Recommendation letters

Choosing your recommender(s) wisely is an important step of the application process.

Desired qualities of a recommender

Familiarity with your academic and personal self

Ideally, your recommender should be familiar with not only your academic and research abilities, but also know you as a person. For example, knowing how your personal interests and background will enhance your research and general educational experience.

Recent or continued connection

Just because you remember that faculty member does not mean they won’t get you confused with another of their many students. Having a recommender who was a professor for a first-year lecture hall course is probably not enough, unless you did such a stellar job in that course that you clearly stick out in that faculty member’s mind as one of the best and the brightest they have ever seen.

Availability

Recommenders should not just be an important name. A world-famous recommender will be of little use if they can’t speak about whom you truly are and/or your potential in the field. Your choice for a recommender should be able to have relevant discussions with you as well the time to draft the actual recommendation.

Department officers and administrators often have information about faculty members’ time constraints. Consider asking these individuals about your recommender choice and ask for advice. Will the faculty member be traveling, on sabbatical, working on their new book, etc.?

Student action items

Follow-up

One of the largest reasons for failed fellowship applications is that a recommender doesn’t send their recommendation in by the deadline. It is important to remember that a recommender is also working within a deadline and you should make sure you both reach it on time.

Even if they are incredibly diligent and organized people, you should always be sure to follow up and remind your recommenders of their obligations.

Faculty are busy, emergencies happen, people travel, etc., but these shouldn’t be reasons you don’t get a fellowship.

Provide enough information

Providing recommenders with the necessary information to draft thorough and impressive recommendations is important. The more information the recommender has, the better the recommendation will be.

Don’t ask for or expect a blanket recommendation. You deserve more than that! You should send your recommenders:

  • Relevant “information for recommenders” provided by the fellowship organization (deadline, formatting or other guidelines, specific questions that should be addressed etc.)
  • An updated CV
  • Your academic record
  • Your proposed course of study and area of research
  • A draft of your research proposal
  • Perhaps even your personal statement (especially if you don’t know the person well).

Being thorough and organized here will likely impress your recommender and make their job easier (possibly influencing a better recommendation).

Talk to your recommender

Along with paper documentation, try to have actual discussions with your recommenders.

At this point, you should have done your research on the fellowship(s) you are applying to, so inform your recommenders of what the fellowship organization is looking for (selection criteria, goals, targeted types of people, backgrounds etc.).

This is also a chance to discuss your research topic in detail. This will not only give recommenders the information they need for the letter, but may also help you clarify your research proposal. These conversations are a good opportunity to ask for feedback as well.

Make suggestions

Don’t be afraid to make suggestions of things a recommender can include in the recommendation.

You may already have a close relationship with your recommender, but it doesn’t hurt for you to remind them of your background, strengths, and accomplishments. A faculty member’s time is important, and they are often very busy people. You may not have another chance for such an extensive exchange like this. Milk it for all it is worth!