Letters of Recommendation
How to Ask For--and get--Strong Letters of
1) Approach potential recommenders first as
advisers. Get to know them and let them get to know you. Discuss
your larger interests and goals. Ask for their advice about potential
projects, reading, courses of study, graduate programs... These
conversations will be invaluable in themselves, but they will also allow
you to judge who is likely to be your most enthusiastic recommenders;
these meetings will also allow those who write for you to write more
informed and more personally engaged letters.
2) Ask someone who knows you well and who will
be able to discuss in specific detail what distinguishes you.
3) Ask well in advance of the deadline. Three
to four weeks may be adequate. But it is often helpful to consult with
the recommender to see how much lead-time is needed. This is especially
true for letters for major fellowships and for letters to be written over
4) Ask: "Do you feel you know me (or my
academic record, my leadership qualities) well enough to write a
strong letter of recommendation for the X scholarship?" You've
now given the professor the opportunity to decline gracefully. If the
answer is "no," don't push. This inquiry may be done via email-if you
already have an established relationship with the potential recommender.
5) Schedule an appointment with your
recommenders to discuss the scholarship, its selection criteria,
your most recent and commendable activities, and to suggest what each
recommender might emphasize. (You may want to let your recommenders know
who your other recommenders are, so that they can write letters that
complement rather than repeat one another.)
6) Bring to this meeting:
7) Finally, be sure to write your recommenders a note
of thanks and let them know what happens.
- A current resume or a list of your
activities and honors. Be sure to include internships or
work/research experience, community service, conference
papers/presentations, other creative or leadership experiences.
- A copy of your personal statement, project
proposal, and/or course of study
proposal, or other
descriptive information from the application (information about
career plans, foreign
travel experience, or non-academic interests is sometimes
requested). If you have
not yet completed these materials, provide an informal
version in the form of a
1-2 page statement.
- Any pertinent reminders about the work you
have done for this professor that will
help you highlight what
makes you a strong candidate; past papers or exams are
- A copy of your transcript (if applying for
a nationally competitive fellowship).
This can be an
unofficial copy and is to give your recommender an overview of
your academic program
to-date as well as your grades. If your grades are not
what you think they should
be, be ready to identify any extenuating
circumstances (e.g., family
or other responsibilities, number or level of courses
- The official description of the criteria
the recommender's letter should address and
the deadline by which the
letter is due. Supplement this description with your own
suggestions as to what you
would like your recommender to emphasize.
- Any coversheets or official recommendation
forms that should accompany the
letter. Be sure to
complete any section that pertains to you: name, address to
which the letter should be
sent, etc. Each scholarship is different. Make sure you
have waived your right to
access under the Family Rights and Privacy Act.
Selection committees often
fail to take non-restricted letters seriously.
- If you are asking for more than one letter
(as for graduate school or multiple
fellowships), provide the
following information on a separate sheet, as well as
stamped and addressed envelopes for each fellowship:
- To whom each letter should be addressed
(individual or committee, relevant titles, address).
- Whether each letter should be mailed
directly to the funding agency (as in
the case of the Rhodes, NSF, Mellon) or remitted to the Office of
International Education and Fellowship Programs for inclusion in the
application packet (Truman, Goldwater, Udall, Marshall).
- The deadline. Be sure to distinguish
between a "postmark" and a received by" due date.
Adapted from a handout provided by Jane Curlin, Willamette
Other sources of information:
Suggestions for letter writers can be found from
This page is part of my advice to Lehigh students.
Last modified 21 July 2017 by Brian D. Davison.