Survey: Law schools receive negative letters

September 13, 2010
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This post was written by IL reporter Rebecca Berfanger.

A national company that specializes in helping students get into undergraduate and graduate schools reported a majority of law school and medical school admissions offices had received negative recommendation letters. Hearing this, based on my personal experience, it made me wonder: Why would someone ask for a letter if they weren’t sure they would get a positive recommendation? And why would a professor or anyone else take the time and energy to write a negative letter instead of just saying no?

But maybe it does make some sense after all.

According to results of a Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions Survey conducted in July and August and released late last week, 87 percent of the participating 145 law schools reported receiving a negative letter of recommendation. About 15 percent of those surveyed also said a negative letter is the biggest application killer.

The same percentages were reported for medical schools, according to a press release from Kaplan

Dani Weatherford, director of recruitment for Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington, said there are maybe one or two negative letters in an application cycle. She said that hasn’t changed over the years, even among the 3,441 applications the school received for the 2010-11 school year, a record.

“A lot of counseling is given to students at law school fairs and forums, and letters of recommendation are always a hot topic. Our advice is always to talk to the person, to outline what you need the letter to say, and to ask if the person is comfortable writing it. If not, then move on to someone else who is,” she said.

She added it’s so rare that it’s “shocking” when she does see a negative letter, and she will usually read it a second or even a third time to make sure she understands what the letter is saying.

But usually, a negative letter won’t explain that the student shouldn’t go to law school because of a criminal background or because she was caught cheating, she said. Instead, a writer might say the student isn’t mature enough to handle law school and/or may need more life experience to be prepared to handle a law school program.

When I first heard about this survey, I had flashbacks of my application process for grad school in late 2003. Either I learned from somewhere or instinctively knew not to ask anyone who might write a letter that would be at all negative and therefore even possibly hurt my chances.

Luckily, there was no second guessing. In addition to the signed and sealed letters I’d send to schools, my supporters had each provided me a copy of the letter he or she had written for my personal records. (I should find out if those are floating around somewhere in my basement to read when I’m having a bad day…)

However, by that time I knew this wasn’t the case for everyone. When a former roommate suspected she received a less than glowing letter for a graduate program, she didn’t have a personal copy so she steamed it open to read it. Although we have since lost touch, I can’t forget the sad look on her face after she told me she read it. I always wondered if she was turned down due to the negative letter, because the school suspected she tampered with the letter, or if she just wasn’t yet ready for grad school.

When I was an adjunct journalism professor last fall, I was reminded of this incident when a few students had asked if I would be a reference for internships or graduate programs.

I asked a few other professors in various fields and at other schools how they handle these requests. The answers varied, but the consensus seemed to be if you like the student, and she gives you ample time and information to write it and you have the time, go for it. If not, politely decline and only give further explanation only if you, the professor, want to.

But with rising numbers of applicants due to the bad economy – two other findings of the survey – I wonder if more people who aren’t a good fit for law school will apply, even if they are unsure of the content and tone of their recommendation letters. I also wonder if the recommenders are maybe doing the applicant a favor with a brutally honest, if negative, letter of recommendation to keep them out of law school.

  • Lawsuits possible?
    Wouldn't it be ironic if there were eventually lawsuits for negative letters much as there has been for negative references in HR, which has led to "name, dates of employment only" type references now.

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