Friday, September 24, 2010
BY GERALD M. BRADSHAW
Bradshaw College Consulting
Dear Mr. Bradshaw -- I'm the new admissions and higher education beat reporter for the Daily Pennsylvanian (University of Pennsylvania).
I'm writing an article this week about a survey recently released by Kaplan that says a bad letter of recommendation can ruin a law school application. As a college admissions consultant, would you be willing to talk to me about this? -- Ellie Levitt
Dear Ellie -- A quick answer to your question is yes, a bad recommendation can hurt your chances for admission, but it's not normally a deal killer. Based on 145 law schools surveyed recently by Kaplan Test Prep, only 15 percent of them said it caused major harm.
Far more important is an applicant's score on the Law School Admission Test. Kaplan revealed that 64 percent of admissions officers ranked the LSAT as the most important factor, followed by grade-point average at a distant 23 percent.
It seems incredible to me that students aren't more diligent in selecting professors to write their recommendations. As to whether a bad recommendation leads to a rejection letter is unclear. Only 15 percent of professors picked recommendations as an application killer. Kaplan found by far the most important cause of rejection was a poorly written personal statement.
Given the increase in applications to law schools, even a small percentage advantage can make a big difference, so I advise writing a brilliant personal statement.
Interestingly, only 19 percent of admissions officers reported in the Kaplan report ever visiting an applicant's social networking site before deciding whether to admit.
Another common myth among law school applicants is that attending the undergraduate institution affiliated with the law school provides an edge. Kaplan found 84 percent of admissions officers say no advantage is given. Applicants from another university have an equal chance.
I tell my clients that letters of recommendation can help only if they are from someone who knows the quality of their work. That means someone who has direct knowledge of their abilities and has seen them in action. If you write for a student newspaper, the teacher would make an excellent candidate. A letter from a U.S. senator who knows you only as a distant campaign worker would not help. Admissions officers see right through this tactic.
There is another issue that often isn't mentioned. That's when the teacher or professor asks you to write your own letter of recommendation and he or she will sign it. This puts the student in a very awkward situation. Blow your horn too much and you look foolish -- too little and you look weak. About 20 percent of my clients have been asked to write their recommendations and were caught in that bind.
My suggestion is to stick with the basics. List the work you did in class and the grade you received. You can bring up examples of your intellectual interests that came from being in class and why that led you to study a particular major.
It's more effective to describe what you accomplished in class and not just that you were an enthusiastic student. Too much enthusiasm turns off admissions officers and makes you look gushy.
One last point: You must not think less of the professor because he or she did not write the letter. If he or she is willing to sign it, that shows respect for your judgment.
Professors are under pressure each year to write recommendations for dozens of students. Most of them are top students. By asking you to write the recommendation, they are encouraging you to tell your story.
I'm not apologizing for the teacher; I'm trying to provide feedback on how to handle a tricky situation that comes up more often than you think.
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