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: Be courteous. Update your recommenders on your accomplishments since your last point of contact with them and share your interest in pursuing a given award opportunity (or opportunities). You should brainstorm with a member of the Fellowships Office and your academic advisor(s) to create a list of possible recommenders to approach.

Ask any potential recommenders if: 1) 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 the option to decline.

  • If the answer to either is no, gracefully thank them and approach another professor, research mentor, lab supervisor, community service, campus organization, internship coordinator/supervisor/boss. For some funding agencies, a letter from a religious leader or others who can attest to your character, personal development, etc. may also be welcome. You only want to submit references that are strong, detailed, and adequately speak to your qualifications. 


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 to job their memory as they write. We also recommend sharing a resume/CV when you ask potential recommenders to write.  Either in the resume/CV or separately, list and describe any honors received, campus and community engagement, work experience, relevant presentations, publications, creative works, etc. (Visit the Career Center for assistance in creating a resume or CV, if needed.)
  • You should also plan to share a one-pager about the award (who funds it, who are their target audience, funding priorities, what do they support, campus and national award deadlines), and bullet points outlining 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 involving the recommender that you would like to share in your essays but lack space to do so, ask the recommender to share that experience with reviewers. Finally, we strongly encourage students to meet 1:1 with faculty/staff recommenders AT LEAST 4 weeks prior to award deadlines and to share polished essay drafts at least 2 weeks prior to the submission deadline.
  • Give recommenders ample time to write your letter of recommendation. Writing strong and meaningful letters takes quite a bit of time. You want to be mindful of a recommender's schedule (and crunch points in the semester), not to mention 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. 
  • A copy of your application.
  • Any specific requirements for submission, including specific deadline(s) by which recommendation needs to be submitted.
  • Specific instructions for submission (most are electronic uploads these days, but some require pre-registration, a certain format, signed/dated on letterhead, etc.)
  • The link to the GVSU Office of Fellowships Tips on Letters of Recommendation in case of questions about content, submission guidelines, the specific award opportunity, etc.

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.

ASAP after the deadline: send a thank you note to your recommenders. We recommend dropping them off in person or sending via campus mail. Be sure to acknowledge their time and support of your application. Keep them updated both on the outcome of your application and your next steps. This demonstrates professional courtesy and is good practice for future endeavors!