Office of National & Prestigious Fellowships Advising

Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are a crucial component of any fellowship application. Candidates are generally asked to provide between 2 to 8 letters of recommendation so it is extremely important to carefully select the individuals who write the letters.  A recommendation letter offers information about your character, academic history, personal achievements and future ambitions.  The comments made by your letter writers can help put your accomplishments into perspective as well as offer important information on any special circumstances that can set you apart from other candidates. Each letter should come from someone who knows you well enough to specifically and accurately comment on your qualifications, strengths, academic preparedness and appropriateness for the program to which you are applying.  The letters provide the opportunity for the writers to address something unique or special about you, or to give more information about a specific factor on your candidacy.

The strongest applications always include letters of recommendation that are written precisely for a particular application rather than including general multi-purpose letters that do not relate your unique qualifications to the fellowship’s goals and purpose.  Letters of recommendation that merely serve to pronounce the qualities of your character without further detail will add no value to your candidacy.


Tips for requesting Letters of Recommendation

1.         Get to know your professors. A letter of recommendation should come from someone with whom you have rapport. You can build rapport with your professors by going beyond just trying to achieve a good grade in your classes. Take the opportunity to meet with your professors outside of classroom time.  Use their office hours as a way to ask them about their research interests and to discuss your goals and aspirations.  Be an active participant in class. Get involved with campus based organizations and clubs where you will have the opportunity to work with faculty.  In all cases, be polite and respectful of their time. Your goal is to have them remember you in a positive light.

You will also have the advantage of engaging with someone who has conducted advanced academic work, while affording you the opportunity to develop your own skills to address issues with intellectual heft.  You will gain ease in discussing academic topics in the process of developing your critical thinking skills.


2.         Be strategic on who you ask to write your letters.    Select people who know you well and are able to speak specifically to your abilities. They should be able to write a substantial and convincing letter.  Recommendation letters from well-known individuals or big name professors will not add value to your application unless they know you well.

Make sure to check the requirements, for example, they may require that three or five letters of recommendation come from faculty, but the others can come from anyone.  Letters that come from someone outside of an academic setting can offer details on your leadership abilities, community service activities, volunteer work and personal interests.

Some fellowships require letters from individuals who can effectively comment on your ability to carry out a proposed study plan or project.  A professor in the same field of study as your proposed project who has worked with you would be best in these situations.

Ultimately, you collection of letters should demonstrate that you have a long record of commitment and achievement that sets you apart from others.


3.         The ask.  Once you have identified a potential recommender, schedule a time to discuss your interests and goals and ask if they would be able to write the letter. In most cases, they will say yes, but there is always the chance that they may say no.  They may simply not have the time, or they may feel that they do not know you or your accomplishments well enough to write a thorough letter.  They may also say that they can only write a letter noting certain reservations or weaknesses.  In this case, you should accept his/her judgment graciously and consider asking for more feedback about your goals and plan for study.


 4.         Timing is essential.  Make sure your letter writers have plenty of time to prepare a letter which accurately reflects your qualities, accomplishments, and qualifications.  It is recommended that you request your letters at least 2 months prior to any fellowship deadlines.  The earlier that you can notify them of your plans the more time you will have to help them plan and work the time they need to commit to your letter without outside distractions impacting the quality of their comments.

In addition to a recommendation a faculty member might:

  • Guide the development of your proposal and review you application material
  • Connect you with other institutions and individuals relevant to your fellowship proposal.
  • Help you prepare for an interview if invited.


 5.            Come prepared.  Make sure that you provide your letter writers with as much information as possible to enable them to write a strong and descriptive letter that will highlight your potential and your accomplishments.  Different fellowships will have different selection criteria and requirements for recommendations.  Thoroughly read all application instructions so that you are able to convey these appropriately to your letter writers.

Depending on the fellowship opportunity, you should provide the following:

  • The Letter of Recommendation Form along with all instructions on how to complete and submit the form.  If recommendations are to be submitted online make sure you email the link to your letter writers.  If the letters must be submitted as hard copies you should provide properly addressed, typed, and stamped envelopes, or offer to pick them up in sealed envelopes to mail with your application to the fellowship organization.
  • Details about the nature and purpose of the fellowship.
  • A draft of all the essays that you will submit with the fellowship application (statement of purpose and/or personal statement.)
  • A copy of your resume which should include your extracurricular and co-curricular activities.
  • Notes on how you think this fellowship will help you to achieve your educational and/or career goals.


6.            Keep in touch.  Touch base with your letter writers throughout the application process, but do not overwhelm them with questions.  Follow-up a couple of weeks before the letter is due to find out if they need any additional information.  It may take longer than you might expect, so be patient and not pesky, but do make sure to reach out to ensure that your recommendation letters are sent in time to meet the application’s deadline.

Keep in touch with your letter writers after the application is submitted to update them on your progress and whether or not you receive the award.


7.            Thank them.  Regardless of the outcome make sure to thank the people who recommended you for their time and support.  You will be recognizing an important relationship.