Asking for Letters of Recommendation

When you apply for a fellowship (or to grad school, for that matter), you'll need letters of recommendation. These serve a very important purpose in the application process: they allow professors and other mentors to share their first-hand impressions about the qualities that make you distinctive - intellectually, personally and/or professionally.

For many students the hardest part of an application process is selecting persons to write letters of recommendation. Generally, fellowship applications require between 2 and 4 letters of recommendation. Start early in your college career, identifying faculty, mentors, supervisors and employers who you feel saw firsthand what you are capable of achieving. This can include instructors for courses in which you wrote some of your best academic papers (both creative and research), and whom you took the time to get to know through office hours. This also includes internship and volunteer activity supervisors and employers who can attest to your leadership and ability to utilize your academic knowledge in service and professional environments.

Rather than run the risk of losing touch with potential recommenders, discuss with them your desire to apply for scholarships in the future. Let the potential recommender(s) know that you would like to stay in contact with them so that in the future they can act as a recommender for you. Contact recommenders periodically to update them on your academic and professional experiences.

Once you've decided to apply for a fellowship, there are several things you can do to help your recommenders convey their impressions of you effectively.

  1. If at all possible, make appointments to meet with your prospective recommenders to discuss your plans. Tell them what fellowship you are applying for, and why, and ask them candidly if they would be willing to write a letter for you.
  2. Provide recommenders with clear information about the fellowship program to which you are applying. This should include information about the nature of the award (e.g., study abroad, graduate study, summer internships, etc.), the goals of the fellowship program, and whenever possible the criteria for selection used by the fellowship program. You can often find this information on the fellowship website, and you can paraphrase or cut and paste the relevant information. 
  3. Write a brief statement to give to each recommender summarizing a) why you are applying for the particular fellowship, b) what you hope to accomplish during the fellowship and c) how winning the fellowship would assist you in achieving your educational, service or professional goals. If your application requires a specific project proposal, you should briefly describe your intended project as well. It is often extremely helpful if one or more of your recommenders also provide feedback on your project proposals; ask if they would read your drafts and provide constructive criticism and suggestions.
  4. Give each recommender an updated resume listing your most recent activities and accomplishments. You might want to call their attention in a separate paragraph to the accomplishments or experiences that you believe make you a well-qualified candidate for your particular fellowship program. For example, if you are applying for a Fulbright award to teach English in Korea you might highlight your tutoring work for a literacy program in DC, or your coursework on East Asian politics and religions. 
  5. IMPORTANT: Give your recommenders ample time to prepare their letters. Aim to give them four to six weeks notice before recommendations are due, and provide them with clear, accurate information about deadlines and submission procedures. If there are forms they should fill out, provide them with those forms. 
  6. Last but not least, don't neglect follow-up! Your recommenders will invest considerable time and thought in preparing your letters, so write them thank you notes and be sure to let them know the outcome of your application.

In a similar spirit, read "How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation."