Excellent letters of recommendation are critical for successful fellowship applications.  I can’t stress this enough; without strong letters, you will not win a fellowship or scholarship.  The readers of fellowship applications depend on these letters to give a fair evaluation of your achievement and your potential in the context of their professional experience.  I once had a letter (another institution many years ago) from a faculty member who thought a fellowship applicant was an amazing student with tremendous potential.  “Pick this one,” he wrote in his letter.  And guess what?  She was picked. (Of course, there was much more in the letter, describing the student’s fine intellectual qualities, academic achievement, her potential as a scholar, and it was all stellar.)

So how do you get a letter like this?  I’ll start at the beginning.

1. Get to know your faculty.  This takes initiative on your behalf, and it may be easier for some students than other, but it is critical you do this.  Most of your letters of reference will come from faculty members who have taught and/or advised you, so it’s a good idea to start getting to know them early on in your college career.  If these folks have known you for more than a semester, have spent time talking with you and evaluating your work, they will be able to write detailed, knowledgeable letters about you.  And this is the kind of letter that is essential for a successful application. There may be occasions when you need letters from employers or research supervisors (more frequent for alumni), but the same holds true. If people do not know you very well, their letters are of limited value.

2. Select your letter writers appropriately based on the requirements and selection criteria for the fellowship.  Look at the goals you outline in your application.  What projects do you talk about?  Which intellectual interests? Are you writing a thesis?  The faculty who are closely connected to these activities are good candidates to write for you.  Someone who knows you very well in another context–say a former high school teacher or work supervisor–may be your biggest fan, but s/he is probably not be such a good choice unless they can speak to qualities you possess or work that you have done that is relevant to this scholarship application.  You might be a fabulous camp counselor, for example, but if you’re applying to a master’s program English, your camp director won’t be much help in getting you there. Make sure you choose people who know you well and can speak knowledgeably about you in areas that matter for the competition you are applying for.

3. Discuss your fellowship ideas with your faculty early in the process.  Whether you’re applying for a graduate program or creating an independent project, they can be extremely helpful in suggesting excellent programs given your interests and refining your thinking about project ideas.

4. When you ask anyone to write on your behalf, provide them with a current resume, a transcript or degree progress report, information about the fellowship (and the selection criteria!), a draft of your statement of purpose/research proposal/personal statement and clear instructions about when, where, and how the letter is to be delivered.  These are all very important, especially since fellowships differ in what they are looking for and how they want letters submitted.  Make sure you and your letter writers know these details. In many cases, the fellowship advisor will also ask for a courtesy copy of the letter for her files, but letters of recommendation are typically confidential.

5. Make sure you give your writers plenty of time to get this done. When I write letters for students, I appreciate at least three or four weeks of advance notice.  If the deadline is early fall, talk with your writers the previous semester about your plans and find out what would work best with their schedule. Talking with your recommenders well in advance also helps you adjust for their plans.  If the professor who knows you best of all happens to be on sabbatical in a far away place with limited email access when you need that letter, you’re in a tough spot.  So better to have talked with them well in advance and made arrangements so that you can indeed get that letter when you need it.

6. Problems or questions, talk with your fellowship advisor! And typically, she will want to talk with you about recommender choices prior to your final selection of your writers.

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