Obtaining Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation are a key piece of any fellowship application. Strong letters offer insight into your capacity, track-record and potential, providing third-party verification of the claims you make in the rest of the application. Effective letters will also supplement these claims, addressing “soft criteria” such as the way you might interact with or are respected by peers or other faculty. Where relevant, recommendation letters can also address sensitive issues that can’t be effectively addressed elsewhere in the application.
What should you do to help ensure strong recommendation letters?
1. Start a conversation with faculty early.
Try to get to know faculty well before you need to 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. Get involved in their research. Be proactive about fostering these relationships.
2. Consider who might be able to write the strongest letter on your behalf.
The best letters come from people who know you best and who have seen you at your best — whether that’s in the classroom, in the lab, or out in the field. Their position or title is less important than their ability to give detailed evidence of just how fantastic you are. Ask people who have had the opportunity to see firsthand how dynamic, brilliant, committed, passionate, and effective you are.
When considering potential letter writers, don’t focus solely on the grade you received in a class — most fellowship applicants have excellent grades and a letter stating you received an “A” in a class doesn’t separate you from the pack. Rather, consider faculty who can speak to your work ethic, character, drive, curiosity, and passion.
Consider, too, including non-faculty in your pool of potential recommenders. Depending on the award rules and criteria, a co-op supervisor or student activities advisor may (in some cases) be an appropriate choice.
3. Come prepared.
When you are ready to ask someone to write a recommendation letter, make an appointment. Don’t ask on the way out the door after class or in the hallway — you want to demonstrate your seriousness of purpose. Sit down and have a conversation. You should have a packet of paper materials ready that include the following:
- A one-paragraph description of the award that you are applying for – its purpose, eligibility criteria, and so on.
- Any additional program materials that will help explain the award. 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 the award requires that you have a project, 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?
- Be sure to include the deadline, clearly displayed. We strongly encourage you to include a faculty deadline about a week before the actual deadline.
- Your contact information.
- Contact information for the Drexel Fellowships Office, as well as a link to the Faculty section of our website.
4. Involve faculty in your application.
When meeting with potential letter writer:
- Explain what you are thinking of doing and why. Ask for an honest assessment of your candidacy.
- Ask whether they would feel comfortable supporting you in your efforts. Give them a gracious way to say no.
- Encourage faculty to help guide you in your proposal. Ask for their input on your ideas. Let them make suggestions. Some may even be able to offer connections to colleagues at other universities in the U.S. or abroad that you might contact or work with.
- Ask if they'd be willing to read and offer feedback on the substance of the ideas in a draft or two. Find a time schedule that works for both of you and stick to it.
5. Don’t settle for a mediocre letter.
If you don’t expect the letter of recommendation you asked for will be strong, you’ll be better served going elsewhere. Mediocre letters, even from important people, will not help you in your efforts. If your supporters are all tepid, you might be well-served by postponing or even reconsidering whether you are a suitable candidate for the award.
6. Send a Thank you note.
When it’s all done, send a thank you note to those who have helped you along the way, regardless of whether or not you’ve received the award.