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 to:
Strong letters of recommendation are critical and essential for strong fellowship, scholarship, and graduate school applications. Letters of recommendation should be the outgrowth of a relationship established during a term or over a longer period of time, and it is important to start building these relationships 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.
When asking for a letter of recommendation, be sure you are asking someone who can speak to your specific skills and abilities. Be sure that their insight is pertinent to the opportunity for which you are applying as well.
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, and provide an exact deadline for the letter's completion.
If you are asking for more than one letter for graduate schools or multiple fellowship applications, provide the following information for each:
- To whom each letter should be addressed (individual or committee, relevant titles, and mailing address if applicable)
- Recommendation forms or coversheets (filled out and signed by the applicant)
- Whether each letter should be mailed directly to the graduate school or funding agency, sent to the campus advisor for inclusion in the application packet (as is often done for applications to medical school), or submitted online through an application website (which has become the most common option).
- The deadline for each letter. Be sure to distinguish between and online deadline, "postmark" or "received by" due-dates, if relevant.
Follow Up with Your Letter Writers
Do not hesitate to stay in touch with letter writers occasionally in the weeks approaching the deadline for the letter. Ask the writer if they need any more documents or have questions about a two weeks from the deadline, and gently remind the letter writer about a week from the deadline of the details for letter submission and deadline. This can be exceptionally helpful if they are writing multiple letters for you that have different deadlines and submission requirements.
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.
You should also keep an updated resume, CV, and portfolio. The Career Development Center can be an helpful resource in helping you craft these or better understand how to refine and utilize them.
This advice has been adapted from Joe Schall, References Available Upon Request, Graduating Engineer and Computer Careers Online. Please read the longer version!
For graduate students, see also How to ask for a recommendation: And how to supervise the faculty member writing it from the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Advice for faculty
For faculty who are writing recommendation letters for fellowships, scholarships, graduate school, or job applications, please see these resources:
- Writing Recommendation Letters Online: a Faculty Handbook, the essential online handbook by Joe Schall
- What makes for a strong letter of recommendation (PDF), with advice on what hels and what hurts for fellowships and scholarships
- Avoiding gender bias in reference writing, for everyone
In addition, should you have any questions regarding specific awards, do not hesitate to reach out to Rebekah Campo in the Office of Academic Advising with any questions.