Interview With Monica Ingram

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Monica Ingram

BETTER KNOW A DEAN

"I'm frustrated by the desire or the need to have cookie cutter law schools. They're supposed to be different. Law schools have different..." - Monica Ingram - Asst. Dean for Admissions & Financial Aid, UTexas Law

This is the second installment of our 224 part series, Better Know A Dean. Today we posted our interview with Monica Ingram, Assistant Dean for Admissions & Financial Aid, from UTexas Law -- The Fightin' UTexas Law's!

Dean Ingram knows what it takes to be a UT Law student because she graduated there in 1998. After graduation, Dean Ingram practiced public education law. She worked as a staff attorney in the Investigations and Enforcement Department of the Texas State Board for Educator Certification, which is the licensing agency for Texas teachers. She then served as a staff attorney representing the Texas Association of School Boards -- a non-profit organization that provides legal services to school board members across the state. She has also served as President of the Austin Black Lawyers Association. Dean Ingram returned to UT Law in 2002, when she was named assistant dean for admissions and financial aid.

Dean Ingram, I truly appreciate you taking the time to talk with us today.

AD As a UT Law alum and now its Admission Dean, what has changed since you attended UT as a student and what remains timeless?
MI I attended law school here from '95 to '98. One of the biggest differences is the size. My incoming class was 500. Now we hope to keep class sizes around 400, and last year's entering class was 388. The percentage of resident to non-resident students is higher. Today, we are allowed to have up to 35% non-residents, however, when I attended–I'm not from Texas originally– non-residents were limited to 20%. We took a look at where our Texas resident students are receiving their education, and almost 60% of our resident student population has received their undergraduate degree outside of the state of Texas. All of those influences make for a very interesting dynamic. The cost of legal education is also a big difference.

What's timeless is our culture. It remains the same. It's still a wonderful educational environment to attend law school. For all of the stress that's associated with legal education, UT Law still has a “laid-back”, comfortable atmosphere with great professors. Teaching excellence was a premium at the time that I attended and it is still considered to be now. The explosion in the number of our clinical programs and other experiential opportunities that students have are just phenomenal. I'm always excited about the opportunities that our students currently have.

AD How would you describe the ideal candidate for UT Law?
MI The ideal candidate for UT is probably similar to what most other law schools desire, regardless of rank or tier. We want really bright and exceptional students. We are very fortunate to have students who are not only very smart -- no matter how you measure that, either by IQ or standardized tests -- but also with varied personal experiences. They're pretty dog-gone diverse and they really like to be involved in the greater community. They're not necessarily all public service-oriented, but their personal commitments and experiences span the spectrum from humanitarian interests to politics. Many are politically active which may be a benefit of being located in the capital of one of the largest states in the country. Political interest, community interest, and advocacy are all encompassed within our students' experiences. Many of our students have already sowed those seeds before coming to law school. A lot of our students are furthering their own personal commitments by going to law school, as opposed to going to law school and discovering themselves and then proceeding on a path of personal enrichment or development.
AD Do you think that comes from accepting more mature students, non-traditional students, or do you find the same commitment to that cause for somebody who just graduated from college?
MI I think it's partly generational. I think it's a generation of young people, and not necessarily young by age, but young people who realize that there's a lot more that they can do with their time on earth. They don't really accept a linear career path, which is something that our parents and grandparents had. It's what society reinforced, and you were irresponsible if you didn't pursue it. They see it completely differently, and being in the greater community of Austin there are a lot of organizations that allow for that type of desire and ability to be fostered. And so it's a really good outlet for , be it in terms of environmental preservation, more humanitarian interests, family interests, gender, race, or ethnicity issues. If it is political orientation or political exposure, this is just a wonderful community for these outlets.
AD What does living in Austin, TX add to the UT Law experience?
MI It's funny, Austin is a greater community of roughly a million people. It's a wonderful juncture. It has the most educated jury pool in the state of Texas. We certainly have a wealth of universities in addition to The University of Texas, but because of the University and it's influence and it's diverse and dynamic faculty and the people who support its programs and centers, there's a natural relationship between UT and the high tech and private industries in the greater community. Plus, there's a growing film and entertainment industry that's here.

One description of Austin is that it is at once the least Texan of cities and the most Texan of cities. It's still very much the South, and in a lot of respects, very gracious and very hospitable. We put a high premium on our interrelations with other people and being comfortable and being welcoming. But Austin also has a little bit of Californian and New York influences. Austin has an openness and exposure to new ideas, which we tend to think about when we also talk about how green the city is. We tend to think more about California in terms of overall diversity, and New York in terms of ethnicity and culture. So it has all those things and it makes for a very interesting mix.

Austin's also got a great main drag too, with a lot of good restaurants and all the students tell me: “You have to go to some of the bars downtown!” We eat really well in Austin. Be it sushi, Tex Mex, interior Mexican, Vietnamese, Thai… and of course there is a little bit of soul food, a little bit of “down home” cooking, not to mention barbeque, we have a little bit of everything.
AD UT Law has a reputation of being a more collegial place than many other top-tier law schools -- one where fellow students and the faculty take a genuine interest in making sure that every student realizes his or her full academic potential. UT founded The Society Program in 1994, a program largely credited with creating this type of atmosphere. Can you briefly describe The Society Program, its goals, and how it works.
MI The Society Program was actually founded in 2004. It evolved from an existing program called the Teaching Quizmasters, or TQs. TQs are second and third year law students with a talent in legal research and writing who assist first year students with their research and writing skills. TQ not only refers to the student but also to the small group of student who are assigned to that group. In the past, TQs not only assisted with research and writing but also with social activities. In 2004, the Law School separated the TQs academic component from the social and The Society Program was born. TQs still exist, but their role is now completely academic.

The Society Program was designed to help build a sense of community within the law school. There are two societies for each first year section. There are 8 societies in total; named after alumni who are closely associated with the Law School−alumni who have made a difference within the Law School or the profession. Each society has a faculty advisor, two student mentors, and a program coordinator who plans activities throughout the year. Interaction between faculty, students, and mentors help ease the transition to law school, provide insight into career paths, possible courses to take, insights into professors and much more. Society members are among the first individuals students will interact with prior to orientation which allows new students to establish social networks before the first day of class. Societies have social, professional and public service activities as well as academic. Members perform public and community service activities throughout the year that include such activities as tax preparation for members of the community who can't afford it, Habitat for Humanity construction projects, and the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure activities to name a few.

One of the unique aspects of The Society Program is that students remain within their society throughout all three years of law school. So it's this greater network of students that becomes a kind of alumni network within the law school. Students grow in that respect, from a plebe, sort of, to a second and third year student who is going to actually help the next generation. That's great.

The Society Program was a little amorphous when it was first described and so the best way for us to be able to get our arms wrapped around it was to think of it as Harry Potter without the dorms. That's kind of how we put it in context. It has been phenomenal for the students and they are so appreciative of the program.

AD Well if we're talking Harry Potter, is UT more like Slytherin, Hufflepuff or one of the other houses at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?
MI It's all Gryffindor! One of the things I'd like to say about the law school is that part of our culture is an extension of the Austin culture. It feels really symbiotic. The result is the ability to interact with your fellow classmates without necessarily feeling that asking a question exposes a weakness or tips a competitive hand or competitive edge that you would need to keep so that you would be the only one who reaches his or her goal. The nature of law school is competitive regardless of the law school that you attend largely because of the premium employers place on hiring students who are the most successful. So there is always that undercurrent of trying to be the best and wanting to be the best. Plus law school attracts a very competitive, usually high achieving, goal-oriented individual. So all of those dynamics meet but competition is not something that we like to perpetuate, be it the faculty or the staff. I'm always amazed at how our faculty views students as peers and future colleagues first.
AD Law school is very expensive and not everyone is interested in working for a large law firm when they graduate. Can you explain how UT Law's Loan Repayment Assistance Program (“LRAP”) helps students who want to pursue a career in public interest, and how LRAP differs from the UT Law Fellowships program?
MI Our LRAP program is in its second year. We ask interested students to commit to at least 24 months of public interest law – including jobs in the military, international NGOs, traditional government and non-profit work. Judicial clerkships do not qualify, but they do toll the 24 months that our students need to participate, so clerkships are not held against them.

Once you graduate and attain a qualifying public-interest position, alumni may apply to the LRAP program. In order for student loan payments to be forgiven, alumni need to work within the program for 24 months. Every six months, with certain qualifying and certification factors, loans are forgiven. As long as you commit to 24 months of public interest employment, you don't have to pay that money back. But for example, your loans are forgiven for the first two times in six month increments for the first year, you leave qualifying employment and do something else; you have to repay the money that we've forgiven. The impetus for our program to begin repayment assistance so soon after receiving qualifying employment is provide a benefit to students when they are at their most challenging salary levels, typically immediately after law school. We decided not to make our students satisfy their commitment before receiving loan forgiveness.

We are hoping to foster careers in public service, understanding that a lot of our graduates begin in public interest, work for a few years, and then move to a different level or different type of legal employment. We didn't want to discourage that initial interest, knowing that there are some people who are not going to be public-interest careerists.

Texas Law Fellowships (“TLFs”) are a little different. TLF is a student-run organization that supports students' commitment to public service. Students who want to clerk with public interest organizations can be awarded stipends from TLF that can offset some of the expenses incurred during the public interest clerkship. TLF was conceived long before we had a loan forgiveness program, but it is still very viable. The faculty and staff are encouraged to give, to donate, to support. Students who are interested in getting a TLF fellowship will write a summary of the work they plan to do for an organization during the summer and how their service will benefit that organization. Then, depending upon the amount of money raised, fellowships are awarded. For the past few years, I believe, we've been able to fully award every student who has applied.
AD UT Law is significantly less expensive for Texas residents than non-residents. Can you give us an overview for determining residency?
MI Our residency office on UT's main campus is the ultimate determiner, but residency generally is determined a year prior to enrollment. If you've lived in the state up to a year prior to law school enrollment, in any capacity, you can elect Texas residency. So if you're a student attending the University of Texas from Maine, and you aren't being listed as a dependant for tax purposes by your parents, then you can be considered a Texas resident. If you've lived here a year and owned real property in your name then you can become a Texas resident. If you live here a year and marry a Texas resident then you can become a Texas resident. For example, some of our non-resident students are married and their spouse will establish residency separately, either by working here or because they are residents independently. The other spouse can then attend school for a year and later petition for residency based upon their marital status. Since there are so many different ways a person can satisfy the residency requirement, I recommend that students consult our website and the Texas Residency FAQ page.
AD A large percentage of your law students also attended UT as undergrads. Some might say that it's the students who make this happen because after spending four years in Austin, they realize it just isn't enough time and they decide they pursue a law degree here in an effort to extend their stay in Austin. Is that true, or does the Law School facilitate this phenomenon by providing preferential treatment to UT legacies?
MI We have no legacy program from our undergraduate program to our law program. Our graduate alumni network is so large that we could not accommodate one. About three years ago, a statistic came out that, in almost any given year, there will be one UT undergraduate student in every ABA approved law school in the country. There's a perception that UT Law is full of UT undergrads, and it's not. Interestingly, there's a perception on UT's undergraduate campus that they can't get into UT's law school. UT has a large undergraduate population, roughly 30,000 students. The pre-law advisors can probably give you better idea of how many UT undergrads apply to UT Law each year, but they will be anywhere from 18-20% of our student body. It is not by design; it's by virtue of there being a great undergraduate program that has a large number of students applying to our program. For some people, Austin drives that desire. Still people are always surprised that our entering class will have students who represent roughly 42-48 states. We actually reviewed how many of our students are educated outside of Texas and learned roughly 53% of this year's students were. While we're not remotely trying to deter wonderful applicants from applying to us, we also want applicants to realize there are many students with diverse experiences, ideas, and backgrounds represented at the Law School.
AD When is the best time to apply to UT Law?
MI I always think that the best time to apply is early within the application process. Applicants can either apply Early Decision, which has a deadline of November 1, or earlier in the regular admission process with a deadline of March 1. If you know UT is your first-choice law school, then it is beneficial to apply Early Decision, a binding program that offers financial incentives. Otherwise, apply as early as possible within the Regular Decision timeframe.
AD Take us through UT Law's admissions process. How does UT evaluate a candidate's undergraduate GPA, LSAT score report, personal statement, letters of recommendation, and other relevant factors?
MI We don't require a minimum LSAT score for applying. We do have a minimum GPA requirement. You must have at least a 2.2 as calculated by the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) for us to consider your application. We don't have an objective weight associated with any element of the application. In a perfect world where a candidate is equally strong in every component of the application—which is rare but always a bonus for any admissions committee because the applicant is either going to be uniformly competitive or uniformly noncompetitive—the order would be, in my opinion, LSAT, GPA, personal statement, then depending upon the individual admissions committee member whether extracurricular activities were weighed more heavily as opposed to letters of recommendation, or vice versa. Extracurricular activities and letters of recommendation are much more discretionary in our process.

The majority of applicants aren't equally strong in every application component. So, for some students, the personal statement will be the most persuasive element. For example, applicants who have competitive, but not stellar, LSAT scores and GPAs, may have a personal statement that's compelling. It may be their writing style, gift with language, or individual experiences displayed within the personal statement that will tip the scale on their behalf. For others, they just have significant academic potential. They may not necessarily be as multidimensional as you prefer but clearly they are intellectually gifted. And so there's a balance, and hopefully we get it right.

I will say that because we don't use an index in the admissions process at all, there is a level of subjectivity to our process that other law schools with a much more strict mathematical formula wouldn't have. We believe, based upon our experience with the classes that we've compiled, our process is a good one. I had someone ask me: “We have a friend that was admitted to an Ivy League school but denied by Texas. Then someone else was admitted to Texas but denied by this Ivy League law school. Can you explain that?” I said: “What's there to explain? They admit the students that they believe best work with their program and we do the same.”

I'm frustrated by the desire or the need to have cookie cutter law schools. They're supposed to be different. Law schools have different cultures. Almost all the law schools in the country are going to provide a good legal education, but it's in the finer points that they'll differ and should. There has to be some room for the individual, whether it's a person or a school or a program, and that's what makes “them” fascinating to get to know. If it were all the same then we'd all be like McDonalds and McDonalds is fine for McDonalds, but then that leaves out all of the wonderful things that are individual. It leaves out the Hut's of the world, which is an Austin 6th Street hamburger favorite.
AD How much weight does the LSAT score add to the admissions process?
MI It's really important. There's just no way around it. It's a standardized test that's solely developed to determine how a student will perform in their first year of law school. The LSAT is not everything. All admissions professionals know it's not everything, but it's an important factor so you want to do your best. You want to prepare as well as you can, be it commercial test preparation, and if you can't afford commercial preparation there are other avenues—the LSAC, the library, there are many resources. Do a timed test and practice, practice, practice. Familiarize yourself with all areas of the LSAT and do the best that you can.
AD How do you evaluate two students with identical GPAs, one who went to a Tier 1 college and another who went to a Tier 2 college? Tier 1 v. Tier 3?
MI We rarely get two students who are identical. There's always something that's going to be in the nuances that varies.

The easy answer is: “Oh, the Tier 1 student gets the edge.” But that's not necessarily so. It depends upon the major. There are a lot of schools that are not Tier 1 but that have Tier 1-quality programs. One member of our committee has 20+ years of experience. He's well versed in collegiate programs around the country and internationally. Sometimes I'll see an educational institution that I've never heard of but he has and can provide insight. The LSAC also gives us a lot of tools to evaluate various programs. We get a good idea, provided the schools have a large enough statistical samples, of the caliber of students who have graduated from these programs and applied to law school. In that way, we can compare the applicant to their peers.

So the answer is, to those students who attend schools considered Tier 2 or lower, you can still be competitive within the applicant pool. We never get two files, and simply say: “Is it A or B?” We tend to look at files in isolation, always keeping in mind the strengths of the students that we've admitted before. We have a really good track record with individual schools that aren't top tier schools but we know their students. It's another benefit of having a relatively large student body.
AD Do you find one undergraduate major better preparation for law school than another? For instance, many undergraduate institutions offer a Pre-Law major -- does UT LAW look more or less favorably on Pre-Law majors when deciding whether to offer admission?
MI Well let's put it this way: not all Pre-Law programs are created equally.

I always want applicants to major in a program they have a personal interest or aptitude, and heaven forbid you might want to actually work within that career field one day! You never know. Pursuing a major solely to get into law school is a mistake. We certainly take the breadth of academic programs into consideration, and there are some that are going to be less rigorous, less competitive than others. If you major in a program that is less rigorous, we will have greater performance expectations in those.

Without a doubt, electrical engineers or biomedical engineers as an example have very challenging degree paths. It's not a perfect degree path because it is really strong in the math and hard science; it's not as strong on the composition, writing end. There has to be a balance. The more dimensions you can demonstrate to an admissions committee, the stronger your application. Technical degrees can be really competitive. It works a side of the brain that can be formidable in developing analytical skills necessary for law school. However, writing skills are equally important. You have to be able to communicate it to a client, a senior attorney, a courtroom whomever your desired audience. Having the analysis but not being able to effectively communicate the information doesn't win the day.

The balance, if you're in the hard sciences, is to take some really good liberal arts courses. Flesh out your writing skills. If you are more liberal arts oriented, then make sure you can demonstrate your analytical skills as well. You don't always have to do it in a hard sciences program; some comparative literature programs are equally rigorous. But be honest with yourself; be aware of your program. Challenge yourself. One concern is that we work so hard on credentialing that we tend to forget about the overall purpose of education: growth, challenge, developing a set of educational experiences that you didn't previously have which you're still developing and learning to hone. I think all professionals know—maybe when you're 22 you appreciate being the very best at what you are but you may not push your limits—as you mature and work with others you realize there's always something to learn. I can always be better, I can always get better, there's always a set of experiences that I haven't had or there are a set of experiences that I would like to master. That's the kind of intellectual challenge that I like to see our applicants demonstrate.
AD Do you have any specific thoughts regarding a Pre-Law major?
MI Again, they're not all created equally. You have to take a look at the actual program components. At the end of the day when you graduate with a Pre-Law major, what do you do with it? If you don't go to law school what do you do? In some respects, even if you do go to law school are you equally as competitive as say the student who has a business degree whose had internships and externships and received practical experience in that area? Ultimately, it's the student's choice.
AD Does UT Law factor in grades from graduate/masters programs?
MI Not objectively. Your objective academic evaluation is going to come from your undergraduate career. It's the only GPA you have that, for the most part, is comparable to your peers and so it levels the playing field for admissions committees.

It is amazing to me when we get physicians who apply to law school. There are many people who love to be academically challenged and have pursued several professional interests. However, graduate level coursework is a little different from undergraduate work. Now certainly there are rigorous graduate and professional programs. But, it isn't a level playing field. We know in the majority of masters-level programs performance is key— if you're not making a B or better, you'll wash out of the program. It's a little bit different from the undergraduate academic career that you put together, that's one of the reasons the GPA can't be substituted. However, for people who have spent a significant amount of time beyond their undergraduate career; have had a significant professional career; or may have succeeded in a markedly different graduate-level program, it can be helpful and instructive in trying to make the case for why their undergraduate degree is not an exhaustive predictor of how they will perform in law school. It can be very helpful as a comparison for a certain population of students who clearly has potential but didn't demonstrate it during their undergraduate program.
AD What are some of the most common mistakes you see people make when they apply to UT Law?
MI Well, one mistake is not reading the entire application before completing it. Applicants sometimes make the assumption that: “All law schools are looking for the same thing, so if one law school wants something, all law schools want it.” That's not true. Each law school is different. We look for different things. In general, the character of what you're providing is very similar, but the form isn't necessarily so.

While we do not require or even look for the personalization of personal statements along the lines of: “I want to go to the University of Texas School of Law because . . . ”, if you're going to do it, please make sure that the right personal statement goes to the right law school. Sending the wrong tailored personal statement to a law school can seriously undermine your application. Many applicants think that's really petty. It's not. When a law school receives 5,000, 6,000, sometimes as many as 8,000 or 9,000 applications for a select number of offers, details become critical. Some admissions committees will say: “Look, this applicant is not even paying enough attention to their application to take our law school seriously.”

It goes without saying that the personal statement is the most influential aspect of the application for which you have the most control. So turning in something that's sloppy, has typos, poor grammar and structure is a serious mistake.

Another mistake applicants make is failing to take an application seriously. We have a lot of applicants who are stellar—stellar on the numbers, stellar on the objective components. Many believe because their objective components are so strong that they don't have to take the other parts of the application seriously. Instead, they'll submit a paragraph or two for their personal statement and believe that's enough, which may signal to an admissions committee, that you don't take our process seriously. This type of applicant probably isn't a good fit for our program. For the most part, law schools don't have an interview program, so your personal statement becomes your face-to-face with the admissions committee. You want to be able to showcase your skills, talents, abilities and give a sense of your character. Many applicants pursue their personal statement as if it is a weekend writing assignment for class, and you and I both know that the personal statement requires a lot of work. It is very difficult to reduce all that you want to say, to two typed pages, and it's a mistake to wait until the last minute to do it and often times it shows.

Each year when we go through the admissions cycle there's usually one or two personal statements that we really like, that just really stand out. The applicant has such an effective manner of conveying who they are that we reach out to them and ask permission to use their statements in a binder that we make available to prospective applicants. The sample statements are not so much a guide to what you should write, as a glimpse of the spectrum of the different topics that you can write about.

I am always taken by self-reflection and self-deprecation in a personal statement: someone who perceives him- or herself as a change-agent while appreciating the world in a much larger context, someone who walks on this earth with humility and realizes their responsibility in using their inherent gifts and talents to make positive changes. For me, this is the type of person we want.

Even when someone applies and writes: “I really want to pursue an academic career that is intellectually challenging and stimulating, that will give me a good quality of life,” I don't devalue this type of statement or think less of a person’s qualifications—it is all about how the motivation or ambition is presented. Certainly, someone who writes and says: “I just want to be rich,” well, that's not remotely interesting to me. My response to those applicants: “This may be the wrong profession for you.”

Applicants have all these different perspectives. Some have had really difficult choices to make in life. Many have been handed really challenging starts in life but have made great strides with what they've been given. I think that person needs a seat at the table as well. The law is at the crux of everything we do. If a personal statement draws you in and you're reading it to the end because you want to learn more, then it's got you. I used to say, and it was so misconstrued that I stopped saying it, but I used to say that I think a personal statement should read like a novel. Not so much that it's fiction, but that it has that ability to pull you in. You want to grab the reader's attention and hold it for the length of the statement. Everyone that can do that isn't necessarily going to be admitted, but they'll definitely get a second look.

It is a waste of time to write a personal statement for us that showcases how much you know about the law school or our programs. Certainly if you have an interest and you want to share your interest in one of our programs, then by all means you can do so but that is not an unwritten test to get into law school. Same for nonresidents: there is no tie to Texas that you need to demonstrate. We are equally as benefited by you coming to UT Law, graduating, and going to Oregon as we would be if you went to Dallas.
AD Do you have any advice for students when getting letters of recommendation?
MI Start early. Say you're a college sophomore history major and you already know you want to go to law school. For that student, that prospective applicant, develop relationships with your professors and maintain them over time. It's not about “I got an A in this professor's class, they don't really know me but they know what grade I got and they know how competitive their class is.” It's more about a professor who really can speak to who you are as an individual and why they think you would be a strong match for a rigorous academic program, i.e., because of your tenacity or scholastic ability.

Sometimes the best letters are when a professor writes: “This person was not my best student when they started, but they realized what I expected from them and met that challenge or exceeded it.” All of us don't come to the table with the same set of skills. Hopefully with the same ability or the same potential but not necessarily the same fully, maturely developed skills. The most effective recommendations come from people who are in a position to have seen your growth, your development, and to be able to attest to your writing skills, your intellectual ability and then communicate that to an admissions committee that has for the most part, a very small file with very few pages on which to make a decision.

One of the biggest mistakes is thinking that the reputation of the recommender is the most important part of the recommendation. No, it's more about the student's reputation. When I read a letter of recommendation that starts with “This person is my constituent . . . “ or “This person is my friend's son . . . ” well, you've lost me.

The advice I would give to a prospective law student seeking a letter of recommendation is the same I gave to my niece, who finished high school and has applied to colleges for this fall. She is gifted in math and science and she had a very challenging physics instructor. She dropped a class to pick up his more demanding physics class because she wanted a challenge, even at the expense of her GPA. She worked so hard for him and I said “Why don't you ask him for a letter of recommendation?” She had the most respect for him, even at 17. He was so appreciative that she asked him. I'm sure he felt that most students stayed away from him as a recommender because he was so demanding—an A from him was a difficult A, any strong grade was a difficult grade. He was so honored that she thought enough of what she learned in his program and what he had to teach her that he wrote a very strong letter. Those kinds of recommendation letters are the best to read.

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