While we aren’t necessarily in the business of determining which pieces are most important for a successful scholarship or fellowship application (because, of course, they all are), your letters of recommendation are, without exceptional, an absolutely critical component of your application. They provide for the campus and national review committees a better sense of the ‘whole picture’ being presented in your application and will often introduce aspect of you, your preparation, and potential that only they could speak of.
Recommendation letters for national scholarships and fellowships are significantly different from those that may be submitted for campus opportunity, for a professional experience, and even for graduate school. They are typically longer (up to two pages) and provide a detailed account of who you are as seen by that particular faculty member or other professional individual. Remember that, generally speaking, these kinds of letters should come from either those relevant to your academic pursuits or who can speak about specific leadership, volunteer, international, or research experiences. Therefore, it is critical that you give time and attention to this part of the process and identify those who will write the very best letters in support of your applications. Don’t be shy about asking for ‘strong’ letters and make every effort to identify individuals who can speak well to those specific parts of your undergraduate experience most relevant to your preparation and potential success. These individuals need to know you will and not just because you say in the front row of their class.
Requesting strong letters of recommendation
Before asking for letter, make sure you’ve actually built a relationship with the individual. This goes back to what we were addressing in the section on the ‘Makings of a UT Nominee’ section about connection. The best letters will come from those who know you best. So make point of starting build those relationships as soon as you step foot on the UT campus.
Once you have identified your letter writers (expect to need at least three strong letters and in the case of some opportunities, like the Rhodes, as many as eight), consider taking the following steps:
- Make every effort to set up an actual face-to-face appointment with those faculty or individuals you are asking to write on your behalf. This is especially important if you don’t have regular contact with that person.
- In advance of your meeting or email request, prepare a detailed and comprehensive CV, a decent project proposal, personal statement, and clear description of the program(s) to which you are applying. Consider drafting a single-page document that also details the process and clearly outlines the deadlines for each opportunity. Most applications on now online but if you have to request an actual letter be mailed, extend the common courtesy of providing an addressed, stamped envelope.
- If your faculty or others agree to write on your behalf, leave those materials with them for their reference and make a point of both following-up and thanking them for their time and efforts within a day or so of your initial meeting.
- Note that in the case of those opportunities where there is a formal campus process in place, the ONSF will ask you to provide the names of all those writing on your behalf in order to ensure that your letter writers are well-supported in crafting strong letters for you. The ONSF will also make a point of staying on top of deadlines and making sure faculty and other letter writers submit all of their material on time.
It is imperative that you provide your letter-writers with a good deal of time to plan and write your letter. Make the actual request at least one-month in advance, if not two, and certainly keep summer and holiday schedules in mind when requesting letters. Faculty often disappear during the summers to attend to their own work; make sure you connect with them well in advance so as not to miss out on the opportunity to have them support your application. Also, be aware of schedules kept by letter writers in foreign jurisdictions. For example, you can be certain that during August, getting in touch with anyone in Western Europe will prove challenging as that month is their summer holidays. So, anticipate any particular schedules and academic calendars that may impact those writing on your behalf.
Take heart. If a potential letter writer says ‘no’ it is most likely because they simply don’t know you well enough to really do you the best service possible. Or, you haven’t given them enough time. You can certainly avoid the second situation by planning ahead. But, if you find that you are still puzzled over who and how to ask, simply make an appointment with the ONSF to discuss your options.
Finally, follow-up with your letter writers, thanking them for supporting your efforts and writing on your behalf. And, certainly, let them know of the outcome of your application; your success is very much their success as well. Make a point of staying in touch. Presumably you didn’t build your relationship with them just for the sake of asking for a letter of recommendation one day (where is the authenticity and sincerity in that?), so do your best not to let that relationship drop away. Faculty, research advisors, key staff and mentors are the beginning of a life-long academic and professional family and therefore, it is worth every effort to stay in touch as best able.
For further guidance on selecting the best complement of letter writers, contact the ONSF. We also host information sessions lead by UT faculty on asking for and getting exceptional letters of recommendation.