Who You Gonna Call? Letters of Recommendation

We’re (just about) halfway through the Fall 2019 application cycle, and this week we’re talking about letters of recommendation!

After personal statements, this is the part of the application we get the most questions about. The reality is, it’s also the hardest part to advise on. You know the people who know you best, and those should be the people you ask for a recommendations. Professors, supervisors, mentors, academic advisors, the list goes on! But for the sake of consistency, here are answers to a few questions we get for navigating the process.

  1. How many letters of recommendation should I have? That all depends on the school you’re applying to, but most will ask for 2 at the least. Make sure you do your due diligence and research each school’s requirements! Some don’t require any, and some have very. specific. requirements. Don’t be that person who doesn’t do their research because you might miss out on an admission letter!
  2. Who should I ask? Someone who knows your academic background is a must. Law school is, after all, an academic environment; we want to know what you’re like in the classroom. Individuals who know you on a personal level are helpful to hear from as well. We also like to know that you’re not a serial killer. Both sides of the same coin (you’re the coin here…).
  3. When should I ask my recommendors for the letter? As soon as possible! Professors have a lot going on and likely many people asking for letters. The more time you can give them the better. If you can, provide them with a copy of your resume, maybe even your personal statement. This will help them to get caught up on what you’ve been doing and highlight your biggest achievements. The same goes for supervisors. And don’t be afraid to remind them of upcoming deadlines!

Most importantly, you need to really think about who to ask. Just because you did well in a class doesn’t mean that professor knows you well enough to give you a favorable recommendation. Depending on the size of the class, how long ago you took it, and your relationship with them, they may not even remember you. Goodness knows we’ve read some letters that were not favorable, and some that downright declined to recommend them for law school. So do your due diligence and really consider your options.

 

Recommendations for Law School and for Life

fayeshealyby Faye Shealy, Associate Dean for Admission

Recommendations are an important part of William & Mary’s whole file review and are effective because they detail what makes the applicant stand out and paint individual pictures of each applicant. William & Mary Law School requires two recommendation letters and welcomes more. Don’t underestimate the importance of these letters which may address your intellectual development, aptitude for independent thinking and research, analytical abilities, writing skills, leadership and/or creative qualities. After all, William & Mary Law School is an academic environment and a community that values each member. We read recommendations. Many are powerful components of our decisions. They provide insights that cannot be gleaned from transcripts and test scores alone.

Who to Ask? 

groveProspective law students are expected to make contact and establish relationships with professors and others. Consider faculty members, administrators, internship/program supervisors, coaches, employers, and mentors. You will rely on them to write recommendation letters that will land you a place in the professional school of your choice, as well as for employment, organization memberships, and life’s opportunities that are important to you.

You do not want to seek out your university’s most prestigious professor or your state senators unless they know you. Readers will recognize the writer’s passion for your future that is not conveyed in a letter that begins “even though I do not know this candidate, he/she is one of my constituents and I recommend them.” Find those who can comment specifically on who you are as a person, prospective law student, and future lawyer. We know your grandmother and other relatives love you and support you for admission…but no, the required letters should be from non-family members.

How to Ask? 

killingerThere are good and bad ways of approaching those you want to help you gain admission, land the job, obtain that prestigious scholarship, or the nomination for that board position or become a member of the bench. Time your request. Don’t ask at the end of class with twenty others present, interrupt activities, or make your approach in the parking lot. Be sure to make “the ask” well in advance of the due date. I suggest at least three weeks, at a minimum.

Request an appointment, explaining that you’d like to discuss something important to you. Prepare to make the official ask and related explanation during the meeting. Specifically ask the individual if he or she would be able to write a meaningful and positive recommendation for you by a certain date. Pay attention to their response including what they say and their demeanor. If you sense reluctance, pause, or hear words doubting they have information or time to do so, thank them and proceed to others on your list. Don’t spend your valuable time fretting over a “no”…that person may have personal problems or work issues that prevent them from saying “yes” even if they could and would write a glowing letter for you.

How to Help the Recommender Help You? 

robertsYou ask recommenders for a favor – no one has to write recommendations for you, and no one has more to gain from terrific letters than you. Help your referees by providing all the necessary information with an organized presentation. A folder with all documents hand delivered during the meeting or attached to one follow-up email can be very helpful. Don’t assume what they do/don’t know about you. A cover sheet highlighting salient details, your resume, transcript(s), perhaps a copy of the paper you wrote for their class, admission essay, or written statement of career/professional goals on how this next step is relevant/important to you. Do not be modest. Your participation in competitive admission processes is one of the times that self-promotion is entirely appropriate and expected. Of great importance, include clear directions on how the recommendation is to be submitted.

You, more than anyone, can influence the contents and effectiveness of the recommendation letters. Make sure your references fully understand your goals and the importance placed in your request. Trust me, writing good recommendation letters takes serious thought and time. The more prepared you are when making the request, the easier their task will be and…the more effective the product should be. Make sure to provide your name as identified on your application (fine if they personalize with your nickname as long as official identification is a match with your application as submitted to the school), your telephone number and e-mail address, in case they need further information.

To Waive or Not to Waive Access? 

Many recommendations (including those submitted though the LSAC’s CAS process) require you (the individual being recommended) to decide whether to waive or retain your rights to see your recommendation. Many assume confidential letters tend to carry more weight with admission committees. Many writers prefer their letters be confidential. Do not infer that as negative. For example, the person writing the letter for you may be receiving the same request from your peers and friends and may fear what is written will be shared and compared. The letter writer  may have superior comments for you and associated reasons for the product not to be circulated for reasons very positive in your favor. Hopefully, you will identify individuals as your recommenders that you have full confidence in supporting you. That said, if you want access to what is submitted, exercise your option by not signing the waiver. FYI: Many individuals may provide you with a copy of their letter, even if it is submitted to the school confidentially.

To Follow-Up or Not To Follow-Up? 

As the deadline for your application materials approaches, you need confirmation that your file is complete. William & Mary provides that communication through the on-line status checker and via email. Plan a follow-up with the recommender if the deadline approaches and you do not have confirmation that the recommendation has been submitted.

thank youIMPORTANT: Be sure to send a thank you note or email message expressing your sincere appreciation for the support extended to help you progress along your professional school and career goals. This is a thoughtful gesture. This is also smart. You will need another such letter or assistance later from references that help you now. Speaking from over 30 years of experience writing letters and providing references for students, graduates and former employees, I always appreciate hearing the results of the process from the applicant. When I have written letters (now mostly for employment of our students/graduates), I am interested in the outcome and sincerely appreciate the individual sharing that outcome and their related excitement about what’s next in their career and life. I want William & Mary students and graduates to succeed. I want deserving employees to progress. I am delighted to help them and ecstatic in celebrating their successes.

What Next?

Check off this step in the application process. Hopefully, you have a reason to proceed with confidence that each recommendation submitted for you is exactly what you have earned and another reason to take pride in your hard work and accomplishments.

This is a series written by the admission staff at William & Mary Law School about the admission and application process. The posts in this series will be published in no particular order and are not inclusive. The series is designed  to provide information and advice to our applicants as they apply to law schools!