Recommendation Letters FAQ

Who should I ask for recommendation letters?

The best letters come from people who know you best, who have seen you at your best. Their position or title is less important than their ability to give detailed evidence of just how fantastic you are. You want to ask people who have had the opportunity to see firsthand how dynamic, brilliant, committed, passionate, effective you are.

That said, be sure to follow the individual program’s guidelines as to how many letters they want and how many must come from faculty.

When should I ask for recommendation letters?

You should connect with potential recommenders just as soon as you think you are going to pursue an application. Try to actually ask for the recommendation a month or more in advance of the deadline. And come prepared.

What can I do to make sure my letters are as strong as they can be?

  • Try to get to know faculty before you ask them to write a letter. Take some time to go to office hours, ask for assistance, and look for opportunities to develop and strengthen that relationship.
  • These visits will help you to gauge the strength of individual faculty member’s support. If it’s tepid, you’ll be better served going elsewhere for your letters. If your potential supporters are all tepid, you might be well-served by postponing or even reconsidering whether you are a suitable candidate for the award.
  • When you are ready to ask for the letter, make an appointment. Don’t ask on the way out the door after class or in the hallway. Sit down, have a conversation. Come prepared. (See next question.)
  • Give the potential recommender a gracious way to say no.

What should I bring with me when I ask for a recommendation letter?

Come prepared. When you do ask someone to write a recommendation letter, you should have a packet of paper materials ready that include the following:

  • A one-paragraph description of the award that includes its purpose and evaluation criteria.
  • Any additional program materials that will help explain what it is you are applying for. For example, if you are applying for Fulbright, be sure to include a country summary for your host country.
  • Information about you:
    • A resume or CV.
    • A one-paragraph or shorter description of your proposed project (if appropriate), or why you are applying for the award.
    • Perhaps a sample of work that you’ve done for the recommender.
  • Details about how to submit the recommendation letter: is it submitted online or in paper? What is the address? When is the deadline?
  • Your contact information

I don’t really know any faculty particularly well, though I’ve done pretty well in my classes. What should I do about letters?

You should start by strengthening those relationships as far in advance as you can. In fact, start now. Visit potential faculty recommenders in office hours or set up appointments to meet with them. Explain what you are thinking of doing and ask for their honest assessment of your candidacy. You might ask, too, whether they would feel comfortable supporting you in your efforts.

Consider including non-faculty members in your pool of potential recommenders. Depending on the award rules and criteria, a co-op supervisor or student activities advisor is often (but not always) an appropriate choice.

I know I have strong references. Can I submit more letters than are required?

Each program has its own rules, but generally speaking you may only submit the number of letters that are requested. Look carefully at the program website for clarification.