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Securing Letters of Recommendation

Stanley J. Altschuler, a consultant on National Scholarship Competitions, noted the importance of letters of recommendation in the national fellowship selection process: "As more and more top students apply for these awards, it is often the ability of recommenders to set their candidates apart that leads to success."

Specific fellowships may have specific requirements for submitted letters of recommendation. We provide the following general advice to students about securing strong letters of recommendation:

  • Build relationships with faculty and other key individuals throughout your undergraduate experience. Stay in touch even after you have completed a course with faculty members. Discuss your larger interests and goals. Ask for their advice about potential projects, readings, courses, and graduate programs. These conversations will be valuable in themselves, but they will also help you build a support network of people who could write informed and personally engaged letters.
  • Ask for letters from people who know you well. Your recommenders must be able to discuss in specific detail what distinguishes you.
  • Leave room to say no. Do not press someone who seems reluctant or hesitant to write you a letter—a half-hearted letter will hurt your chances. It's a good idea to ask directly: “Do you feel you know me and my record well enough to write me a strong letter (use the words “strong letter”) of recommendation for this scholarship?” This gives the potential recommender room to decline gracefully.
  • Schedule an appointment to discuss the scholarship, its selection criteria, and your most recent activities. Make sure to bring a current resume or CV and a copy of your application materials. Make sure to provide the official description of the criteria the recommender's letter should address and the deadline by which it's due. Meet well in advance of the deadline and meet in person whenever possible.
  • Coordinate and seek variety. Collectively, the letters should offer a balanced picture of you. Select recommenders who can offer different perspectives on your abilities, achievements and personality. Ideally, at least one recommender should know about each of the major accomplishments you discuss in your personal statement or other application materials.
  • Keep up with all details. Give the recommender appropriate forms (or access to them), stamped and addressed envelopes, the exact deadline as well as all other relevant information, such as to whom the letter should be addressed, the exact address, and the number of copies needed.
  • Discuss confidentiality. If your scholarship calls on you to submit a form through which you can waive or retain your right to see the letter, it is generally better to waive the right. Selection committees sometimes take waived letters more seriously. On the other hand, candidates for some awards benefit if recommenders provide them with copies of their letters, as it will help them prepare for interviews for that award.
  • Make sure your recommenders know that they are welcome to seek advice from Miami's National Fellowships Committee representatives. Such assistance would remain confidential regardless of what you decide about confidentiality. Scholarship and fellowship letters of recommendation should be different that a typical graduate school or employment letter of recommendation. Even practiced letter-writers can benefit from additional information.
  • Follow up with your recommenders. Thank them and update them on the status of your application.