The role of recommendations.

During the fall recruiting season, when law school admissions officers fan out across the nation in the hope of scoring some face-to-face interactions with prospective applicants, a couple of questions on the theme of how one can best assemble a law school application tend to recur. One of those is, “From whom should I get my letters of recommendation?” (Well—actually, people tend to say, “Who should I get my letters of recommendation from?,” which sounds a lot more normal. But I’m writing here, for crying out loud.) In the context of a recruiting fair, the answer necessarily has to be kept Reader’s Digest/Cliff Notes style, to wit: The people who know you best and can write you a detailed letter of support are the best choices for recommenders; don’t worry about their pedigree, but rather, think about what they will say about your pedigree.

Upon reflection, I like that advice. I stand by that advice. But I have a blog, and it must be filled, and so I will now proceed to stretch out that advice for several paragraphs.

At the outset, it’s worth reflecting upon the function of a letter of recommendation: It is the one element in an application that is an outside voice—someone other than the applicant who can weigh in on the applicant’s fitness for studying law. “Fitness” is a concept that incorporates a multitude of characteristics: braininess, diligence, attention to detail, academic preparedness, resilience, capacity for hard work, ability to work and play well with others, judgment, confidence (with humility! We want everything!), willingness to engage in respectful debate, yada yada yada. The multiplicity of relevant characteristics means that recommenders can appropriately fill a number of different functions in an applicant’s life—but by far the most common is a teacher from college or grad school, so that is where I will focus. (On the one hand, given that law school is an academic undertaking, that academic perspective is apposite; on the other, letters from other people in your life who have the opportunity to evaluate your skillset—employers, coaches, student group advisers, orchestra conductors—can be extremely useful as well. I do not mean to suggest that only academic letters are pertinent. Letters from your mom, however, are not useful.)

So, which teachers ought one to importune? I once heard a story, perhaps apocryphal, attributed to the undergrad admissions dean at Duke. When asked, “Should I take challenging courses, or should I take courses where I can get an A?,” he said, “Yes.” (That is a really hilarious story from an admissions officer’s perspective. Industry humor is the best!) A similar conundrum arises in the recommendation letter context, where people often confront the choice of asking for a letter from the professor with 30 years of teaching experience who barely knows them, or the teaching assistant who could go on for pages singing their praises. I’m not going to kid you: Ideally, you have an experienced professor or two who will know you well enough to provide some good content for a letter, and you will not face this choice.

But my privileging of professor-ness v. TA-ness is assuredly not a snobbish consideration; it has nothing to do with, say, a lengthier list of publications or a wider shelf full of awards or the person’s place in the academic pecking order. I should, after all, be honest about my limitations: There are perhaps ten academics in the nation (apart from those actually currently teaching at the University of Michigan) whose names I’m going to register as belonging to über-accomplished people. If that. Honestly, it might be two, but let’s just round to ten so I don’t sound like a dolt. It is quite likely that negligence on my part accounts for my ignorance, but even if I were diligent, there is no way I could learn a comprehensive list of the leaders and lights in the English departments of our nation’s universities. And in general, I really have no way of assessing academic accomplishments unless they are going out of their way to explain to me how awesome they are, and frankly, that doesn’t really tend to make them look as awesome as they might want.

Instead, this consideration is purely practical. Someone who can say, “I am comparing this person to the 10,000 other bright young people whom I have taught, and they are in the top 1%,” carries more heft than the person who can say only, “I am comparing this person to the 10 other people I worked with that semester, and this person is in the top 10%, which is the smallest possible denomination into which I can divide a group of 10 people.” Thus, from my perspective, a faculty member who may be lower down in the arcane and elaborate academic hierarchy but who has a boatload of teaching experience is exactly as useful as the long-lived department chair with 87,000 publications and a raft of scholarly accolades. In fact, come to think of it, there are two undergrad professors at the University of Michigan who absolutely dominate my consciousness when it comes to recommendation letters, and one is a “senior lecturer” while the other is a full professor in, I think, three different departments. I gather the latter is fancier. But they are nonetheless tied for first place, and it is all because they truly know the students about whom they’re writing, and they never, ever blow smoke.

Anyway, if you’re reading this and you’re at the beginning of your academic career, take note and plan accordingly. Get to know a faculty member or two; be a repeat offender when it comes to signing up for classes; visit office hours and ask insightful questions; after the class is over, refresh their recollection about who you are from time to time, in a non-pushy and charming way. But if you’ve completed your education and are reading this thinking, “Thanks a lot, Zearfoss; I went to a big public university and was taught principally by teaching assistants and it’s a little late now to go buddy up with the professor,” lament not! Because the principal thing that makes a letter stand out is detail. If the detail is coming from a graduate student instructor or an adjunct, it is nonetheless incredibly helpful, even if they can’t provide the meaningful volume context of how you compare to similarly situated students from the past.

So: If you have to choose between detail and rank, go with the detail every time. Substance over style—that’s the academic way.

Now, let’s circle back to my comment a few paragraphs up about how I particularly value the recommendation letters of a couple of Michigan faculty I’ve come to know. This dovetails nicely with a question I frequently get about whether an applicant ought to seek a recommendation letter from a Michigan Law alum in order to get an advantage in the admissions process. My standard answer—”absolutely not”—might seem to run counter to my confession that there are a couple of people in my universe whose recommendations stand out. And there is indeed a contradiction there—but it’s only a small one. Again, it isn’t the fact of someone’s status—as a scholar, or as an alum—that makes the difference, but rather, the context of their assessment. When it comes to faculty, as I’ve said, the important context is the number of other students they’ve assessed. When it comes to alumni, the important context is their knowledge of Michigan Law and the students here—their necessarily more-informed sense of who might be a great fit in our community.

Since I’m admitting that this is a valued perspective, why am I claiming that it’s only a small contradiction of my assertion that you need not worry about producing that perspective? The fact is, the vast majority of applicants will never be able to produce meaningful letters of recommendation from an alum. When I say “meaningful,” I mean a letter that arises from some sort of sustained supervisory employment relationship. (While many Michigan Law alumni teach, it is rare that they do so outside of law schools, so most 1L applicants will not encounter alumni in a teaching context.) Family friends, relatives, and lawyers who pass you in the hallway either do not provide sufficient detail on the characteristics I listed ad nauseum above or have conflicts of interest that require the reader to downgrade their input. So, in any given year, only about ten people in an entering class had a helpful letter of recommendation from an alum. That’s a pittance. Don’t worry about it.

And that brings me in turn to famous people. Every year we see letters written by Joe or Josephine Famous (NB: these aren’t real names; these are very clever fake names I just made up out of my own head) who have absolutely nothing of import to say about the candidate. These letters read something like this: “I write on behalf of Candidate A. Candidate A is applying to your fine law school. I know Candidate A. Candidate A is a person I have met. I hope you will give Candidate A every consideration.” There may be a couple of extra sentences in between, but you get the point. Now, admittedly, I may be just childish enough that I get a kick out of a famous signature, but nonetheless, this letter does nothing whatsoever for the applicant’s chances. Now, again—if Joe or Josephine Famous has something really useful to say about you, that’s different. Certainly you should not decline use of a letter from him or her just because he or she is famous. But don’t try to get the famous person with whom you once rubbed elbows to write a thin and insubstantial letter on your behalf. Spend that time, I don’t know, re-proofreading your personal statement instead.

Let’s wrap up this lengthy exegesis—I really do have the capacity to go on and on about rather limited subjects, don’t I?— with a consideration of what role these letters really, truly play in the process. Many times? Not much. When I think about the amount of time expended in writing them, it pains me to acknowledge, but the majority of letters are, to use our internal shorthand, R.R.—regular recs. Nothing momentous. They do not hold you back; they do not advance the ball. If you have a R.R., do not despair; so do most other people. Other elements of your application certainly have the force to propel you to admission. But at the same time, the rareness of a great letter betokens the opportunity: A really detailed and supportive letter can absolutely set the tone for an application. The letter that takes the time to give an outsider’s perspective on your story, laying out your strengths in copious detail and acknowledging your weaknesses while simultaneously explaining why those weaknesses ought not to be fatal? That letter is a joy to read and very hard to ignore.

-Dean Z.
Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions,
Financial Aid, and Career Planning