Student Academic Grants and Awards

Application Process: Letters of Recommendation

How To Ask For — And Get — The Best Letters of Recommendation

One of the best ways to avoid application headaches is to be well-organized, and nowhere is this more true than in dealing with application letters. First and most important: ask well in advance of the deadline! Four weeks is a minimum. Two months lead-time is best.

Always ask someone who knows more about you than what grade you earned in their class. Ideally, your faculty referees should have taught you in more than one class, have advised you or supervised a research project, and be fairly familiar with your extracurricular activities. Non-faculty referees should know you very well through having directly supervised your work in volunteer activities, creative endeavors, sports, or a job, and be able to provide substantive examples of your leadership, creativity, innovative spirit, excellent interpersonal skills, etc.

Ask them bluntly: "Do you feel you know me (or my academic record, my leadership qualities) well enough to write a strong letter of recommendation for X scholarship?" and "Do you have time to write a letter for me?" Most of your professors will say "yes" enthusiastically, but framing the request this way gives potential referees the opportunity to decline gracefully. A reluctant referee will generally write a lukewarm letter--a waste of their time, and a potential death knell to your application!

Schedule an appointment with your referee to discuss the scholarship in general, the scholarship selection criteria in particular, and your recent and most relevant activities. If you cannot meet with them in person because one of you is off-campus, be prepared to provide all of the following information via email, and be sure to get in touch with them as soon as you are prepared to discuss your application in reasonable detail.

Bring to this meeting:

  • A copy of the application. Ideally, this should be a completed application, or at least a draft (as of your personal statement). Bring a blank copy if you have nothing else.
  • A current resume and/or a list of your activities and honors.
  • Reminders of work you have done for this professor: what courses you have taken, grades earned, copies of papers you wrote, research projects or unusual activities.
  • Highlight what makes you an interesting candidate: internships or work/research experience, community service, conference papers/presentations.
  • If your grades are lower than they should be, identify any extenuating circumstances, such as family responsibilities, working 30 hours a week to put yourself through school, etc.
  • The official recommendation form. Be sure to complete any sections that pertain to you: name, address to which the letter should be sent, etc. Each scholarship is different. Make sure you have signed and waived your right to access under the Family Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. Selection committees usually do not take non-restricted letters seriously.
  • An official description of the criteria the referee's letter should address, plus your own suggestions as to what should be emphasized.
  • If you are asking for more than one letter (if you are applying for more than one scholarship or to several graduate programs), provide the following information on a separate sheet:
    • To whom the letter should be addressed (individual and/or foundation, relevant titles, address)
    • Whether the letter should be mailed directly to the Foundation (as in the case of Rhodes, NSF, Mellon) or remitted to the Student Academic Grants and Awards office for inclusion in the application packet (Truman, Goldwater, Udall, Marshall).
    • The deadline. Be sure to distinguish between a "postmark" due date and a "received" deadline.

Some scholarships now require online submission of recommendation letters. Be sure to explain to your recommender whether it will be necessary to submit the letter online-if this is the case, you must be especially careful to let your recommender know when the deadline is, and explain that the program will contact them with instructions about how to submit the letter. Online applications require that applicants provide them with names and contact information of recommenders before submission instructions will be sent out, so be sure to complete this portion of the online application as early as possible.

Encourage your recommenders to contact the SAGA office if they have questions about the deadlines, the programs, or their letters. We are here to help them as well as to help you.

Finally, be sure to write your references a note of thanks, and let them know what happens!


Adapted from a document created by Dr. Jane Curlin, Program Officer for the Udall Foundation.