Letters of Recommendation

Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are a critical component of your application, so it’s very important that your recommenders can write in detail about your strengths as they pertain to the scholarship you’re applying for. It’s a good idea to discuss your options with the Fellowships Office before approaching faculty members. When determining who to approach, consider:

  • The specifics of the scholarship. For some scholarships, it is critical that all references are demonstrated scholars in a particular field. For others, you’ll need one reference who has knowledge of your extra-curricular work.
  • Who knows you well and can discuss your attributes in specific detail. “I got an A in his class” is not a sufficient reason to approach a particular faculty member. Generally, the best references are the faculty from whom you’ve taken more than one class and with whom you’ve developed a relationship outside of class by visiting their office hours, discussing ideas or readings beyond course requirements, and/or assisting with or getting supervision/feedback on research.

Approaching Recommenders

  • Ask potential recommenders at least one month before the deadline. If the scholarship has a campus deadline, the CAMPUS deadline is what you need to give your recommender. If the deadline is in September, you probably want to ask before spring semester ends.
  • If it’s been a while since you’re interacted with the person, include in your initial ask reminders about how he or she knows you: “I earned an A in your ____ class in Fall 2012. You indicated that you found the arguments I made regarding ___ in my paper on ____ particularly compelling.”
  • Be sure to ask something like: “Do you feel you know me (or my academic record, my leadership qualities, my community service, etc.) well enough to write a strong letter of recommendation for the ___ scholarship?” It is better to give a professor an opportunity to decline than to get a lukewarm letter.
  • Ask if you can meet with your recommenders to discuss the scholarship and its selection criteria. During this time, you can suggest to each recommender what he or she might emphasize in your letter. You may wish to share the names of your other recommenders and what you’re hoping they will emphasize, so that altogether the letters complement rather than duplicate one another. You should be prepared to explain why you think you are a good candidate for this particular scholarship. Remember that your recommender may not know anything about this scholarship, so your job is to give them the information they need to write a letter for this scholarship, rather than a generic letter about how you’re a good student.
  • Give your recommenders typed information about you:
    • A resume or list of your accomplishments, including details about your extracurricular and leadership experiences
    • Reminders about the work you did for the professor that will help him or her write a strong letter. This could include a copy of a past paper, the title of a project you did, etc.
    • An unofficial copy of your transcript
    • A description of the work you did with/for the professor (if relevant)
    • A draft of your personal statement or project proposal
  • Give your recommenders specific information about the scholarship:
    • The purpose of the scholarship
    • The selection criteria
    • The guidelines for recommenders (including word or page limitations and to whom the letter should be addressed)
    • The deadline

Other Important Considerations

  • Scholarship review boards consider it to be unethical for students to write drafts of their own letters of recommendation for professors to sign. If a professor asks you to do this, you may supply a list of bullet points or a factual description of the work you did for or with the professor. Contact the Fellowships Office for guidance on this.
  • Remember to write thank-you notes to your recommenders! You may need to ask them for another letter at a later date. (A written note is generally better than an email.)
  • Let your recommenders know whether or not you got the scholarship—they appreciate knowing how things turned out.

(Adapted from Amherst College’s “How to Ask For – and Get – Strong Letters of Recommendation”)