Five Tips for Obtaining Successful Letters of Recommendation

Sep 05, 2019

recommendation letters

By Sarah Sanderson Doyle

One of the more daunting and time-consuming elements of many fellowship applications is the requirement of one or more letters of recommendation. As both a seasoned requester and a veteran writer of recommendation letters, I have learned that the process is both an art and a skill that can significantly impact the quality and depth of your application. In this article, I share five tips to help you obtain successful letters of recommendation without overwhelming yourself or your references in the process.

1. Who to ask

Deciding who to choose as authors of your letters of recommendation should not be taken lightly. Your references should not only know you well and be able to speak to your experience, but their position should also be relevant to the scope and prestige of the fellowship. For example, when I first applied to the Rotary Peace Fellowship, my chosen recommenders included two professors and a former supervisor. My mentor advised me to seek references who were skilled writers in addition to holding higher positions more appropriate to the fellowship itself. I ended up with a professor who was also a department chair, a Fulbright senior program officer and a bureau chief of a large U.S. newspaper.

Similarly, while teaching undergraduate courses at a large university in the States, I would consider recommending students who had only taken one course with me for internships, campus leadership positions or study abroad programs. However, I would only consider recommending them for larger fellowships or jobs if they had taken multiple classes with me or participated in one of the study abroad programs that I led.

A final point to think about is that having a variety of recommenders who can highlight different aspects of your skills and experiences can give your application depth, weight and diversity. Also, having more than the required number of references available is helpful in case an author’s situation changes and you need a backup letter writer.

2. When to ask

More often than not, your recommenders are busy professionals and will appreciate your consideration of their time and schedules. Concerning requesting letters of recommendation, the golden rule is the earlier the better. For longer, more thorough letter requirements, a month’s advance notice is the minimum and even more notice is preferred. This not only gives your references time to think about what to write and when to plan to write it, but it also shows your individual maturity, organization and respect for their time, which can sometimes make the difference in their agreeing to write the letter for you in the first place.

3. How to ask

After deciding who to ask and giving yourself plenty of time before the fellowship deadline, it’s time to think about how to make the request. It’s important to take time crafting the email or practicing your verbal pitch because grammatical accuracy, organization and tone go a long way in showcasing your professionalism. Although asking face-to-face is ideal, requesting by email is fine as well. Keep your request clear, simple and to the point. Remember to do the following:

  •     Remind the recommender who they are and how they know you
  •     Briefly explain the requirements of your request
  •     Give a short reason why you are asking them in particular
  •     State the deadline of the application
  •     Ask if they have time and are willing to complete your request
  •     Thank them for their consideration and add that you are looking forward to their response

4. What to include

Once your references have agreed to help you, you need to supply them with the necessary information to craft a thorough and well-written letter for your application. Here are some things that you should do in your follow-up email after a reference agrees to write a letter for you.

  • Thank them again for their time and assistance
  • Explain a little bit about the actual position or fellowship you’re applying for (consider attaching the official fellowship description or a link to the organization)
  • Briefly share why you feel you are uniquely qualified for this opportunity
  • Provide several areas you would like the recommender to highlight (consider asking different recommenders to highlight different aspects of your expertise) and provide each reference with specific examples or anecdotes they can use, preferably skills and qualifications they’ve witnessed while working with your or while having you in class
  • Attach your most current CV
  • Include exact instructions on how to complete the letter – the details are important and can often be overlooked if not spelled out exactly. For example, does it need to be uploaded to a portal? Does it need to be signed and then scanned? Should they send it to you for you to include in your packet? Does it need to be sent via snail mail in an officially sealed envelope? Should it be on official letterhead?
  • Remind them of the deadline again
  • Ask if they need any additional information to complete your request

Compiling a clear and concise packet of information for your recommender is crucial not only to save your recommender time but also because it allows you to have some control over the main message and themes in the final letter.  Use this communication with your recommender as a way to guide them through the process of highlighting what you think truly matters to you and to the fellowship committee.

Most recommenders are grateful for ready-made and already written examples, stories and ideas and will either re-write them or cut and paste them directly into your letter. For this reason, it’s important to vary your own language and include different experiences or highlights for each recommender. This will avoid ending up with multiple copies of an almost identical final product.

5. Why following up is important

The process after you’ve made the request or even after you’ve received the fellowship is arguably just as important as choosing and asking a recommender in the first place because it continues to develop your relationship with your reference. After you’ve given your recommenders a few weeks to compose their letters, it’s always a good idea to check in with them to see how the writing process is going and to thank them again for their time. In this correspondence, I use the excuse of asking them if they need anything else from me as a way of reminding them of my request and the upcoming deadline.

Once they’ve submitted your letter, be sure to send an official email or note of thanks. Personally, I prefer snail mail cards thanking them for their time and effort in helping you further your career with a promise to keep them posted on the results of the application. Maintaining a professional relationship with your recommenders is important if you hope to ask them for similar letters in the future. For this reason, once you find out the results of the application process, be sure and keep your references updated as it is always very satisfying for professionals to know that they’ve helped others achieve their goals. To save your recommenders time in the future, you can ask them to save your letter as a Word document (or save it yourself) so that the next time they can modify it instead of starting from scratch. You can also consider asking if you can use their recommendation on LinkedIn or other career development social media platforms.

For me, my recommenders are some of the most valued and important people in my life as their words have changed the course of my career and helped me win thousands of dollars in grants and fellowship funds. Because of this, I keep a list of their contact information and frequently send updates about where I am and what I’m doing professionally. I thank them again for their service in my career journey and always ask if there is anything I can do for them in return. In this way, instead of letter of recommendation requests seeming like an  intimidating process or a time-consuming nuisance, they become a chance to build, develop and grow your professional network of community leaders and scholars which will, almost certainly, lead to other career, social, fellowship, publishing partnerships, cooperative projects, or organizational opportunities in the future.

Sarah is currently a Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. Department of State. After earning an undergraduate degree at Hope College and a master’s degree at The Ohio State University (OSU), she completed a Fulbright Fellowship in Brazil, a Rotary Peace Fellowship in Japan and a U.S. Department of State English Language Fellowship in Uganda. Additionally, she received OSU’s Graduate Associate Teaching Award and Hope College’s Young Alumni Award. Her research interests include foreign language instruction, second language acquisition and international educational exchange programs, but her favorite thing to do is mentor students and young professionals to help them achieve their fellowship goals. 

© Victoria Johnson 2019, all rights reserved