What Should I Ask to be Included in My Letter of Recommendation?

Mar 07, 2019

By Deborah Vieyra

When requesting letters of recommendation for a fellowship application, the more detail you are able to provide to your referees, the better. Even if they do not explicitly ask you for guidance on what they should highlight, it’s a good idea to provide it for them.

Now, it may feel a little awkward to navigate this part of your application. I mean, when else in your life do you have to ask someone to please write (hopefully glowingly) about their relationship with you?

While it may feel like an unfamiliar task, consider these important factors:

  • Your referees are no doubt busy people and are taking the time out of their schedules to assist you. Make the task as easy as possible for them.
  • Particularly if they know you from an academic context, they are likely quite used to writing recommendation letters. Your request is not out of the ordinary in any way.
  • This is not a situation that includes cycles of revision. Often, letters of recommendation are sent straight from the referee to the selection committee. There’s only one chance to get this right.

With all that in mind, let’s have a look at how you can make your way through this element of your application in a way that will enhance your chances of success, as well as make life easier for your referees.

#1 – Provide specific instructions

Every set of instructions for letters of recommendations are unique. Ensure that you look into what is specifically required for your application, both in terms of content as well as how to deliver the letters to the relevant organization. Rather than assume your referees know exactly what they are supposed to do, compose an email or separate document for them that outlines what is expected, and how to meet the criteria outlined. The more detailed and specific you can be, the more chance there is of a hiccup-free process. Believe me, your referees will thank you for making the clarity you provide.

#2 – Ask to them add very specific examples

Think of all the recommendation letters that a selection body has to read. If yours are too generic, they will get lost in the sea. To make your recommendation letters stand out, ask your referees to go beyond describing your accomplishments, and outline how exactly you were able to achieve them. To help them do this effectively, you will need to refresh them on the details of your achievements and the journey you took to ensure your success. Open up the dialogue with them rather than assume they remember every detail of your professional or academic achievements.

#3 – Request that they comment on your character

Comments on subjective things like your personality, your leadership skills and your compassion can go along way in a recommendation letter. The selection committee will want to know, what is it that they admire in you as a person, beyond what your resume is able to reveal about your skills and experience? Beyond academic and professional achievements, your ability to interact in meaningful ways with other people will make an impression on the selection committee.

Lastly, don’t forget to sincerely thank your referees for taking the time to be a part of your application process. Being well vetted by an outside source is such an important part of your application, and the time and effort it to construct a winning reference letter should not be underestimated.

Good luck with your application.

Deborah Vieyra is a Fulbright alumna from South Africa who completed her MA in Applied Theatre Arts at the University of Southern California. She now works as a writer, proofreader and performer in Vancouver, Canada.

© Victoria Johnson 2019, all rights reserved.