Tips For Requesting a Letter of Recommendation

GOLDEN RULE: Never ask a recommender to write their first recommendation letter for you on less than 4 weeks' notice (ideally you should provide even more lead time).   Most major awards expect two-page, detailed letters that outline applicants' personal, professional, and academic qualifications and preparation for the opportunity for which they seek funding. Only approach potential recommenders who you feel can meet this high bar. 

Brainstorming potential recommenders: You should only ask for recommendations from individuals who know you well and who feel confident describing your academic, professional, and/or personal strengths, accomplishments, and growth potential.  Their recommendation should complement and strengthen your application content. Ideally, recommenders should be those with whom you have forged strong relationships. Review application guidelines carefully to determine how many references you need and which aspects of your personality, character, academic background, or experience they can best address.


Step 1.a: Brainstorm with a member of the Fellowships Office and your academic advisor(s) to create a list of possible recommenders to approach.

Step 1.b: Be courteous and prepared when you approach a possible recommender for a letter. Update the potential recommenders about your accomplishments since your last point of contact with them and share your interest in pursuing a given award opportunity (or opportunities).Share your resume/CV with your potential recommenders. 

Ask potential recommenders  1) if they have time to provide a strong, detailed letter of reference that will complement your essays and other application documents  and 2) if they feel that they know you well enough to provide insight into your academic/ professional/ personal goals.  Give your recommenders some time and space to consider your request and to decline if they feel they do not know you well enough or if they have many other projects underway and do not have the time to write a strong letter.

Step 1.c:  If the answer to to your request is no, gracefully thank them and approach another professor, research mentor, lab supervisor, community service, campus organization, internship coordinator/supervisor/boss. For some fellowship organizations, a letter from a religious leader or employer who can attest to your character, personal qualities, maturity, high level of responsibility and trustworthiness, and/or entrepreneurial spirit may also be welcome. You want to submit references that are strong, detailed, and adequately speak to your qualifications in view of the specific purpose and award criteria of the fellowship you are seeking. 

Step 2:  If they say yes:

  • Assemble a dossier of application materials to share with recommenders. 
  • Make a list of bullet points (for example, listing all classes with a professor, titles of research projects, and other key information) for their convenience as they write. List and briefly describe any honors received, campus and community engagement, work experience, relevant presentations, publications, undergraduate research experiences, creative work, etc. (Visit the Career Center for assistance in creating a resume or CV, if needed.)
  • Share a one-page summary of the fellowship (the funding organization, their target audience, award criteria and mission priorities, fellowship benefits, and campus and national award deadlines) and briefly outline your fit for the opportunity. For example, if an award calls for a leadership letter, an academic letter, a service letter, etc. be sure to tell recommenders which area their letter should address. If there is a specific experience you would like your recommender to highlight, ask the recommender to speak to that experience in their letter. 
  • Encourage your recommenders to work with the Fellowships Office as they compose their letters; the Fellowships Office is happy to provide feedback on letters in draft.
  • Give recommenders ample time to write. Writing strong and meaningful letters takes quite a bit of time. Be mindful of your recommenders' schedules (and crunch points in the semester), and times of the year in which they may be drafting dozens of letters for graduate school application materials. 
  • Offer to provide any additional information they may request.

Four weeks before the deadline:  

  • Share an initial draft of your personal statement, statement of grant purpose, service project proposals, and any other essays. 
  • Share any specific requirements for submission, including specific deadline(s) by which recommendation needs to be submitted.
  • Share specific instructions: most are electronic uploads these days, but some require pre-registration, a certain format, signed/dated on letterhead.
  • Remind your recommenders to check their spam/junk filters as automated notices may hit these filters.
  • Share the link to the GVSU Office of Fellowships Tips on Letters of Recommendation and encourage your recommenders to reach out to the Fellowships Office.

Two weeks before the deadline:  

  • Share a polished draft of your application, including essays. 

One week before the deadline:  

  • You may need to give your recommenders a gentle reminder if they have not yet submitted their recommendation.

Step 3:  ASAP after the deadline:  Write a thank you note to each of your recommenders after your application is submitted.  Be sure to acknowledge their time and express gratitude for their support for your application.  (and thank them again) when you receive notice of the outcome of the review process. This demonstrates professional courtesy and is good practice in all future endeavors!


5 Tips for a Quality Letter of Recommendation - Careers in Government

Page last modified November 3, 2022