Editing Letters of Recommendation
They say a letter of recommendation can make or break an application. They are correct. However not all recommendations were created equal. And neither are any two recommenders equivalent as well. Asking for a recommendation can range from beinga simple to a traumatic experience. Quality most certainly varies on this one. It is important to think about who will be your recommenders.
Schools are particular about whether they want academic references strictly or if they are open to professional references as well. So check out their policy or email them to ask what they prefer before you decide your names. If you have been out of law school for long, then professional references may hold more value, but that would also mean disclosing your LLM plans to your employer (a rocky boat to be in for sure).
Some professors are very well-versed in the art of writing a letter of recommendation. They need little introduction to the process as they are used to writing them each year. This is Category A, which is the easiest to work with. They may even offer you some limited autonomy in reminding them of the things you did in their classes. Then there is the other Category B of professors that have little to no familiarity with how to write a letter. This doesnt mean you should avoid asking such professors, but just that they may need more time in writing a letter for you. Also sometimes there are cultural differences, I observed that my European and British trained professors had a very different idea about what a letter should be versus my American trained professors. As far as Indian professors are concerned, some of then may have an incorrect perception that the letter has to come from a professor that looks busy. This means that the letter has to be brief and concise. This flawed logic must be corrected as the idea is not to sell the professor, but to sell you as a prospective student of that law school. If you think a professor cannot scream and shout from rooftops (not literally) that you are the best thing since sliced bread, give them a pass. Which is why taking an appointment to meet them a few weeks before gives you an idea of who could be solid recommender and who will write a “busy looking” letter (true story). Also, professors are actually busy and so your follow-up game will have to be strong. Look out for Category C below.
In terms of actually seeing the contents of the letter, this is actually not an acceptable practice. Once the professor agrees to write your letter, you must waive the right to see the letter. Lucky for us applicants that LSAC makes this as simple as just ticking a box. This is the expected and correct way of sending a letter of recommendation and actually boosts the quality of your reference. I remember a Professor asked me why I didn’t waive the right as to her letter. I was asking for so many letters of recommendation that I think I just simply forgot to tick the box. Don’t be sloppy. Before you meet the professor, carry a copy of your resume and see if you have waived your right. At any point, your goal should not be to suggest content to the recommender or even try and influence what they may highlight. I remember speaking about my application plans and the fact that I was trying for certain schools. That was about it. I wanted it to be an honest reflection of what they thought, and in asking for a letter you assume the risk that the professor may or may not add weight to your application. Because of this inherent risk factor, I actually asked for a lot of recommendations. I was helped by the fact that we had about 5 professors each semester, and so I could ask upto 1 or 2 professors just incase some didnt deliver on time. I met them in early August and gave them a timeline of about six weeks to mid-September to upload their letters through LSAC. Almost all of them submitted on time, with only a few needing some gentle reminding.
Having multiple professors also helps you add different facets to your application. So you could take a professor that taught you a subject like criminal law or torts which could show how you perform in a classroom environment, and academic assessments and a final exam. If you have been on a summer school, now is the time to leverage that faculty member that accompanied you and request them to speak a few positive words about your performance. This can highlight how you perform in an academic environment outside your comfort zone. So in my case, I requested a professor who had taught me in a tutorial setting in a summer school at Oxford. Because there were tutorials, these were very discussion heavy and the professor was able to see how I participated in class discussions on topics in international law. Also, he was able to grade the paper I wrote and gave me some feedback on the oral presentation I gave in a classroom at Somerville College. All in all, it was a good decision to keep him as part of my application as to why I wanted to study international law. So, the key takeaway here is, leverage your summer school contacts if you think they can add some flavour to your application. If it creates more reasons for your commitment to a particular area of the law, bonus points to you.
I had mentioned to lookout for Category C of professors as well. Yes, you will face them and its important to have the right attitude about them. No student is entitled to a letter of recommendation. It is eventually the professors’ decision whether they want to recommend you. Some professors are brutally honest. They will decline to recommend you even if you have been in their class. They want to see that you have worked under them as a research assistant or perhaps seen more than just your assessments before they recommend you. Such professors put a premium on their recommendation, and usually you will see that they come from some of the most prestigious universities in the world. However, it is natural to feel a bit disappointed when a professor you hold in high esteem decides not to be a part of your application. I remenber being very irritated because this one professor who I simply adored wrote back to me saying her recommendation wouldn’t help my application very much. I had taken her class, was one of the most participative and even scored well. She wanted more, and I didn’t have that. That was when I realized that as much as we would like, there is no entitlement to recommendations. You feel bad, and you may feel like a semester’s worth of work just went down the drain. Its only natural. But pick yourself up and focus on those professors who are willing to recommend you. Chin up, mates!
And also, please only take recommendations from those who have ACTUALLY taught you. Compare those letters with the ones from Category C – those that require you to have at least been an RA for the professor. It would be hard to compete with recommendations of that quality! Many a times my friends have made the mistake of seeking an esteemed Professor or Vice-Chancellors recommendation even if they never sat in any of his or her classes. Don’t do this. This would be an exercise in sabotaging your application. A recommendation that is too general in nature is something that a trained admissions director can easily catch, and at least in the American system, won’t hold much weight. Here, its content that sells and not the ranking of the professor. Ranking and popularity is an important metric but quality of content is what the admissions directors are looking for!