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Over the years, law school applicants have taken various approaches to make their applications stand out from the crowd. From the all-too-common videotaped plea for admission to the now-famous Penthouse centerfold sent as part of one prospective student's application, the ploys used by applicants to make sure they're remembered have become increasingly imaginative.

Too often overlooked in this mad pursuit, however, is one of the very best ways for an applicant to stand out: getting terrific, vividly written recommendations.

Who Should Write Them?

Most schools require two or three letters of recommendation. It's important that each one be written by an instructor, advisor, or employer who knows you well and who can present an in-depth, sincere depiction of your qualifications and character. It may seem impressive to have a high-ranking government official, a lawyer or judge write a letter; but if it's someone who barely knows you, the letter will be worthless. Remember, law schools have been in the business of assessing recommendations for many years. They can usually tell the difference between an honest recommendation and one that comes from calling in a favor.

What Makes an Outstanding Recommendation?

Recommendations can vary in format, but there are several qualities they all tend to have in common:

Compares You to Others

Admissions officers appreciate a recommendation that compares you to people whom the recommender previously knew in the same position, or (in a best-case scenario) to alumni of that particular school.

Tells Stories

Rather than merely listing attributes, a good recommendation engages the reader by telling an insightful story about the applicant.

Focuses on Scholastic Abilities

Obviously, a strong recommendation from a professor carries a great deal of weight.

Ties in with the Personal Statement

An obvious discrepancy between the recommendation and personal statement can be a serious drawback.

Contains Some Negative Comments

A recommendation that is only laudatory, failing to mention a single negative thing about an applicant, may lose credibility. One word of caution, though: Admissions officers universally hate "fake" negatives (e.g., "she works too darn hard").

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long?
    Short and concise - no more than two pages. One page is usually sufficient.

  • What about a school's recommendation form?
    Ask your recommender to fill it out but also staple it to the written recommendation that he or she is sending to other schools.

  • Should I ask to look at the recommendations?
    Easy answer: no. If the school believes that the recommender can't be completely honest for fear of offending the applicant, the school will heavily discount what is written.

  • Can I send more recommendations than the school requests?
    Be careful. Some schools are very specific in their instructions that they will not accept more than the exact number requested. Any more than that and they'll throw them in the trash. Thus, the last recommendation to come in, which may be your best, is thrown away. Blitzing the law school admissions office with recommendations will not, in most cases, allow a less-than-stellar academic record to be ignored.

  • What if my recommender says, "write it up and I'll sign it"?
    An absolute no-no. Explain to the recommender that beyond the strong ethical considerations, a recommendation reflects the distinctive voice and point of view of the writer. Law school admissions officers are expert at sniffing out frauds.

  • What's a Dean's Certification letter?
    The letter from the Dean of Students (or the registrar at your undergraduate college) proves that you attended the institution and lists any disciplinary actions that were taken against you.

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