There is much confusion about the role and importance of recommendations in the graduate and professional school admissions process. In the paragraphs that follow, I will explain why the importance of recommendations is often discounted and why -- despite this discounting -- recommendations are likely to be extremely important to you.
Letters of recommendation are often discounted on the theory that they won't be read. There is an element of truth in this, especially with respect to professional schools that receive thousands of applications. Most law schools, for example, compute an admissions index that combines your LSAT score and your GPA (as computed by the LSCAS). The index allows schools to simplify their work by ranking all candidates for admission on a single quantitative scale. For the sake of this discussion let's presume that the admissions index allows scores to range from 0 to 100. Often this ranking of applicants by admissions index is followed by summary acceptance of all candidates above a particular index level (let's say 80) and summary rejection of all candidates below a particular index level (let's say 50). If your application is summarily accepted or rejected, your application materials may never have been read.
However -- and this is an important however -- if you are trying to be admitted to the best school that will have you, your application materials (your essay, your resume, and your letters of recommendation) will probably be decisive. To understand why, let's return to the hypothetical law school described in the previous paragraph. Your own personal admissions index can fall into three categories: above 80, below 50, or 50 to 80. If your index is above 80, you will be summarily admitted, and your letters of recommendation will not have been decisive. But if you are summarily admitted, this is NOT the best law school that will have you. If your index is below 50, your letters of recommendation will not have been decisive, but you probably had no business applying here at all. If your index is in the 50 to 80 range, your application materials, including your letters of recommendation, will likely be closely scrutinized by one or more members of the admissions committee. Those materials are likely to be decisive in the decision to offer you admission.
Furthermore, if you are trying to get into the best school that will have you, you will ALWAYS be in the marginal group for which application materials are likely to be decisive. In short, any student planning to apply to graduate or professional schools where his or her admission is not certain should assume that each element of the application -- including letters of recommendation -- is extremely important.
A second reason that the importance of letters of recommendation is often discounted is that most letters of recommendation are not very helpful to the people who read them. They are generally short, vaguely complimentary, and lacking significant detail. They provide the reader with no significant insights concerning the applicant beyond those to be gleaned from transcripts and standardized test scores. According to the graduate and professional school admissions officers with whom I have talked, approximately 80 percent of the letters they receive fit this description!
The proper conclusion to draw from this evidence is NOT that letters of recommendation will do you no good, but that WEAK letters of recommendation will do you no good. One law school admission director told me that she would take any student I recommended because every student they had taken on my recommendation had turned out to be exactly as described. The same individual told me in confidence -- which is why no names are mentioned here -- that a political scientist previously at another liberal arts college with which you are probably familiar sent the same letter of recommendation for every student! Needless to say, that professor's recommendations were not helping his students gain admission.
It is in your interest to do everything you can to assure yourself the best possible letters of recommendation. You should have both a long-term and a short-term strategy for getting excellent letters of recommendation.
Your long-term strategy should have two components. First, you should do everything you can do to be the best student you can be. A careful, detailed, and honest letter of recommendation will portray you as being as good as you are -- not better than you are. Second, you should find a mentor or two and cultivate your relationship. One of the natural advantages you have by being at Cornell is the opportunity to take several classes from a single professor who teaches in an area of interest to you. Look for opportunities to increase your contact with your mentor(s). Choose a mentor for your academic advisor. Consider an independent study or honors thesis under a mentor's supervision. Give your mentor(s) the opportunity to know you well and to see you at your best. And, of course, ask your mentor(s) for letters of recommendation.
The short-term strategy is to help your recommenders write great letters. That means recognizing that a good letter of recommendation is a major task for the recommender. I routinely spend between two and four hours writing an initial letter of recommendation for a student. The time required to prepare subsequent letters is minimal, so unless there is some compelling reason not to do so, ask the same two or three people to write all your letters. Because letter writing is a major task and faculty schedules are crowded, it is critical that you request letters of recommendation long before you need them. I recommend six week's notice. Finally, you should provide your recommenders with a well-organized portfolio containing all the information a recommender might need to write the best possible letter for you. For years I have been asking students to prepare such a portfolio for me when they want letters of recommendation.
The materials I need to write the best possible letter are listed below. I insist on having these materials. It is a waste of my time to write a weak letter of recommendation that won't have any impact. It is a waste of my time to write on behalf of a student who doesn't think the letter of recommendation is important enough to warrant assisting in its preparation. Naturally I think that all your recommenders deserve the same consideration whether they ask for it or not.
Your portfolio should include:
Resume: Your current resume. [Even a mentor may not know every detail of your extracurricular life. Your resume allows the recommender to put what he or she knows best in a broader context.]
Transcript: Your current unofficial transcript. You and your advisor(s) have direct access to this information on the Registrar's web site. Others do not. Print a copy, and put it in your portfolio. [Admissions committees give significant attention to grades. Your recommender must have access to the same information to be effective. The recommender needs to know how your performance in his or her classes compares to your overall performance. Transcript information may allow your recommender to put a positive spin on the data, for example, by calling attention to the fact that all your poor grades were during a single semester which should be discounted in determining your true capability.]
Courses: Annotate your transcript to call attention to all courses -- including independents and internships -- you have taken from the faculty member writing the recommendation. For each course include the title or topic of any major paper or project. If you completed some particularly wonderful paper or project for this faculty member, you might want to enclose a copy. [Hey, even faculty members don't have total recall. Help your recommender remember your work, especially if it was particularly good.]
Scores: The dates and scores of all relevant standardized tests including the LSAT, GMAT, and GRE. If you have taken a test more than once, report all dates and all scores. For the purposes of comparison, include the ACT or SAT scores you earned during the college application process. [Admissions committees give significant attention to standardized tests. Your recommender must have access to the same information to be effective. Some individuals are excellent students but poor test takers. Knowing your ACT or SAT scores and your performance at Cornell, a recommender may be able to argue that you have done far better than would have been predicted by your college admissions scores and that you are likely to continue that pattern performing far better than would be predicted by your LSAT scores.]
Essay: A copy of your "why I want to go to law/graduate school" essay or any similar writing assignment that will be part of your application process. [It is important that your essay and your letters of recommendation are describing the same person. It's a bad day for you if your essay says you want to go to law school so that you can work for the rights of children and your letter of recommendation says you'll make a great corporate attorney.]
LSAC Letter of Recommendation Form : Letters of recommendation for law schools are now routinely processed by the Law School Admission Council. Go to http://www.lsac.org. Fill out, print and sign a "Letter of Recommendation Form--L3" for each of your recommenders. [Note: You will need the proper name, mailing address, phone number, and e-mail address for each of your recommenders.]
Forms--Other: Any recommendation or waiver forms supplied to you by the institution seeking the recommendation. Type (or print with extreme neatness) the portion you are supposed to complete and sign the form in the appropriate place. [Failure to handle these mundane tasks in a professional manner reflects badly on your prospects as a professional.]
Envelopes: A legal size envelope for each recommendation with the appropriate address neatly typed thereon. Law school recommendations should be addressed to:
Law School Admission Council
662 Penn Street
P.O. Box 8508
Newton, PA 18940-8508
For non-law school recommendations, check carefully to determine which institutions want recommendations mailed directly and which want them included in your application package. The envelope should be stamped if the recommendation is to be mailed directly to the institution requesting it. Unstamped envelopes should be addressed to you for return in campus mail. Be sure to type the name of the institution on the outside of the envelope so you will know where to send it. [You look bad if the admissions office at Georgetown opens the envelope and finds a letter addressed to UCLA.]