Letters of Recommendation
Strong letters of recommendation are critical and essential for strong fellowship, scholarship, and graduate school applications. Letters of recommendation stem from a relationship established with a research mentor or a professor during a semester or over a longer period of time, and it is important to start building these relationships early in your college career. It can often times seem difficult to "get to know" faculty or other mentors due to busy schedules and competing priorities, however, 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. It is also crucial that the letter writer is familiar with the scholarship/fellowship opportunity that you are applying for and that you have provided letter writers with any information suggested by the Scholarship Foundation. Be sure that their insight is pertinent to the opportunity for which you are applying (for example, if applying for the Goldwater Scholarship, you would want to seek out letter writers who have seen or worked with you on research projects).
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:
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.
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.