Reference This

December 5, 2007

Dear Asha:

I have been out of school for several years and am concerned about my recommendations. While I will be able to secure a recommendation from my employer, I also have some recommendations from my undergraduate work filed with a credential service. Because these recommendations speak more to my academic ability and performance, would it be wise to include one from my undergraduate years, even though they are several years old?



Dear C.L.,

YES. In fact, I would strongly advise you to include at least TWO academic recommendations, if at all possible. And if you have the option of submitting a third work reference or a third academic reference (note that we only require two, so I emphasize the word OPTION), I would go with the latter.

As I noted in a previous post, we have a fairly unusual admissions process, which is faculty-driven. Yale Law School is an academically rigorous place to begin with, but given that we have professors making the bulk of admissions decisions on top of that, recommendations which speak to your academic ability will carry the most weight and influence in your application. In other words, professors care most about what other (surprise!) professors have to say about you.

In fact, in my experience, work references -- though they don't hurt -- don't add much to your application, either. That's not to say that your work experiences don't matter -- they do. But the value of most work experience comes in what you gleaned from it and how it has impacted your perspective and goals, and that's something that comes through best in your personal statement or 250-word essay.

This may go against the grain of what your prelaw advisors/"How to Get Into Law School" book/well-intentioned but underinformed friends and family tell you: namely, that you should try to give references that show that you are "well-rounded," and so having one from each area of your life -- college, work, volunteer -- is the best way to go. This may very well be true for other law schools. But the honest truth is that all else being equal, an applicant who has two or more academic references that attest to the fact that s/he is an intellectual superstar -- particularly across different disciplines relevant to law, like history, political science, economics, humanities, etc. -- will have an advantage over another applicant who only has one recommendation which speaks to academic strengths and another that says that s/he was a great team player.

Keep in mind that it is the detail provided in the reference, and not the grade that you received in the class, that matters most. This is a little hard to control since you will (if you are wise) waive your right to read the recommendation. But know that even a detailed reference from a TA who can give specific examples of your superior analytical ability, your writing, and the insights you were able to make into the subject material is preferable to a general, perfunctory reference from a big-name prof who gave you an A but can't remember what you look like. And someone who has worked with you over a period of time -- for example, a senior thesis advisor -- who can talk about a particular topic you've explored, the depth of your research, and the cogency of your argument, is an ideal recommender.

Some of you may have been out of school for a while and did not have an undergraduate credential service like C.L. If you really don't have someone who can write a strong academic reference for you, the next best thing is to get a work reference that speaks to the kinds of things I mentioned above: writing, analytical ability, logical reasoning (those sound weirdly familiar from another part of your application...). The closer this is to the legal world, the better (e.g., a judge or lawyer), but other employers can give the same kinds of information.

And if you are currently in school and planning to take time off before applying to law school, take the opportunity to approach your professors NOW, while your brilliance is still fresh in their minds, and get their references filed with LSAC (with which you can get an account for five years). That way, when you finally do apply, your academic references will be only a mouse click away!


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