Who Should Write Your Letters of Recommendation?

Nov 22, 2017

Who Should Write Your Letters of Recommendation?

By Brittany Mihalec-Adkins

While it may not be the most stressful part the fellowship application process, your choice of recommenders actually has a lot of power to shape your application package. Being strategic at this point in the process can really give your application an edge.

To help get you started, here are four tips for choosing recommenders:

1. Make sure your recommenders know you well.

While it can be tempting to ask for letters from faculty or professionals whose names carry a lot of weight in your particular field, their letters will not be as well-received as you might hope if the recommender does not have much experience working with or mentoring you. A less-famous mentor with whom you’ve worked for over two years will be able to speak more convincingly and in much more detail about your various strengths, experiences, and potential.

2. Choose recommenders with whom you have good working relationships.

This one sounds like a no-brainer, but it is worth thinking about. In short: make sure you are confident that each of your letter-writers will give you a thoughtful, positive evaluation. To that end, it is completely appropriate for you to ask recommenders upfront if they would be willing to provide a “positive recommendation” for your application when you are soliciting letters.

3. Think about your audience before selecting recommenders.

While not all of your letters need to come from faculty or mentors in the same field, it is important to make sure that your recommenders are well-suited to craft letters appropriate for what you are applying for. For instance, if you are applying for a dissertation fellowship, a letter of recommendation from your part-time job supervisor will not be as beneficial as a letter from a professor who taught research methods courses in which you did well. The professor can speak to your knowledge of study design and statistical analysis. In other words, make sure your recommenders are familiar with the specific criteria against which your application will be evaluated.

4. If possible, try to choose a set of recommenders that can speak to a wide variety of your experiences.

This tip is useful for being strategic with your letters of recommendation – that is, giving reviewers as much about you as possible. Try to choose recommenders who can each speak to your different experiences or qualities. For example: a professor who supervised your research over the past year, another professor who sat on your thesis committee, a policymaker with whom you interned for two summers, and the director of a local non-profit organization where you volunteered on a regular basis. Of course, such a wide variety may not be as appropriate for some fellowships; for instance, for research fellowship applications, it may be better to have three researchers write your recommendations. In any case, you can still be strategic by choosing researchers who worked with you in different capacities, as opposed to two researchers who worked with you on the same project.

Brittany Mihalec-Adkins is a first-year National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and second-year Ph.D. student in Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University. 

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