Friday, October 06, 2006


I'm submitting three letters of recommendation with my law school applications. Law schools are terrified of attrition and they want assurance that prospective students can handle the coursework — so I'm triangulating my assault, to establish that fact from three different perspectives.
  • The first letter is from a professor. He's a mentor with whom I studied for six semesters, so he can certainly attest to my character and capacity as a student.

  • The second is from a close friend who is currently a third-year student at Suffolk Law. Under most conditions, I wouldn't expect that a friend's approval would carry much weight — but in this case, she's uniquely qualified to answer their question. They want to know whether I can handle the coursework; she knows me, and she knows the coursework.

  • The third is from a professor at Harvard Extension, from the last class I took. Granted, she only knew me for a semester; but on the chance that some admissions officer notices my Jazz Composition degree and wonders whether I can hack traditional scholastics, hopefully this will plug that hole.
From what I've read, recommendations are the fourth factor that law schools consider — after your LSAT score, your GPA, and your personal statement. I also know enough about admissions to know that, while an exceptional recommendation can boost your chances, admissions officers are accustomed to reading boring, interchangeable recommendations that rarely affect their disposition. So maybe I shouldn't worry myself; but at this point there's nothing I can do about my GPA or LSAT score, so it makes sense to concentrate whatever effort I have on the factors I can still control.

Speaking of which, that question of control is my only caveat: My Harvard professor asked me to write my own letter for her. She explained that she does this for two reasons: it gives her a sample of the student's writing, and it prevents her recommendations from sounding too cookie-cutter. I understand both — and after asking around, I've discovered this is relatively normal. Lots of professors have students write their own recommendations.

I know this professor. She's smart and she's dedicated, and she isn't lax and she isn't lazy; so I don't for a moment think she's trying to cut a corner. Nevertheless, I'm ambivalent. On one hand, I don't like imposing on people for favors; so if I'm doing most of the lifting, then I suppose it takes off some of the weight. But still, it seems unethical. Letters of recommendation are supposed to be something more than political advertisements stamped with a tagline, "This message was approved by" — and in an environment where professors claim that the most widespread problem in scholastics is plagiarism, I question the wisdom of having those professors sign their names to recommendations that are prepared by the students who request them.

But if that's the norm, then so be it. I can steer an ethical course in drafting the letter, and that's exactly what I'll do — and then, God willing, I'll be admitted to law school, at which point my ethical hand-wringing will become positively ironic.


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