Letters of Recommendation / Building a Team

Strong letters of recommendation (LORs) are core to successful scholarship applications. Give your references a LOR packet to help them write strong letters.  Providing this to them also demonstrates that you respect their time. The packet includes the following:

  • A concise description of the award;
  • A brief explanation of why you are a strong candidate;
  • Your goals and what you hope to achieve through the award;
  • The exact reason(s) you are asking them to write a letter for the award;
  • The LOR submission deadline;
  • The submission instructions;
  • The semester/year (time period) you worked with them;
  • Details of your work with them: course names, projects and results, papers and assignments, grades, accomplishments, contributions, etc.;
  • A list of items that would be ideal for them to discuss/include in your letter, e.g., your growth and development—what you learned with them; responsibilities and tasks you had under them; topics of conversations or discussions you’ve had; and other interactions (they need to be reminded!) that would be relevant to the award;
  • The URL of the award webpage;
  • An updated resume; and
  • An unofficial transcript.

As soon as you know that you will pursue an award, even if it is several months before the deadline, inform your references and ask them if they are willing to write.  A minimum of one-month advance notice is considerate and professional. Remember, however, depending on their workload and the time of year, they may require more time. This is one of the many reasons that early planning when pursuing award opportunities is key. 

Begin establishing relationships with faculty members (and other mentors) early in your undergraduate career. Rule of thumb: get to know one additional professor (instructor, supervisor, etc.) every semester. People who can speak directly to your academic development, quality of work, potential, and character make all the difference in the strength of your application. 

Make time to stop in during their office hours, even if you don't need additional help.

When you meet faculty and mentors you think would be appropriate LOR writers in the future, share the fact that you are interested in pursuing nationally competitive awards and that you hope that, down the road, they’d consider writing a LOR for you. Plant the seed, get them to start paying attention to you and your work. 

Part of cultivating relationships with people involved in your educational journey is maintaining these relationships. Even when a course, employment, research, community project, or internship with them is over, stay in touch with them! You don’t want to ask a person for a letter when you haven’t contacted them for several years. Remember, early planning means the award application may be a year or two in the future. If you want them to be part of your team, communicate with them at least once a semester.   

When choosing the best person to write, pay attention to the specific recommendation letter requirements of awards. In all cases, only ask people (a professor, advisor, employer, research supervisor, etc.) who are closely familiar with your work. Having "big names" among your recommendation writers is of little value if they submit a generic letter about you!  

For those competitions that ask for more than two letters, select people whose letters together demonstrate a range of your attributes. In their LOR, they should focus on the area(s) in which they know you best. Whether they comment on your research capabilities and potential, leadership skills and service, or academics and intellectual curiosity, their recommendation letter should include specific examples and concrete details. 

It is fine to ask a person to write a LOR numerous times as long as you give them sufficient advance notice AND provide them with a LOR packet. 

If it is your first time asking a potential letter writer, ask them if they think they can write a strong letter, adding that you will provide them with everything they need in a LOR packet. It is better to know up front if they are not comfortable writing for you. You do not want lukewarm letters in your application packet. If they say no or give you the impression that they may not be the best person to write, graciously thank them and ask somebody else.

Depending on the application and award, you may want them to read your application and/or statements that are part of the application. Inform them that it is a working draft and you are continuing to refine it. Some applications require a statement or proposal on an academic/research topic. If they are an expert on this topic, they can provide you with valuable feedback. They may be willing to serve as general readers though, too, if they have time.

Oftentimes, the specific content of your application helps LOR writers specifically address your goals and qualifications in their letter—another reason to share a solid (not rough) draft with them.

If you asked the LOR writer for the letter early on, remind them about the letter as the deadline approaches. Contact them several weeks in advance of the deadline, and again several days in advance to make sure they remember. Also, ask them if they need further information to write the letter. 

It is wise to give LOR writers a deadline that is earlier than when it is actually due. Having them submit the letter a week before the deadline is ideal. Be aware: if they submit the letter close to or on the deadline date, traffic on an online application system may prevent them from submitting the letter in time. Programs and Foundations are strict about deadlines. In most cases, they do not accept late letters. Technical difficulties are not a valid excuse. 

Etiquette is important: make sure you thank them for the letters, either in person, with a card, or at a minimum, an email. Do not forget to let them know the results of each application, even if you are not successful.

When you give them a periodic update on your activities, ask them about their work and wellbeing.  These relationships are a two-way street!