Have you ever wondered how to get the best possible recommendation letter? While there are many schools of thought on the topic, most folks now acknowledge that you as the individual being recommended play an essential role in the creation of a high quality letter.
For example, let’s say you are applying for a fellowship that appreciates interdisciplinary thinking (let’s say this one). You will want your letters to reflect this interdisciplinary at a deep level. To do this, you should get letter writers from different areas of study who can speak to your different strengths. How does this happen? Well, hopefully you have maintained even a bit of contact with your letter writers over time and you can offer them a warm letter and update when making your request. If that hasn’t happened, you can request a letter, but you might need to be very explicit in what you would like them to say. You might want to think about it from their perspective.
I recently ran across a wonderfully detailed two-part description of getting the best possible recommendation letters on the ProFellow blog (part 1 and part 2). It might be a little intense for some applicants (it’s aimed towards the most rigorous competitions), but it has great advice. Plus, if this is what your biggest competitors are up to, you’d better to be prepared!
My own basic rules for asking for a recommendation letters are not wildly different. They include:
1) Ask early (a month or more is preferable)
2) Ask this simple question:
“Do you feel you know me well enough to write a strong letter of recommendation for the X fellowship?”
By asking this question, your recommender has the opportunity to decline gracefully. If the answer is “no,” don’t push. *Thanks to UI’s Dr. Kelly Cole, an amazing fellowships resource, for this great advice!
2) Convey warmth and enthusiasm about the opportunity (nobody wants to write you a letter for your “plan B”)
3) If they agree to write, meet with them or send details about the opportunity, as well as a synopsis of your proposed project. View them as advisers, not just writers and take their input seriously. You may also want to send them a more complete draft later in the process.
4) Guide your writer as to where you want them to focus and provide examples of your work together. It is ethical to provide letter writers with bullet points of what you want them to say.
5) Follow up with a thank you, and let them know how you did in the competition.
Happy New Year everyone, and I look forward to helping you in 2013!