Guide to reference letters

Guide To Reference Letters

In this module we will consider the following:

  • How to obtain letters of reference
  • A guide for the applicant
  • Relevance to the Law School
  • Academic references
  • Non-academic references
  • Determining suitability
  • How many letters?
  • Selecting your referees
  • Educating your referees
  • Following up

Not all schools require letters of reference. Some require them only for certain categories of applicants. A law school will require a letter of reference to obtain third party comments about factors that are relevant to their admissions criteria. All law schools are interested in your academic ability to do law school work. For this reason most letters of reference are required to be academic. The referee should be a person who can comment on your academic ability. A professor is a logical choice.


  • How Not To Obtain Letters Of Reference

Don’t simply ask a professor to write a letter of reference. The professor may write a poor one!

  • The Right Way To Obtain Letters Of Reference

There are two factors to keep in mind:

1) You must qualify the person to write the letter for you.

2) You must educate the person about what to write.

  • The Qualification Issue

The appropriate question to ask is:

” Do you feel that you could and would you be willing to write me a strong and positive letter of reference?”

Notice that by answering in the affirmative the person is agreeing to write a good letter.

  • The Education Issue

A good letter must be focused and address issues that are relevant to admissions criteria. You must sit down with the person who is writing the letter and ensure that he or she understands how the letter is to be used and what issues the school is interested in. There is no reason why your professors should know anything about law admissions. They don’t. It is up to you to teach them.

  • Some Specific Types Of Letters To Avoid

Many applicants attempt to obtain letters from people with some status in the community. (lawyers, judges, politicians, etc.) In general these letters are unlikely to be helpful. As a general rule, these people have not had the opportunity to observe your academic work.

  • Some Matters Of Common Courtesy

It takes a great deal of time to write good letters of reference. Make sure that you express your gratitude in the form of a “thank you” letter. In addition, you should offer to absorb any out of pocket costs.

  • A Final Comment

Obtain your information about specific law schools from that specific law school. Don’t listen to your friends and associates. Although their advice may be well intended it is often dated and sometimes completely wrong.

You take control of your situation!


  • A Guide For The Applicant

Some schools use letters. Some don’t. Some of those who don’t will read them if sent. Others won’t. But, each of you will be applying to at least one school that requires at least one letter of recommendation.

Although letters of recommendation are third party statements they are very controllable. Actually, the phrase “recommendation” may be a misnomer.  Few “recommendation” writers will compromise their personal integrity. As a result, I have seen many letters that are either neutral to the point of being useless or go so far as to suggest that the applicant be rejected. At the other extreme, I have seen many letters that are certain to enhance the applicant’s chances of receiving an offer of admission. This part of the book has been designed to help get the most out of the marketing opportunity” that letters of “recommendation” afford.

  • From Whom Should You Seek Letters?

You should seek letters from someone who is in a position to comment on something that the school considers relevant. In most cases, the prestige of the writer is irrelevant. Applicants often seek letters from famous graduates of the school, famous professors, lawyers, politicians, judges, etc. Unless the person can comment on factors that the school considers relevant you will have wasted an opportunity to market yourself effectively.

  • Who Is In A Position To Comment?

In a perfect world one could say that the best recommenders are people who:

    • 1. Are Objective – Avoid getting a letter from someone too close to you.
    • 2. Know You Well – Seek a recommender who can comment on the most important activities in your life.
    • 3. Have special skills or experiences that make them good judges of applicants. Examples may include employers who have been able to observe your job performance and can comment on your motivation, ability to work, and level of responsibility. Coaches and trainers who know you well from frequent contact can often comment on your drive, dedication, and persistence. Some professors and teaching assistants will also qualify. But remember every recommender must comment on matters that the school considers relevant.


  • So, What Does The School Consider Relevant?

“Remember that law schools are academic institutions interested in your academic potential. University and college faculty are the people whose judgments tend to carry the most weight with admissions personnel. Therefore, try to have at least one letter from a professor in your major field of study (even if you have been out of school for a while).”

  • The Right Law School For You

Academic ability is not the only consideration. Schools also want to know that you will bring your academic ability to bear on your professional or graduate program. Hence, letters that comment on drive, dedication, and other similar qualities will be helpful.

In the case of MBA applications, applicants may have been away from school for some years. A letter from an employer who can comment on the current state of your life is often more helpful. Academic ability is likely to be presumed from previous grades and GMAT scores.


  • Academic References

All schools are interested in your ability to do their academic work. Therefore, many schools require that at least one of the letters be an academic reference. A professor is a logical choice. Those of you who do not know professors may want to consider teaching assistants. (Often the teaching assistant knows you in a way that the professor does not.)

Remember that an academic reference is for the purpose of hearing what a professor says about your ability to do university work. Therefore, you should do your best to ensure that the letter comes from a university professor.

Those applying in the residual categories (mature student, etc.) may have more difficulty getting a current academic reference. The schools understand this. If you cannot get a current academic reference ask yourself what qualities are consistent with and lead to superior academic performance. (Examples may include: discipline, strong writing and organizational skills, motivation, etc.) Consider getting a reference from someone who can comment on these qualities. (See particularly Sample 4 of the samples I have provided. It is a good example of how to get an academic reference from a non-academic source.)

Every applicant should do his best to ensure that there is at least one strong academic reference in the file. Non-academic references should be used as a supplement to and not a substitute for academic references!


  • Non-academic References

In selecting non-academic references ask: can this writer comment on something in which this particular school has an interest? Remember, beyond academic ability, different schools may be looking for different things. For example:

– If community service is relevant then you may want to get a letter from someone who has worked with you in that capacity.

– If employment history is relevant then you may want to get a letter from an employer.

– If your medical history is somehow relevant then you may want to get a letter from a doctor.

    • How Unorthodox Can A Non-Academic Reference Be?

There is no right or wrong answer to this question. Ask: what are you trying to contribute to your application file by using a certain letter? Remember that the application file is greater than the sum of its parts. Consider whether the inclusion of the letter (in conjunction with other parts of the file) improve or diminish the overall effect?


  • An Exercise In Determining Suitability

Consider the following example.

Imagine that you are opposed to the death penalty and that your reason for attending law school is that you want to do “death-penalty work.” Imagine also that you have spent a great deal of time working with an inmate who has received the death penalty and is waiting for his execution. You consider this particular inmate to be articulate and intelligent. Should you get a letter of recommendation from him?

This question was posed to a number of experienced pre-law advisers in the U.S. Here are samples of the answers received:

“Our committee would be happy to receive such a letter on your behalf”

“If I were you I would try to demonstrate your qualities in more traditional ways. This would ensure that the letter will not be ignored.”

“The letter would be attention getting and would distinguish you from other applicants.”

“I would use this as an additional letter and not as a substitute for the required ones. Some admissions officers will find it helpful but others will ignore it.”

“The schools want academic references that compare you to other applicants. This person could not write such a letter.”

    • Authors opinion: I have the following thoughts.

1. If used, it should he used as a supplement to the academic reference(s).

2. If used, it should be used only if your interest in working with death row inmates is relevant to your application to a particular law school. It could be relevant in two ways. First, it is arguably evidence of community service for a lengthy period of time. Second, it could improve the effectiveness of your personal statement by lending additional credibility to the claims made in it.

3. Use of this letter does have a degree of risk. Experienced pre-law advisers have given different advice about the suitability of this letter.


  • How Many Letters Should You Send?

In general, you should not exceed the required number of letters. Consider this question from the perspective of the admissions committee. First, you are burdening the committee with extra work. Second, you are not following directions. Finally, you will find it difficult to obtain two good letters. The more letters you submit, the greater the chances of the positive impact of the good letters being diminished by weaker letters.


  • Select Your Referees To Avoid Repetitive Information

Every letter should be thought of as an additional marketing opportunity. Therefore, you should try to obtain letters that complement each other rather than repeat each other. I have already alluded to the possibility of using letters to enhance certain parts of your personal statement.

  • Avoid a referee who will simply repeat what is already on your transcript. Example:

To The Committee:

Stanley Student was in my political science course. He got an A.”

Yours Truly,
Professor X.”

This letter simply repeats something from another part of the file. It is repetitive and is therefore a wasted marketing opportunity.

  • How To Qualify People To Write Letters For You

You are now at the point where you have decided who you are going to ask. You have no right to see the letter and the letter should be sent directly by the writer. Obviously you must be careful. Never ask somebody if he/she would be willing to write a letter on your behalf. Remember, they might write an unhelpful letter. In most cases you will not have the opportunity to see the letter before it is sent. So, you must protect yourself by asking the right qualifying question. The right question is:

“Do you feel that you could and would you be willing to write me a positive letter of recommendation?”

If the person answers “yes”, then the person has agreed not only to write the letter but to write a positive letter. The person is now qualified.


  • Qualification Isn’t Enough – The Person Must Now Be Educated!

You now have a willing partner in the letter writing process. Your next job is to help the writer do the best that he/she can. Schedule an appointment with the writer. Show the writer your personal statement and all other parts of your application file. Specifically you should bring:

    • – your transcripts;
    • – personal statement;
    • – resume and/or autobiographical sketch;
    • – photocopies of anything you want the writer to specifically refer to.

Suggest the importance of all parts of the file working together. Alert the writer to any special programs to which you are applying. Tell the writer who else is writing on your behalf. In short, give the writer as much information as you can. All of these things should be done well before the deadline date. It takes the better part of a full day to write an effective letter of recommendation. Be respectful of this. Make sure that you thank the writer for his/her hard work. You should offer to pick up any out of pocket costs. Don’t forget to notify the writer where you were accepted.

  • How To Deal With Standard Form Letters

Many schools or application forms include “standard forms” for referees to use. Frequently these “forms” are not a required form of letter, but rather a convenience for the writer. In most cases your referee will be able to do a better job for you by writing his/her own letter and attaching this letter to the standard form. First, ensure that a “non-standard form” letter is allowed. Then encourage the referee to NOT use that “standard form” and attach the letter to the ‘standard form.”


  • The Necessity To Follow Up

Ultimately it is your responsibility to ensure that your file is complete. It is important that the letter be sent directly from the writer. (Some writers will allow you to see the letter and others will not.) Take steps to ensure that the letter(s) has actually been sent and received. Make sure that you thank the writer and notify the writer where you have been accepted.

The above has been reproduced and/or adapted from Mastering The Personal Statement by John Richardson. Copyright remains with the author.

Copyright © 1998, John Richardson. All Rights Reserved.