’m a sap?
- truly have no other class in which they performed better and ask me because they actually enjoyed the class?
Seriously, I am perplexed. In almost every case I can say something positive in a recommendation letter–and actually mean it when I say it, which is important–but I need raw material to work with. I need a memorable performance in some component of a course, or insights that come from knowing more about a student than their name, or belief in a student’s work ethic or values . . . or something.
Last year a few students asked for my endorsement on LinkedIn. I wrote a few, growing more uncomfortable with each about their lack of a specific audience and permanence online. I decided last fall not to endorse anyone else on LinkedIn or comparable sites. I didn’t have to apply my decision until yesterday, when I rejected a former student’s request for a LinkedIn endorsement. I explained that I would be happy to recommend him to a specific employer or graduate school; he was a terrific student. My rejection has nothing to do with his merits. I am rejecting the concept of permanent, open-ended, recommendations.