Letters of Recommendation
Advice about asking for a letter of recommendation
Whenever possible, make an appointment with your professor/recommender so that you can ask for a recommendation in person. Because you’re unlikely to be able to meet with any of your potential recommenders in the summer, be sure to contact them for a meeting in the spring, before the middle of May. If this is not possible, you should then craft a polite email to request a meeting remotely. When you discuss their willingness to write a recommendation, be sure you truly ask your professors for recommendations without conveying a sense of expectation that they will provide it. You should say something like: “I’m wondering whether you feel you could provide me with a strong letter of reference for X fellowship?” Make sure they know the due date and where to send it and if they agree, tell them you will follow up with more information about the fellowship, and supporting documents that will help them to write their letter. If you are asking for a recommendation from someone who has previously provided one and they cannot meet in person, it is appropriate to request a recommendation by email, with the same caveat as above: it should be a polite request, rather than an expectation.
Send the referee the following information:
- A brief description of the fellowship and a url where they can find more information
- A copy of your transcript
- A list of courses you took with that professor and in the department in general
- Your personal statement or at least an informal letter about which scholarship you are seeking and why
- A copy of the best paper you wrote for the professor
- A note about anything you think the referee should stress
- A copy of your CV (resume) for further background
How to ask for – and get – strong letters of reference
Approach potential recommenders first as advisers. Get to know them and let them get to know you. Discuss your larger interests and goals. Ask for their advice about potential projects, reading, courses of study, graduate programs. . . .These conversations will be invaluable in themselves, but they will also allow you to judge who is likely to be your most enthusiastic recommenders; these meetings will also allow those who write for you to compose better informed and more personally engaged letters.
Ask someone who knows you well and who will be able to discuss in specific detail what distinguishes you. Recommenders should be able to discuss varied aspects of your academic, work and community activities. Ideally, two of your recommenders should be tenured faculty with whom you have taken more than one course (preferably an advanced course), or who have served as mentors, such as working on a research project or in a laboratory setting. Supervisors or administrators in a community/volunteer activity can also speak to your commitment and achievements.
Ask well in advance of the deadline. While for many recommenders four weeks may be adequate, it is often helpful to consult to see how much lead-time is needed. This is especially true for letters for major fellowships and for letters to be written over the summer.
Ask: “Do you feel you know me (or my academic record, my leadership qualities) well enough to write a strong letter of recommendation for the X opportunity?” You’ve now given the professor the opportunity to decline gracefully. If the answer is “no,” don’t push. This inquiry may be done via email–ONLY if you already have an established relationship with the potential recommender. If you do not, then it is very important to ask your potential recommender in person. This should be done in an office hour, not in public (after your class meeting has ended, for instance).
Schedule an appointment with your recommenders to discuss the scholarship, its selection criteria, your most recent and commendable activities, and to suggest what each recommender might emphasize. (You may want to let your recommenders know who your other recommenders are, so that they can write letters that complement rather than repeat one another.)
Provide in advance, or bring to the meeting:
- A current resume or a list of your activities and honors. Be sure to include internships or work/research experience, community service, conference papers/presentations, other creative or leadership experiences.
- A copy of your personal statement, project proposal/course of study proposal, or other descriptive information from the application (information about career plans, foreign travel experience, or non-academic interests is sometimes requested). If you have not yet completed these materials, provide an informal version in the form of a 1-2 page statement.
- Any pertinent reminders about the work you have done for this professor that will help highlight what makes you a strong candidate; past papers or exams are especially helpful. Even a simple timeline that indicates when you met and notes significant interactions will be useful.
- A copy of your transcript. This can be an unofficial copy and is to give your recommender an overview of your academic program to-date as well as your grades. If you have reason to think that your grades do not reflect your true potential because of extenuating circumstance (e.g. family or other responsibilities, number or level of courses taken), be ready to discuss you circumstances with your recommenders candidly.
- The official description of the criteria the recommender’s letter should address and the deadline by which the letter is due. Supplement this description with your own suggestions as to what you would like your recommender to emphasize.
- Any coversheets or official recommendation forms that should accompany the letter, including any appropriate waiver form. Be sure to complete any section that pertains to you: name, address/URL to which the letter should be sent, etc. Each scholarship is different. Consider waiving your right to access under the Family Rights and Privacy Act. Selection committees often fail to take non-restricted letters seriously.
- If you are asking for more than one letter (as for graduate school or multiple fellowships), provide the following information on a separate sheet, as well as appropriate URLs or if submission is mailed a stamped and addressed envelopes for each fellowship:
- To whom each letter should be addressed (individual or committee, relevant titles, address).
- Whether each letter should be uploaded into an online system, mailed directly to the funding agency, or remitted to the Fellowships Office for inclusion in an application packet.
- The deadline. Be sure to distinguish between a “postmark” and a “received by” due date.
Final Advice? Be sure to write your recommenders:
- A note of thanks
- Let them know what happens