Scholarships and Fellowships

Tips for Acquiring Strong Recommendation Letters

Selecting Referees

Pay close attention to the specific recommendation letter requirements of awards, not only how many but from whom.

For those competitions that ask for more than two letters, it is a good idea to select people whose letters together demonstrate a diverse range of your attributes. For instance, one letter could comment on your research passion and capabilities, another could emphasize your different leadership skills, and another focus on your academics and how you demonstrate scholarship in your field.

Whether it is a professor, advisor, or employer, ask people who are familiar with you and your work. "Big names" are of little use if they can only write a generic letter about you.

Give them several months notice if possible (one month minimum). If the award is small and it is due in less than a month, ask them IMMMEDIATELY after you decide you will pursue it. Waiting to ask, even if they have a letter for you on file, is inconsiderate.

If your time of application is a year or two in the future then keep in mind your relationships with faculty (or employers). When you get to know and like particular faculty, share the fact that you might apply for these awards and may ask them in the future to write you a recommendation letter. Since you want faculty to be able to write concrete things about you, they need to be paying attention to you and your work.

Obtaining the Letter

Ask your prospective referee up front if they could write you a good letter. If they say no, or respond in a way that makes you feel uncertain about the strength of their support letter, gracefully accept that (and be grateful for their honesty) and ask somebody else.

Prepare a packet of concise info about the award and why you are a "perfect" candidate. This should include the following:

  • An updated resume
  • An unofficial transcript
  • A concise description of the award, and
  • An explanation of precisely why you believe you are an excellent candidate.

You may have to schedule an appointment with them to discuss this. Other items that are helpful to provide your recommendation writer include:

  • A list of items/topics to be discussed in your letter.
  • The semester and year you worked with them, names of courses, projects or papers, and other details
  • A stamped, addressed envelope(s) if they are required to send it directly to the organization.
  • The exact due date of the recommendation letter(s) and/or when you will pick it up (if they are not mailing it themselves).

When you have a good draft of your application essays ready, send it to the referees. Tell them ahead of time when they should expect this. They should be aware of the specific content of your application when writing their letters in order to adequately address your goals and qualifications and why you are a strong candidate for the particular award. Finally, if there is time before the deadline, ask them to give you feedback on your application.

If the person does not yet have a recommendation for you on file, schedule an appointment with them to discuss the application, your goals, everything that will help them write specifically about you.

Other Helpful Tips

Do not assume because a person is a faculty member or a distinguished person in their field that they know how to write a good recommendation letter. The Scholarships Director has guidelines that can assist professors in this process. She can also contact them directly to advise them about the requirements of certain awards.

Make sure you follow up and remind your referee(s) about the recommendation letters as the deadline approaches.

Be kind enough to let them know the results of the competition, and thank them for their support.

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