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.
The information below answers many of the common questions students ask with regard to letters of recommendation. Always review the instructions for the application you’re preparing for specific guidelines.
Where to begin
The first step is to carefully review the criteria and parameters stated in the application. Are there guidelines as to who the letters should be from or how many letters are required? Is there a questionnaire that recommenders need to complete or specific questions they need to address in their letter? It is your responsibility 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?
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’re joining, or to successfully complete the project you’re proposing. They should be able to describe your work positively and be able to favorably compare you with your peers.
Letters of recommendation from family and friends are not appropriate.
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. In preparation for the meeting, compile and draft the following materials and plan to bring them with you:
- Information on the funding source, research program, or opportunity you’re applying for. Also bring any forms or instructions that explain what is needed from recommenders. Plan to leave materials with your recommender once they agree to write a letter on your behalf.
- 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.
Use the meeting as an opportunity to discuss and get feedback on your proposal or application, to share your interests in and motivations to pursue or participate in the project, and to talk about what you’ve done thus far to prepare yourself to be successful in this undertaking.
During the course of your conversation, politely ask if they would be willing to write a letter of recommendation on your behalf.
“Do you feel you know me (my academic record / my leadership qualities / skills and abilities, etc.) well enough to write a strong letter of recommendation to support my proposal/application?”
By asking this question, you’ve now given the professor (or other potential recommender) the opportunity to either agree to write a letter on your behalf, or if they don’t feel as though they know you well enough to write a strong endorsement, to decline gracefully.
If the answer is “yes,” then provide your recommender with the information and instructions you brought with you, and go over the submission deadline and process for submission.
If the answer is “no,” don’t push or get upset. It’s essential to maintain your composure and professionalism; you don’t want to lose the opportunity for future advising or mentorship.
Follow up with your recommenders
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.
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.