Letters of Recommendation give fellowship selection committees the chance to see candidates from an outside perspective. Writers of such letters should vouch for your qualifications for the fellowship and can be especially helpful to the committee when they are able to speak from their area of expertise and offer affirmation of the viability of your fellowship success.
As such, you should ask for letters from individuals who know you very well and can write detailed letters with concrete examples that attest to your character traits. The best utilization of letters of recommendation is when the content shows a side of you that is not revealed from your transcripts, list of activities, or other parts of your fellowship application.
For the fellowship letters of recommendation, you should keep the following in mind:
- Some fellowships designate specific requirements for letters (eg. Rhodes requires that at least one letter speaks to your character; Marshall asks that at least two of your letters come from academic references).
- If the fellowship asks for a range of recommendation letters (eg. Rhodes allows you to submit 5-8 letters), you should submit more than the minimum, but should not feel obligated to turn in the maximum amount. Weigh quality over quantity; six solid letters of support are better than submitting additional lukewarm letters just to reach the maximum.
- Ask for letters from a diverse mix of recommenders so each can focus on different aspects of your character, thereby building a more comprehensive sense of who you are as a candidate.
Who to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation
Possible individuals from whom to request a letter of recommendation:
- Professors who have taught or mentored you
- Advisors and other staff who you have worked closely with on campus
- Employers, coordinators or individuals who are familiar with your work ethic and volunteer service
It is NOT advised to ask for letters from the following:
- Family, friends, or others who have a conflict of interest
- Individuals who may have a name in the community, but who may not necessarily know you well (eg. the Congressman/Congresswoman you interned with over the summer but only interacted with a few times)
- Teaching assistants or fellow executive board officer; a professor or advisor would be a better person to ask because they often have a longer history of student interactions and can place you within the context of a wider group
Responsibility and Etiquette in Requesting Letters of Recommendation
Although you are not the person who will be writing the letter of recommendation, you have a hand in many factors that can result in strong letters of support. Having a history or knowing a person well enough to write a specific and detailed letter takes time and effort to establish. It is highly advised for YOU to start building relationships with faculty, staff, and other potential recommenders as early in your college career as possible. A letter that incorporates a history of observations on your abilities, personality, and growth over time is much more informative to a committee than a summary of your transcripts and list of activities.
It is also important for you to remember that recommenders who agree to writing a letter for you are essentially volunteering their time and energy for your benefit. You should be highly considerate and do whatever you can to make the process as convenient as possible for the recommender. Basic etiquette to follow:
- Give your recommender sufficient time to write the letter for you. It is advised to make your request at least 3-4 weeks in advance for fellowship letters of recommendation.
- You may provide information on how you and your recommender have worked together and make suggestions to your recommender if you feel there are certain traits s/he can talk about from personal experience; however, do not dictate what you expect from the letter.
- Supplement your recommender with helpful information such as: specific criteria that the fellowship is emphasizing, information from your application, deadlines and special instructions for submitting the letter, etc.
- Familiarize yourself with the procedures for the submission of the letters of recommendation. Whether it be via mail or online, be sure to include all necessary documents and know the process so you can explain it to your recommender. Include the UHM SFO Handout - Guidelines for Fellowship Letter of Recommendation Writers.
- Accept "no" as an answer. Sometimes a recommender has too much on their plate or does not know you well enough to confidently write a strong letter of support. If a recommender turns down your request, it may be for the better since you want all parts of your application to be strong. Thank him/her for their time and find another person to write a letter on your behalf. If you request the letter in the recommended timeframe of 3-4 weeks in advance, this will leave you with a reasonable amount of time to ask a back-up recommender in case one of your initial ones does not work out.
- Do not be pushy for the letter. It is okay to follow up as the deadline approaches, but refrain from making constant inquiries about it.
- Remember to thank your recommender and also follow up with results whether you receive the fellowship or not. This is basic courtesy.
How to Request a Letter of Recommendation
- Check the requirements for the letters for each fellowship in which you are interested. Make sure that your potential recommenders meet the requirements.
- Come up with a list of possible individuals from whom to request a letter of recommendation. It may help to rank the individuals or make notes on the angles/aspects that the recommender can write from. You should also have a few back-up recommenders in case one of your first choices is unable to write you a letter.
- Make the request to your recommender at least 3 weeks (4 weeks is preferable) in advance of the deadline. Schedule to meet with each recommender to discuss why you are applying, how the fellowship fits into your long-term goals, and why you have selected him/her, if needed.
- Provide the following to your recommender:
- UHM SFO Handout - Guidelines for Fellowship Letter of Recommendation Writers: fill in your name, scholarship, deadline for the letter, and fellowship criteria and other notes on the form.
- Copy of your personal statement/essays or information on:
-Why this specific fellowship is fit for you (eg. why you want to study at Oxford for the Rhodes Scholarship)
-How you are prepared/qualified for the particular fellowship
-Goals 5-10 years from now
-Experiences in leadership, creativity, motivation, and other valuable traits
- Overall GPA and copy of transcripts
- Résumé/CV/list of activities
- Special instructions for submission and necessary additional documents (eg. if instructed to submit in sealed envelope signed across the seal, provide stamped, self-addressed envelope).
- Follow up with a thank you note and the status of your fellowship application.
Detailed Information on Letters of Recommendation with Samples
UHM SFO Handout - Guidelines for Requesting Letters of Recommendation (for student's reference)
UHM SFO Handout - Guidelines for Fellowship Letter of Recommendation Writers (for student to give to recommender)