Asking for a letter of recommendation.
Step 1: Groundwork
Before asking for a letter of recommendation, you must thoroughly examine all information on the award or program and determine what the reviewers are looking for. Some programs will explicitly provide a list of characteristics that they are seeking in candidates. More often, the applicant must carefully review all of the materials available (not just the application instructions, but also the entire website, biographical profiles of past recipients, public reports and interviews, and discussions with individuals on campus who have worked with the program in the past) to come up with a list of personal traits and experiences that the reviewers seem to find particularly worthwhile. You should expect to spend a significant amount of time at this stage to develop a thorough list of the themes you found in their requirements and preferences.
Step 2: Choice of Recommender
Once this list of themes is complete, it is time to make a list of possible recommenders. Your recommenders should be people who:
- know you professionally from either academic, work or relevant campus settings. It is important to note that in the case of graduate programs and prestigious awards, reviewers are rarely interested in character references from people like high school teachers, spiritual leaders, family friends, etc. You should only get this type character reference if the application instructions specifically require it. Instead, you should get references from people who have overseen your work in the classroom, in a professional work setting or in a relevant extra-curricular activity.
- know you well and have known you for a significant time period since you have been at college. You may ask, “How long is a significant time period?” One full term is the bare minimum. Two to three terms is acceptable but not ideal. Over a year is more compelling. First year students may be allowed to use contacts from high school, but beyond your first year at college, you should have only college and work related contacts.
- can understand how you demonstrate the relevant criteria. You will need to provide your letter writers with both a list of the criteria and some reminders of situations where they saw you demonstrate those criteria.
- are willing to write a strong letter of recommendation. Make sure you don’t just ask “Can you write a letter?” Your goal is to attain the strongest possible recommendations. So you need to ask each professional contact if he/she is willing to write a letter that highly recommends you for the opportunity.
- are able to produce a strong letter within the deadlines and other limits of the application process. Be upfront about what you need and when you need it. A letter that talks about you in situation X when the reviewers are looking for experience in Y will be useless to you. Deadlines for these applications are almost never negotiable. A good letter of recommendation usually takes 3-4 hours to write and this person may not have the time.
Looking at the list of themes you developed in Step 1, decide who among your contacts would best present your relevant characteristics to the reviewers. You will want to prioritize this list of potential recommenders so that if one contact declines to write a letter, you have another person to ask.
Step 3: How to ask for a letter of recommendation.
Now that you have a list of potential recommenders, it is time to start asking for the actual letters that you need. Here are some things to keep in mind as you are meeting with them.
Ask for the letter a minimum of 3-4 weeks in advance by setting up a face-to-face meeting (if at all possible) with the potential recommender at a calm and convenient time. Don’t catch him/her in the hall between class, or send a mass email to several people. A formal attitude will help the potential recommender understand the seriousness of your request.
At the meeting, discuss the opportunity or program, why you think you are a good candidate, and why you selected this person to be your recommender. If the person hesitates or says no for any reason, simply thank him/her and move on the next person on your list.
Once the person agrees to be your recommender, you must give him/her the following:
- Official instructions to the recommenders. These may be part of the application packet or may be sent to the recommenders electronically after you register their names and email addresses through a online registration system.
- Official reference forms (if required by the application) and a stamped addressed envelope (if letters are to be mailed in hardcopy format.)
- Copies of all your application materials, including but not limited to your essays, transcripts, application forms, etc. Drafts are fine if your final versions are not complete, but be sure to send a new version if you make major changes.
- Copies of relevant samples of your work, including but not limited to exams, papers and projects that you did for this recommender, etc.
- A current résumé.
You also must discuss the content of the letter with the recommender. This often makes students feel uncomfortable but it is vital for the letter writer to understand which qualities and experiences to focus on. Bring the list of themes you developed in Step 1, so you can talk about the characteristics this award is looking for, and particular times that this recommender saw you demonstrate those characteristics. You will not be talking about how the recommender will write the letter, but rather you will be making certain that he/she has everything needed to write a strong letter. You should also discuss your other letter writers and the topics that they will be covering so there is minimal overlap between the letters.
Step 4: Follow through.
Get in touch with all of your recommenders about 10 days before the deadline to make certain that they will be submitting your letters on time. If you don’t hear back from a recommender, keep asking about it every two days or so until you get confirmation. Ask for final confirmation that they have submitted the letter.
Finally, you should thank all the people who supported your application. A handwritten thank you note is a wonderful personal touch at the end of the application process, and it is always a good idea to let your recommenders know the outcome of your application.
As always, if you have questions about any part of the application process, including letters of recommendation, please contact me (Maggie Tongue, director of the office of postgraduate fellowships, at x 8311 or firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will be happy to assist you.