Recommendation Letters

You have the grades, you have the achievements, you have a future. What you want is the scholarship or fellowship that will help you realize that future. What you need are outstanding letters of recommendation from some of your professors.

It sounds easy enough. You've done well in Professor Doe's class, Professor Jones has been your academic advisor for two years and you were Professor Smith's research assistant last semester. These people know you; they know your work. You assume that they automatically will write you a glowing recommendation to put in your application packet.

But it's up to you to choose your references and to make sure they have everything they need to write you the best possible letters. Although these tips are especially useful for scholarship and fellowship recommendation letters, most are also useful for graduate school and employment recommendation letters. Here's what you can do to help your references help you reach your goal:

Before asking someone to write you a recommendation letter, research the specific scholarship or fellowship and get your resume and statement of purpose in order. Consult the application packet and see what qualities and accomplishments the selection board is seeking. Compare your own qualifications to those sought and take notes. If your recommender asks for some backup information, you will have everything ready.

Particulars count, and examples are crucial. Your recommender may remember that you were a "hard worker" but may have forgotten that you set up a new lab on your own. He or she may have forgotten that you not only made straight As in class, but tutored some of your fellow students as well. Your resume and statement of purpose should serve as reminders of these details.

Choose the right people to write the letters for you. Choose a professor who knows you rather than the department head who doesn't. Good sources for letters are your academic advisor, professors of classes in which you were active or people for whom you've worked. It may be a good idea to have at least one letter written by a faculty member from a department that isn't your major.

Schedule a meeting with each writer to talk about the scholarship or fellowship. Use the meeting to explain why you think you could be competitive. Then ask if the professor is willing and able to write a supportive and positive recommendation letter for you for this particular award.

If possible, inform the professor a semester or so ahead of time that you are considering applying for a scholarship or fellowship and would like him or her to write you a recommendation letter. The professor will pay closer attention to your actions and accomplishments and will perhaps keep a running file on you to use when it comes time to draft the letter.

Speak to the professor early enough so that he or she will have about a month to work on the letter. Since each recommendation letter must be tailored to the individual and to the award, your recommender will need plenty of time to complete it. Everyone at SU has a lot of work to do, and allowing your professor ample time to complete this task is both a courtesy and a necessity.

Neatly and thoroughly fill out any portion of the recommender's form that is necessary. This could be as simple as typing in your name and social security number. You want to make the task of recommending you as easy as possible for your recommender.

Although the decision is up to you, selection committees sometimes recommend that you waive your right to see the letter when completed. Waiving your right to see the letter is sometimes thought to lend more credibility to the recommender's statements.

Make sure that you provide the recommender with a pre-addressed, stamped envelope if necessary or with other directions if the letter is to be returned to you.

Follow up with the writer a couple of weeks before the letter is due to see if he or she needs any additional information. A call or an e-mail note from you also will serve as a reminder if the write has forgotten the commitment to write the letter.

Finally, thank your recommenders for taking the time to write the letters and share with them the outcome of your application.

adapted directly from Bowdoin University's Fellowship Guide with permission from Director of Fellowships and Scholarships, Anne Shields.