By Aarti Chellakere
As the graduate school, scholarship and fellowship advisor at Olin, I see dozens of recommendation letters written by faculty every year. These letters are an important part of graduate school and scholarship applications. Good recommendation letters can give a major boost to an applicant's chances of being accepted into a competitive graduate program, or into the final round of a prestigious scholarship. In fact, rec letters are so important that even a bad transcript can sometimes be offset by them. In an attempt to differentiate applicants, a standard graduate school application asks for three letters while extremely competitive scholarships like Rhodes ask for eight!
The Basics: How to request a letter of recommendation
- Determine how many letters of recommendation you need and whom these letters need to be written by.
- Schedule an appointment with your recommenders to discuss the program or scholarship you are applying to, the selection criteria and your most recent commendable accomplishment. You could let your recommenders know who your other recommenders are so they can write letters that complement rather than repeat one another.
- Give your recommenders adequate time! Contact them at least four weeks before the deadline - more if possible.
- Collect and fill out the required paperwork. Most institutions and scholarships will have their own form to fill out, and might require that the letter of recommendation come directly from the recommender in a sealed and signed envelope. It is your responsibility to provide this envelope, address and postage. The more background work you do, the easier it will be for the faculty member and for you.
- Give your recommender the appropriate information to write a good letter. Provide a draft of your application, particularly the resume and personal statement. Remind the faculty member of your role in important projects so they can remember to highlight those experiences and speak to your strengths with examples. Your recommenders need to know how you are presenting yourself. It allows them to write in a complementary (and complimentary!) way. In addition, these people know you best and are excellent resources for constructive criticism.
- Make it easy! Provide the writer with all of this information at one time. Make sure the next step is clear. It is your responsibility to either pick up the letter from them on the date agreed upon, or confirm that he/she has mailed/emailed the letter to the committee.
- Check back well before the deadline. Check again closer to the deadline. They will appreciate the reminder, if they have forgotten; and it will provide you with peace of mind. Be polite but never just assume that your letters were written and mailed.
Read Professor Allen Downey's guidelines for requesting recommendation letters in "so you want a letter of recommendation" where he explains the student's role in helping the faculty write a strong recommendation letter.
Tips for Choosing Your Writers
*Adapted from a handout provided from Kansas State University
Choose people that know you well. The goal of good letters is to reveal your strengths and place you in the best possible light.
Your letters should represent the unique merit of your candidacy. This means that anecdotes and examples are very important. Letters from people with strong titles are nice, but if your contact with them was limited, the letter may not do much for you. Vouching for you is not enough.
Choose individuals who can talk about relevant performance and credentials. If the program/scholarship emphasizes leadership, ask an individual who has seen you lead. If the program/scholarship emphasizes academic prowess, you need to contact individuals that have had the opportunity to judge that: college professors, research supervisors, and your advisor. And if the scholarship values a variety of things make sure your letters cover different aspects of your accomplishments.
Comments like "Well . . . I really don't know you that well" are often an indication that the person does not feel like they will be able to write a strong letter for you. There is no value in lobbying for lukewarm letters.
If an individual has volunteered previously to serve as a reference, that usually means they will work to produce an enthusiastic letter on your behalf.
Most of your references should speak to recent efforts: things you have done within the last two or three years.
Strong support from those who know you is vital for graduate school and scholarship success. Treat your recommenders with respect - give them the time and the information they need to best support your candidacy. And say Thank You! Writing these letters takes a lot of time and effort, so be sure to express your gratitude in a follow-up note to your recommenders.