Obtaining Strong Letters of Recommendation

Adapted from Joe Schall's Writing Recommendation Letters
(Outernet Publishing, 2002)

Carefully Review the Application Process

Before you approach anyone for a letter of reference, identify the number of people that you will need and the type of materials that you have to prepare.  Doing so helps you to determine what each letter writer’s role should be in strengthening your application.

Use the Application Materials to Help You Choose Letter Writers

Application materials are your best ally in helping you choose the right letter writers.  Some applications, for instance, encourage you to choose individuals who can speak to specific qualities, such as your teaching ability or character.  Take this advice seriously.

Seek a Mix of Letter Writers and Identify Their Roles for Them

Collectively, your letters should reflect a balanced picture of you.  For example, a past UD Truman Scholarship winner obtained support letters from the following: a university program coordinator, a political science professor, and a Red Cross volunteer.  If the person recommending you is expected to comment on particular qualities of yours, be sure that he or she knows this.

Choose People Who Know You Well and Help Them to Know You Better

Avoid abruptly asking someone for a recommendation letter after class or during a chance meeting in the hallway.  Instead, make an appointment with the individual to discuss the fellowship you are applying for and how he or she can help you.  Allow your letter writers to know you as a student AND as a person.  Whenever possible, give the letter writer any materials that might help him or her write a more detailed letter, such as a copy of your resumeé or the National Fellowship and Scholarship Student Information Sheet (.doc).

Help Faculty Understand What Is Needed in a Fellowship Recommendation

Recommendations for prestigious fellowships are an important piece of your application; therefore, it is essential that your letter-writers understand for what the fellowship is looking in the letters. Provide the faculty member with a link to the Fellowship Recommendations Writer Guidelines (PDF) for additional information on writing a letter of recommendation for a national fellowship.

Respect a "No"

If someone you ask for a letter seems to be reluctant, be gracious and seek someone else.  The person may be inappropriate, too busy, or may not know you well enough to write you a quality letter.

Be Sure That the Letter Writer Knows How to Submit Your Letter

Many recommendation letters are now submitted online (but not all).  Acquaint yourself with the specific procedures required by the scholarship for which you are applying, and convey this information (including the deadline for all of your materials) to your recommenders.  Also, you may need to politely remind the letter writer as your deadline approaches.  Remember: it is up to you to see that the letters arrive by the deadline.

Begin to Recognize Yourself as a Professional

When you apply for a job, graduate program or a scholarship, you should be confidently stepping up a rung on a long academic or professional ladder.  Act accordingly by taking yourself and your supporters seriously.  Do not undermine your application by being self-deprecating. Clearly articulate your goals, and respect and consider any advice that is offered by your supporters.