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Obtaining Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are a key piece of any application, whether for a fellowship, job, or graduate school. Since most fellowship applicants will have excellent grades, a letter that merely states that you’ve done well academically doesn’t separate you from the rest.

So what should go in a letter of recommendation? Your letters should offer strong and detailed examples that corroborate and expand on the claims you make about yourself in in the application -- how fantastic you are and your terrific future potential in your field. Effective letters can additionally highlight “soft skills,” such as the way you interact with or are respected by peers or other faculty for example. Where relevant, recommendation letters can also explain sensitive issues that can’t be effectively addressed elsewhere in the application.

A tall order? Perhaps. But there are things you can do to help ensure that your letters of recommendation are what you need them to be.

Five Tips for Students: Strong letters of recommendation in a FLASH

Letters of recommendation are a critical piece of an application, whether for a job, graduate school, or even a national award. Based on our work with students and faculty, our research at Drexel, and national best practices, here are some steps that can help you to have stronger letters of recommendation.

The key to getting great letter writers is to plan ahead and to be proactive. You want letter writers to know you before you need a letter and you want to make it easy for them to write a great letter for you when the time comes. Here are some things you can do.

Forge relationships with faculty or other potential letter writers well before you need the letter.

Some ways you can do this are by taking small classes or independent studies, asking questions, volunteering for projects, engaging in directed research or service. In short, by showing that you are authentically interested in the substance of your work beyond just getting a grade. This history will make the letter stronger, more enthusiastic, and more credible.

Look for the best letter writers for you.

The person who can speak authoritatively and honestly to how well you fit the criteria of the position/opportunity is the best letter writer for that opportunity. Consider whose perspective and experience will shed the most light on the qualities you want to highlight. Sometimes status and connections make a difference, but not always. Sometimes your favorite teacher will be the best person, but not always. If unsure, discuss with a trusted mentor or advisor.

Ask in advance.

Be sure to ask your potential recommender if he or she feels able to write you a positive and strong letter of recommendation, and ask well enough in advance. This usually means asking around a month ahead of time. If you sense hesitation, you may be better off going elsewhere.

Supply quality information that makes it easy for the writer to put you in a good light.

Many students know to provide their resume and transcript, but it's a good idea to also give the announcement and then craft short bullets that link your knowledge, skills, and abilities to its requirements. Show why you're a good fit. It's also helpful to provide a brief explanation of an experience you had with your letter writer that can jog his/her memory of who you are, particularly if your interactions were more than a year ago.

Make it a Habit to follow up.

There are three points in which you should follow up with your recommenders:

  1. Send a reminder a week before the letter is due, just to be sure. 
  2. Thank them for their support after your materials have been submitted. 
  3. Keep them informed once you hear back, even if you were not successful with the application. 
Remember, you are likely to apply for other things in the future and may well want their support again! 

Download this form to share key information with your recommenders [.DOCX]