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Letter of Recommendation

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Letter of Recommendation for Scholarship
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Reference Letter Format
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Business Letters of Reference


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Letters of reference are critical ingredients in your job search, yet they are often misunderstood. A letter of reference serves as an indication of your reputation among those you have worked with. It provides an employer with an idea of who you are as a professional, and how well you interact with others. While the value of a reference is hard to measure, compared to objective criteria such as grades and class rank, good references can add a great deal to your application. Conversely, lackluster references will do little or nothing for you.

Obtaining a Quality Letter

It's not rocket science to get a good reference, but you have to go about it the right way. In order to get quality references, you need to select whom you want to ask for references, cultivate your relationship with them, and then facilitate the process of getting the letters written. It can take time to build a relationship with a potential reference, and even longer to get an actual letter in hand. Don't wait for employers to ask you for references to start requesting them! You should have at least approached your choices for references before you send out a single resume. Usually two references are sufficient but some employers may ask for more - check to make sure you know the requirements.

Who. The first and most important criteria for selecting a person to write a letter on your behalf is that they know you. This is actually more important than the prestige of the person writing the letter. A reference from the Dean or a local judge, if they have only met you once for a few minutes, is worth much less than a letter from a junior professor or former employer who knows you well and has seen your work. Obviously, the reputation of the person can help - a letter from the Secretary of State carries weight even if the person has never met you! For those who don't have close ties to Cabinet members, your best bets are professors and former employers. The final criteria, if applicable, is someone who knows you and has known you in a capacity that is relevant to your particular job search - a former commanding officer if you're applying to the JAG corps, a supervisor of a volunteer program you've worked with if you're looking for a public interest position, etc.

How. Cultivating a relationship with a potential reference means talking to them. If it's a professor, speak up in class and ask questions afterwards. If the professor has experience in an area of law that interests you, try to make an appointment to sit down and talk with them - they may have contacts or information to pass along. You want them to know enough about you in order to say something about your intellectual abilities, interests, personality and career goals, rather than just your grades. If it's an employer, try to ensure that they've seen examples of your work; in writing or in person, and again, that they know enough about you to write about you with some detail.

When the time comes to ask a person to act as a reference, you should understand that different people handle it in different ways. Some will want to talk to you about whom the letter is going to and what you want it to say; some will want you to draft a letter for them as a starting point. Remember that the person providing you a reference is doing you a significant favor, so be polite but be confident. Convincing your reference that you are a worthy job candidate is the first step in convincing a potential employer. Assuming that the person you've asked has agreed to write a letter, offer to assist in any way you can. Always bring a copy of your resume when you are requesting a reference!

Delivery. The final step is to make sure your reference letter is completed. For certain judicial clerkships, letters of reference are usually sent to Career Services, which handles their distribution to judges. For other employers, follow their instructions. If they do not provide you with instructions, ask them for their preferred method of delivery. Some employers and references may request that you not see the letter itself, others will be more open. Please follow their lead. Be diligent about checking on your references to make sure that a promised letter has been written; people get busy, deadlines are forgotten, and ultimately it is your job to make sure that your letters of reference are delivered properly and in a timely fashion.

As always, come to Career Services if you have any questions about how to obtain letters of reference. Think of your references as a building block to establishing your reputation as a professional and an attorney; work to obtain quality references and you will likely attain quality results.

Next: How to Request a Reference Letter


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