How Should I Time My Academic Recommendations?

I will be graduating in May, taking my LSAT in June, and applying for law schools in the fall [of the same year]. I already know which professors I would like recommendation letters from, and am wondering if I should have them submit their recommendations before I graduate, as opposed to contacting them again in the fall when I'm ready to send out my applications. Is there a downside or upside of having recommendations written months before I begin the application process? Is there a downside or upside of waiting until I begin the application process to connect with my professors for recommendation letters?

I would break the timing analysis into two parts:

1. Is your work with the professor still ongoing?

Ideally, you should wait until the class is done and you have a final grade before you ask for a recommendation. Otherwise you're asking the professor to offer an opinion on your work when your work is still in process, and he hasn't even made his final assessment yet (in the form of a final grade).

2. Is your work together already completed?

If your academic work with a particular professor is already behind you, there's no reason to wait before asking for the recommendation. Even if you're an extra-special student, professors see lots of students come and go. The more time that passes between your work together and when you ask him to write a letter, the harder it's going to be for him to reconstruct your performance, and the harder it's going to be for him to discuss what it was like to have you as a student with any specificity. The key to a good recommendation is detail. He'll be able to write you a much better letter if it draws on specific anecdotes and examples that are fresh in his mind rather than talking about you in generalities or abstractions.

It's not a problem if the recommendation is already several months old by the time you apply. In some instances, a recommendation might already be a year or two old, depending on when you took the class. That's completely fine.

And finally, keep in mind that your professors might want or need some lead time to get the letter done. For example, a professor might be planning on a sabbatical this coming fall, and that means you'd have a hard time tracking him down, or he might decide he's not writing any recommendations at all while he's on sabbatical. Professors have their own calendars to work around, and waiting to ask until the fall in which you're applying might conflict with whatever else they have going on at that time.

Read more tips on recommendations here.


Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).