Be a Giver: Advice for Recommendation Seekers and Writers

“Isn’t that part of their job?” I hear this question often as I teach undergraduate students about recommendation letters. In high school, I inform them, counselors write recommendation letters as part of their jobs. Now, as college students, they have to forge their own relationships with faculty, staff members, and employers, to gain letters that are required to apply for law school as well as many internships, jobs, scholarships, and leadership positions. 

When I tell students that they need to be part of the recommendation writing process, they wonder how and why. “Don’t professors and employers know how to write letters?” they aptly question. “Haven’t they been writing them for years?” Well, yes, I tell them, but what about the content of your letter? Will it be as specific and persuasive as you want it to be? Will your recommender focus on the qualities and skills that are your strengths? Does your recommender know your goals and passions—and how you have developed them through the years? Will your letter sound like an enlightening conversation about you, or a form letter? The idea of a form-like letter surprises students. Then I show them an example I obtained at a conference. Mouths agape, they are dismayed that a process they had once thought was as easy as asking for a letter and then checking it off their list is more difficult. It’s the look that’s akin to receiving their first electric or grocery bill—the “cost” seems sky high. Something that they may have taken for granted has now become their responsibility, their professional responsibility. They want to know how they can obtain more persuasive letters, and faculty members want to know how they can write even better letters too. Here’s a how-to.

For Recommendation Seekers

1. Don’t be guilty of the “hit and run.”

If you have asked for a letter in person or through email and then just dropped off the form, you’ve committed the “hit and run.” Years ago when a student asked for a letter, and then jumped up to run to practice, my call down the hallway to “wait, wait, wait” turned into a second meeting where I explained that we needed to talk about his plan and goals. I explained I needed him to be as invested in the process as I would be.

2. Prepare like it’s an interview.

Write a short, formal email to your potential recommender asking to meet to discuss your future plans. Then prepare and dress for the part. Discuss how your recommender has assisted you in preparing for your future. Explain your interest in law. Be prepared to talk extensively about employment and finances. Faculty will ask you, “Why law school?” and they’ll be expecting a solid answer—the kind that would earn an A on a research paper. They will ask you how you plan to pay your loans and make a living. Bookmark and read National Association for Law Placement (NALP) and American Bar Association (ABA).  Review each law school’s employment information on their websites and on Law School Transparency. Google “law school debt” and a long list of articles from newspapers like The New York Times will pop up.  This is what your faculty members are reading, and this is why they’re asking you so many questions. They don’t just want to challenge you in the classroom—they need to challenge you in your life plan too. They’re prompting you to ask and answer questions like a mature professional. Be prepared.

3. Give, give, give.

Provide details. If you have to ask “How many?” then you need to add more. For example, if you started the Voter’s Club on campus, I want to know why. Where did your interest in voting first arise? How old were you? Who introduced you to the importance of voting? How has your interest grown? Have you worked at the polls? For how long? Why? What drives your interest? Ultimately, I’m asking “Why?” and I’m looking for the interesting story that ties all of these ideas together.  

For Recommendation Writers

1. Remember your mentors.

When a student asks me to write a letter, the same vivid flash goes through my mind: I’m a senior handing my philosophy professor at Fairfield University a stack of large envelopes. Father Regan, described by The Fairfield Mirror as “Fairfield’s favorite racquetball-playing, cigar-smoking, gourmet-cooking and philosophy-teaching priest” was so dynamic in the classroom my first semester freshman year that I kept in touch with him throughout college. While he wanted me to pursue a Ph.D. instead of a J.D., and he let me know it, he accepted my large stack of envelopes without blinking. I now pay it forward when I know that I can write a great letter for a student. When a student asks you to write a letter, even if you’re busy (Of course, you’re busy!) think of your mentors, those people who Adam Grant, author of Give and Take, describes as givers: who “simply strive to be generous in sharing your time, energy, knowledge, skills, ideas, and connections with other people who can benefit from them.” If you can, envision yourself envelopes in hand asking your professor for a letter and recall those feelings of fear, anticipation, and excitement.

2. Ask questions—a lot of questions.

Why law school? Why do you need or want to go to law school? Why do you want to practice law? What type of people, businesses, or government entities do you want to advocate for? Why? What do you want your day to be like? What are your best skills? Strengths? Weaknesses? What makes you happiest? What worries you most? Where do you see yourself in 5 years? In 10? How will you support yourself? How will you make your decision to attend a school? And, again, why? Let your students do the talking. If they don’t have well-thought-out answers to every question, there’s a reason for that: They are still formulating their ideas. Remember yourself at their age: Did you really have answers to all of these questions? Your questions will help them consider these ideas from all perspectives—just as we teach them in our classes.

3. Give, give, give.

In your letter, be a giver—provide rich details. Share how you first met the student and what you thought. Share interesting, significant information about your student’s life, goals, and dreams. Make your letter a dynamic and an enlightening conversation. Just as George Anders, author of The Rare Find, wrote: “If you choose to champion great talent, you will be picking one of the most altruistic things a person can do.” By writing a letter you are affirming a student’s potential.

As I complete recommendations letters for a talented group of Legal Analysis & Writing students who are applying to law school, I am struck again and again by another idea: the rewards of being a mentor. After all, as Adam Grant stated: Giving “just involves acting in the interest of others.” And from giving, we take so much—we’re able to not only learn about our students’ lives, but participate in their stories as well. That, I recommend. 


About the Author

Karen Graziano, J.D., is a graduate of Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications and English and American University Washington College of Law (WCL), Washington, DC, with a Juris Doctor degree. She is intrigued by others’ stories and is devoted to helping others “develop their ideas in writing and quest in life.” She achieves this mission through her work as a college adjunct professor and a consultant, recently launching Graziano Career Works, LLC, where she strives to educate and empower clients to develop and achieve their educational, academic and professional writing, and career goals, and assists universities in achieving their strategic mission through course and program development. Karen founded the Law School Advising Program, Leadership & Professional Development Program, BRIDGE Society, and 1-credit Series of Professional Development courses, which includes Professional Development and The Legal Profession, for Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She served as the pre-law advisor for 10 years and continues her work with pre-law students in her Legal Analysis & Writing course. As a leader in the Northeast Association of Pre-Law Advisors (NAPLA), Karen served as the 2014 Conference Chair, led the 2013 and 2014 New Pre-Law Advisors Workshop Training, and currently serves as the President. As a pre-law student driven to attend law school to research and write about environmental policy, Karen cites her favorite law school accomplishments and experiences as publishing a journal article in the University of Colorado Law School’s Journal of International Environmental Law & Policy; co-creating the first environmental publication at WCL; studying this fascinating profession in her Legal Profession course; being immersed in environmental law courses taught by exceptional faculty members; and finally, writing a series of articles on inspiring mission-centered attorneys in the environmental and human rights fields. Karen currently co-hosts the #PreLawChat on Twitter discussing new developments in legal education, admissions, and career-related topics.

Connect with Karen at Website, Twitter, Blog, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Email.

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