3 Tips for Requesting a Letter of Recommendation on Short Notice

Jun 25, 2020

By Rosalyn Leban

The best way to ensure that your letters of recommendation are the strongest they can be is to request these letters with months of advance notice. This gives your recommenders plenty of time to consider the content of the grant for which you’re applying, your strengths, and your background. But sometimes plans change! Professors and other recommenders know that circumstances do not always allow for a long lead-up to a request for a letter of recommendation, so don’t be afraid to ask if there’s a short turnaround time – just make sure you’re being respectful of their time.

Whether your recommender lets you know that they’re unable to complete your letter of recommendation at the last moment, or you’ve found an amazing opportunity with one week left until the application deadline, follow these 3 steps to get a great letter of recommendation for your fellowship application on short notice.

1. Choose a recommender with whom you have a close relationship

It is always ideal to select recommenders based on the strength of their relationships with you. However, when you are asking for a favor like a one-week turnaround on a letter of recommendation, this part of the equation is even more important. When you are close to the deadline with no letter of recommendation on file, the most important thing is to have a strong letter that speaks to your ability to carry out the work you’ve proposed. Think outside the box here. Your recommender does not necessarily need to be a professor in your department or someone who is well-known in your field. They don’t even need to be an expert in the area in which you plan to work! The most important thing at this point is to make sure that they identify your strong academic and leadership skills.

An excellent option in this situation is to request a letter from someone who has already recommended you for another opportunity like a university award or another fellowship. In that case, the recommender may be able to repurpose a previous letter and add certain information related to the specific program to which you are now applying.

2. Explain the circumstances

Life happens. You shouldn’t pass up an opportunity to apply for the fellowship of your dreams simply because you found out about it late in the game! You will not be the first or the last to request a last-minute letter of recommendation from your boss, professor, or other recommender. So, you should not feel afraid to ask. However, given that you are asking for a big favor, it’s important to be tactful in the way you ask. It is often preferable to ask for a recommendation in person to make things more personal and give you a chance to explain yourself and answer any questions your potential recommender may have. If this isn’t possible, crafting a respectful email is key. 

Your request should include information about the reasons for which you weren’t able to request the letter of recommendation earlier, why you believe the person from whom you are requesting a letter of recommendation could write a strong letter on your behalf, and an acknowledgment of the potential recommender’s time. Although the goal of your request is of course for them to agree to write a letter, it is polite to give your potential recommender a graceful way to bow out when you make your request. Acknowledge that they may not have time to write a letter on short notice and thank them for taking the time to consider your request. Your request should also include any materials that might help your recommender write a strong letter on your behalf.

3. Provide a copy of your application materials

It’s always advisable to provide the writers of your letters of recommendation with materials that help give them a full understanding of the grant for which you’re applying. If you’re requesting a letter of recommendation on short notice, this step is even more important. Since you’re close to the deadline, you should have at least some of your materials prepared. You should send the people you’re asking to serve as recommenders copies of:

  • any essays written as part of your fellowship or graduate school applications, –
  • your answers to any short answer questions, 
  • your budget (if applicable), 
  • a summary of what you’d like your recommender to include, 
  • your resume, and
  • anything else that would give your potential recommender enough information to craft a convincing letter. 

If you just found out about an opportunity last night and need to apply in three days, you may not have all of your application materials prepared. In that case, you should at least include your:

  • resume, 
  • any applicable transcripts, 
  • a summary of your intentions as they relate to the grant, fellowship, or program, and
  • a detailed list of what you would like your recommender to highlight in their letter.

When you come prepared with these things, you will show your recommenders that you’re serious about the opportunity, even if you just learned about it, and you’ll have given them everything they need to write you a recommendation letter – quickly! 

Rosalyn Leban is an alumna of the 2018 Fulbright U.S. Student Research Program in Guatemala, the 2018 Davis Projects for Peace Fellowship in Nicaragua, and the 2017 Critical Language Scholarship in China. In 2020, she was the recipient of a Citizen Diplomacy Action Fund grant to carry out “Nuestras Huellas: Stories of LGBTQ+ Youth” in Nicaragua. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 2018 and currently works as an immigration paralegal.

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