Many research or funding programs will ask you to submit letters of recommendation as part of your application. At first glance, this sounds like a simple task, but there is advance preparation and steps that need to be followed in order to avoid missteps or burning bridges.
Letters of recommendation are an important component of an application. They allow selection committees to understand your strengths and weaknesses from another perspective, providing additional insight into your accomplishments, preparations, and experiences. A well-written recommendation from a mentor who can speak to your preparation, and the fit between the opportunity and your goals, can positively impact the outcome of your application.
The information outlined below and addressed in the workshop answers many of the common questions students ask with regard to letters of recommendation. Always review the instructions for the application you are preparing for specific guidelines.
Where to begin
The first step is to carefully review the criteria and parameters stated in the application. How many letters are required? Are there guidelines as to who should write your letters of recommendation? Is there a questionnaire that recommenders need to complete or specific questions they need to address in their letter? It is your responsibility, as the applicant, to read the guidelines carefully, and to ensure the people you ask to serve as recommenders fit the criteria and are aware of the guidelines.
Who should I ask for a letter of recommendation?
Consider the opportunity and determine who is best positioned to speak to your qualifications for that specific opportunity. You want to ask recommenders who know you well and who can write a thorough and meaningful letter that speaks to your qualifications and potential to contribute to the project you are joining, or to successfully complete the project you are proposing. They should be able to describe your work positively, provide detailed examples of how you have demonstrated the skills and attributes required for the opportunity you are seeking, and be able to favorably compare you with your peers.
In general, people who you may consider asking include:
- PI or research mentor
- Program mentor or advisor
- Someone who has overseen volunteer activities or leadership activities you’re a part of
- Supervisors from internships or jobs you’ve held
Letters of recommendation from family and friends are not appropriate.
For a student perspective on asking for recommendations, take a look at this student research blog post: Letters of Recommendation: Who I Asked and Why
How far in advance do I need to ask for letters?
Don’t wait until the last minute to ask for letters of recommendation. It’s preferable to give your recommenders at least a few weeks of lead time to craft a thoughtful, effective letter. Be respectful of your recommenders’ time; they have many competing obligations, and if you wait until the last minute to approach them they may not be able to accommodate your request.
How do I ask for a letter of recommendation?
Set up a meeting with potential recommenders to discuss the project proposal you’re developing or the opportunity you’re applying for. Reach out through email, providing general insight into the purpose of the meeting. The email template gives you an idea of how you can structure this email.
Preparing for the meeting
In preparation for the meeting, compile and draft the following materials and plan to bring them with you, or have them ready to share electronically:
- Information on the funding source, program, or opportunity you’re applying for. Also be prepared to provide any forms or instructions that explain what is needed from recommenders.
- A current résumé or a list of your jobs, internships, activities, honors and any other background information that would be relevant to your project proposal or the opportunity you’re applying for.
- A copy of your project proposal, personal statement, application, and/or other materials that may be helpful to discuss during the meeting.
- If the letter of recommendation needs to be printed out and mailed directly to a program/employer, plan to provide your recommender with an addressed and stamped envelope that they can use to send the letter once completed.
Plan to leave materials with your recommender or forward the materials to them once they agree to write a letter on your behalf.
Asking for a recommendation
Be prepared to guide the conversation. Use the meeting as an opportunity to share your interests in and motivations to pursue an opportunity or engage in a research project. Plan to talk about what you’ve done thus far to prepare yourself to be successful in this undertaking. You can also use this as an opportunity to get feedback on your proposal or application.
During the course of your conversation, politely ask if they would be willing to write a letter of recommendation on your behalf. Be prepared to discuss why you’re approaching them specifically, and how you feel a recommendation from them will contribute to your application. Consider the conversations you’ve had with them previously; the advice, guidance, and support they’ve provided, and the ways in which they have shaped your academic career and goals.
Example 1: I have learned so much about ____(specific topics or areas of study)____over the semester through taking your class, and I have appreciated the conversations we’ve had during office hours about your research and career path. These conversations have helped me clarify the direction I want to go, and I am eager to build my experience and skill set through _____(engaging in, participating in, working at, etc.)______. I want to ask if you are willing write a letter of recommendation in support of my application. I feel that you are best positioned to speak to my academic abilities and interests, and my potential.
Example 2: I am so grateful for the support and guidance you’ve provided to me over the years. It has been invaluable in shaping my career path and helping me determine my next steps. As I prepare to apply for ____(program, opportunity, funding, etc.)____, I want to ask if you are willing to write a letter of recommendation in support of my application. My other recommenders are familiar with my academic abilities, but as my research mentor, I feel you are the best person to speak to my dedication, persistence, and adaptability in the face of challenges. You’ve seen how hard I’ve worked on the research project, the contributions I’ve made, and how I’ve managed to troubleshoot and overcome setbacks. These are qualities and attributes the selection committee emphasizes in their criteria, and I feel you would be best positioned to speak to the ways in which I’ve demonstrated these qualities and attributes.
They said “yes” – what’s next?
If the answer is “yes,” then provide your recommender with the information and instructions you brought with you or prepared in advance of the conversation, and go over the submission deadline and process for submission.
After your meeting send a thank you note to your recommender letting them know you appreciate their willingness to write a letter on your behalf.
Prior to the application deadline, it is your responsibility to confirm that letters of recommendation have been received. If they have not submitted the letter, send a polite reminder of the upcoming deadline to your recommenders, thanking them again for writing your recommendation.
Don’t forget to keep your recommenders apprised of the outcome of your application and your project, checking in with them periodically and sharing updates.
What if they say “no”?
First, do not take it personally. There are many reasons why a potential recommender may decline your request. If the answer is “no,” respect their decision and accept it graciously. It’s essential to maintain your composure and professionalism; you don’t want to lose the opportunity for future advising or mentorship.
Why faculty/advisors may decline your request:
- They do not feel they can speak favorably on your behalf
- They do not feel as though they know you well enough to write a specific recommendation with concrete examples
- They have insufficient knowledge about the position or program you’re applying to
- They feel their assessment will not be relevant
References vs. Letters of Recommendation – What’s the difference?
On occasion, you may be asked for references in lieu of letters of recommendation. In this case, you will need to provide the names and contact information for a specified number of people who are willing to speak on your behalf. Similar to letters of recommendation, you want to approach people who know you well and who you feel will be able to speak to your skills, attributes, and potential for success.
Always ask for permission before you provide names and contact information for references. From the perspective of those who serve as references, there is nothing worse than having an employer call out of the blue to ask about a student who gave out your name without your knowledge. If your references are caught off guard and unprepared for a call, the likelihood of them giving a glowing reference decreases significantly.
Approach potential references in the same manner as you would if asking for a letter, scheduling a time to talk with them and preparing to discuss what you’re applying for. Once they agree to serve as a reference, confirm their contact information, making sure you are giving out the phone number and email address of their choosing.