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How to Choose Someone to Write Your Recommendation
Recommender Tip #2: Closeness Trumps Rank
Remember poor old Matthew from the beginning of the chapter? He made a classic mistake: He assumed that a recommendation from a Nobel Prize winner was too good an opportunity to pass up, and he didn't stop to ask himself what that professor would be able to say about him. Matthew would have been much better off asking his TA for that class to write his recommendation (or picking another class entirely for his recommendation).
His TA would have been able to base his recommendation on their weekly discussion groups and weekly assignments that the TA graded. Many law school applicants attend colleges that do not enable up-close-and personal relationships with professors -- some people spend four years interacting only with graduate students -- and they shouldn't worry that they are at a disadvantage with respect to their recommendations.
The person writing the recommendation should be able to speak with experience and authority about you in the classroom, and if that means you have to forgo the Nobel Prize winner, that's okay -- you're better off with the TA. The same principle applies if your recommendation is coming from the working world. You're better off requesting a letter from the congressional staffer you worked with and reported to every day than the bigwig senator who still mispronounces your name or confuses you with the aide who worked for him three sessions ago.
Once you've cleared that hurdle, if you're choosing between someone with less teaching experience and someone with more, pick the latter.
Being able to speak from the experience of teaching ten years' or fifteen years' or even decades' worth of undergraduates will give a teacher's opinion more weight. A TA won't have been teaching that long, and calling you the best student he's ever taught won't sound impressive if this is his first year teaching.
A caveat: While it's generally true that law schools prefer academic recommendations over professional ones, there's a tipping point for older applicants where it starts to look funny if you don't provide a recommendation from your employer. Unless you've been out of college for at least seven or ten years, though, or unless a school specifically prefers or requires a professional recommendation, you're still better off trying to drum up at least one academic one if you can.
Recommender Tip #3: Seminars Trump Lectures
Why? Because your professors get to know you in seminars in a way they can't in lecture classes. The more class participation opportunities you have, and the more substantial the writing and research you do for a class, the better able your professor will be to discuss your academic talents. If you're reading this book in your undergraduate years, try to take multiple seminars with a professor with whom you really hit it off. Even better, take on a major project with a professor, like a thesis.
Seminars tend to be higher-level classes, so you probably won't be able to take them until your junior year, at the earliest. Your professor will need at least the entire semester, if not multiple semesters, to get to know you and your work, so plan ahead. You'll need time to cultivate those relationships.