Reference Letters

Here are some general tips as you consider your letters of Reference.

Letters of Reference

As you plan for the application, consider carefully who you would like to write your reference letters.

Here are some general tips as you consider this issue.

  • Choose someone in a field relevant to what you propose to do for scholarship. In general, for the average college student, this will be a full-time faculty member in your academic discipline or in the discipline that you wish to study further. If you are applying for a Rhodes to do advanced level work in Physics, it is probably not helpful to have your World Lit professor from your first year writing a letter. You should use application to help you determine your choices. If you are applying for a program that requires you to speak a foreign language, for example, then a relevant language professor would be a good choice. Note that in some cases, another professional contact might be a good choice. If you have done an internship at a museum, and are pursuing a graduate degree in Art History through the Javits, for instance, then the curator who supervised you could be a good reference. However, your boss at your part-time job at the appliances section Nebraska Furniture Mart is probably not the first person to ask in this context.
  • Seek a variety of referees and identify roles for them. Your recommenders will help to represent you, and the different aspects of your achievement and potential. If you are proposing a Fulbright fellowship to study poetry in France, you will want to have a French professor write for you, discussing your skills in the language and perhaps your poetry professor discussing your talents as a poet.
  • Choose people who know you well and help them to know you better. Sometimes students make the mistake of thinking that having a "big name" write for them is impressive. It isnít if that "big name" doesnít know you well and thus can only write a vague sentence or two. You should begin cultivating close relationships with professors or other professional mentors early on, so that when the time comes for you to apply, they will be able to speak about you in detail. And, when you do ask them for assistance, be sure to provide them with as much information about you as possible, including your resume, research proposal and personal statement (see below).

Asking for a letter of recommendation

  • Realize that this is a big investment of time for the faculty member.  Thus it is absolutely critical to give the faculty plenty of advance notice to write a reference for you. If you ask them a week before the deadline, they may agree to write it, but the quality of the letter could reflect the lack of time you gave them to prepare.
  • Provide the faculty member with as much information as possible.  Copies of your full application or at least the discursive parts of it, are essential.
  • Realize that a faculty member may say "No."  If the faculty member says no, do not take it personally.  Thank her for her consideration and go back to the drawing board.  Begging, threatening, or bargaining with someone who has declined to write for you is not likely to help you in the long run.
  • Be sure to waive your right to see the letter.  If you don't sign this portion of the reference form, the message that you send to your recommender and to the fellowship agency is that you don't trust the recommender to give a fair and honest assessment of you.
  • Clearly review all recommendation requirements, and inform your letter writers of policies. Be informed whether letters will be submitted electronically or by mail. In the event that hard copy letters are required, it is good form to provide your writer with a stamped and addressed envelope for their use. Inform your writers of length requirements and content requirements. Just as your application could end up in the circular file for not following instructions, make sure that a recommenders lack of awareness of special requirements doesn't hinder your application either.
  • Give your letter writer a deadline!  Like you, your professors have a lot of work to do, and sometimes, if they don?t have a specific deadline, they can procrastinate.  Let your recommender know when she has to turn the letter in, what the postmark deadline is, or whether she is to return the form to you (and by when).