One of the most important aspects of a student’s application is the letter of recommendation. Depending on the grant or fellowship, a single applicant may need one to three letters that can attest to the strengths of both student and project. Strong letters of recommendation can be the decisive factor in whether or not a student receives funding and yet it is the part of the application over which a student has the least control. Below are a few tips to help you secure the strongest letters of recommendation possible.
- Start Early. Do not wait until the week before an application is due to ask for a letter. Make sure you give all referees ample time to review your project, ask questions about it, and craft a thoughtful letter. As most professors will have several letters to write for each student, and most write letters for many students in a single funding season, give your referees as much time as possible.
- Ask the Appropriate Person. A well-known professor may be impressive because of his or her own status, but may not be the best person to write your letter. If this professor does not know your work well and writes a bland or lukewarm letter of support, the famous name will not help you. You should ask professors who are familiar with your work and have been supportive of you at earlier stages of your academic career. Depending on the type of grant, you should ask different professors for letters. For example, for a teaching fellowship, you should approach those with whom you have taught; for a research grant, you should ask those both in and outside your department who have a connection to your research interests. For some funding institutions, being able to gain support outside of your own department demonstrates that your research has wide appeal across disciplinary boundaries.
- Be Organized. Once a professor has agreed to write you a letter, provide him or her with all the necessary information. Such items include: background materials on the funding institution and its selection criteria, the letter of recommendation form, a draft of your proposal, and your c.v. Make a folder with all the above information for each referee. They will appreciate your organization. Most referees will have a base letter that they alter depending on the criteria for each grant. Read through the selection criteria carefully and look at which applicants have been funded in the past. (Most organizations provide information about past awardees on their websites.) You can then tell your referee what information to emphasize. A strong, but all-purpose letter of support may not be enough given how competitive most grants are. A good letter will address the applicant’s strengths and professional potential as well as the feasibility and significance of the project. As much as possible, a letter should respond to the specific criteria established by each funding institution.
- Keep in Touch. Throughout your academic career you will need to ask for letters of recommendation. Therefore, you want to cultivate professional relationships with your primary letter writers. Let them know how your research is progressing, what your new interests are, and what awards you have received. Professors have a vested interest in how their students fare and will want to help you. However, it is the student’s responsibility to keep his or her professors apprised of events. You will be happy you did when their strong letters of support lead to funding.