Letters of Recommendation

Strong letters of recommendation are critical and essential in determining who will become a fellowship finalist or be admitted to the best graduate schools. Letters of recommendation should be the outgrowth of a relationship established during a term or over a longer period of time. It is important to start on this early in your college career. It is often difficult to "get to know" faculty or other mentors, yet it can be done if students make the effort. Developing a relationship that can lead to a useful letter of recommendation is up to the student.

You should ask the writer for a letter of recommendation three to four weeks before the deadline, if possible. Two weeks before the deadline should be considered the minimum advance notice.  Here is some advice on whom to ask and how:

Think through the application process first

Before you approach anyone for a letter of reference, identify the number of people that you will need. Use the application material to help you choose the best letter writers. What aspects of your background do you want each letter of recommendation to comment on? Seek a mix of letter writers and identify their roles for them. Collectively, your letters should present a balanced picture of you. It is helpful to the letter writer if you tell them you hope they will comment on you from a certain angle in their letter.

Choose People Who Know You Well and Help Them to Get to Know You Better

Avoid asking someone for a letter after class, in the hallway, or via email. Instead, make an appointment to discuss whatever you are applying for and the kind of help needed. It is essential to give the letter writer any materials that will help him or her write a more detailed letter, such as your resume, transcript, a draft of a personal statement or project proposal. Ask them for feedback on your material.  

Respect a "No"

If someone you ask seems to be saying "no" to you, seek someone else. The person may be inappropriate, too busy, or may not know you well enough to write a good letter.

Allow the Letter to be Confidential

On an application form for a scholarship or graduate school, you will be asked if you wish to waive your right to access your letters of reference. Do so. The letter writer will likely be more comfortable and probably more forthright, and the selection committee will respect this.

Attend to Details

Be sure you know to whom the letter of recommendation is to be addressed. Provide an exact deadline for the letter's completion and gently remind the letter writer of it later.  

If you are asking for more than one letter for graduate schools or multiple fellowship applications, provide the following information on a separate sheet of paper:

Follow Up with Your Letter Writers

Thank your letter writers and keep them informed on your progress. Regardless of whether you receive the fellowship or not, initiating and maintaining follow-up contact with your references is both courteous and professionally smart.

Begin to Recognize Yourself as a Professional

When you apply for a fellowship, graduate school or a job, you are stepping onto the first rung of a long academic or professional ladder. Act accordingly by taking yourself and your supporters seriously. Do not undermine the position for which you are applying or be self-deprecating. Articulate specific goals for yourself. Respect and consider any coaching that is offered. View yourself and all of your opportunities as professional and valuable, and your references will respond in kind.


This advice has been adapted from Joe Schall, References Available Upon Request, Graduating Engineer and Computer Careers Online. Please read the longer on-line version!

For graduate students applying for academic jobs, see Richard M. Reis, Getting Great Letters of Recommendation, from Chronicle of Higher Education.

Advice to faculty who are writing letters for fellowship applicants, see these resources: What makes for a strong letter of recommendation (PDF), and Joe Schall, Writing Recommendation Letters Online: a Faculty Handbook


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Last modified: Aug 27, 2014, 15:12 EDT
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