Written by Tracy Smith, Director of Undergraduate Research, The Johns Hopkins University Potential employers, scholarship and grant selection committees, and graduate school admissions offices depend heavily on recommendation letters to gain insight into applicants’ personal strengths, weaknesses and accomplishments. This kind of information cannot be readily gleaned from transcripts and test scores. So it is in your best interest to help your recommenders write the most accurate and detailed letters possible. Begin by cultivating close working relationships with faculty early in your undergraduate career. Once you’re acquainted with faculty members through coursework, research, and other ways, consider stopping by their offices once a quarter to discuss your interests and keep in touch. When the time comes, you need not feel shy about requesting a recommendation. All faculty members and graduate students had the same service done for them in the past and they regard this as a familiar process. Refer to the following guidelines for managing your letter requests.
Choose the people who know you best
Many students wonder whether to ask a “big name” professor who knows only their face and final grade or a lesser-known professor who knows them better. Letters by famous people or well-known scholars only carry more weight if the famous person knows you well and can write a substantial, convincing recommendation. The more detailed, personalized a letter is, the more likely it is to make a strong impression on a selection committee. So ask your instructors with the most extensive, personal knowledge of you and your work.
It is common courtesy to allow recommenders at least three weeks to prepare and submit their letters. We highly recommend involving them in the early stages of your application process, while you are deciding how to present yourself in the application materials. Their insights will prove invaluable and they will be well informed of your interests when they write their recommendations. Begin your request with a substantial conversation about your interests and goals and then ask them if they can write a strong letter of recommendation. Most likely they will say yes. However, in some cases the faculty member may say no or that he or she can only write a recommendation citing certain qualifiers or weaknesses. In this case, you should accept his or her judgment graciously and consider asking for more feedback about your goals and plan for study.
Once faculty have agreed to write your letters, provide them with copies of your application materials. The following items will help them write accurate and purposeful letters:
- Photocopies of key pages from the application brochure, describing the nature and purpose of the scholarship, internship, graduate program or other opportunity
- A copy (or a draft) of your application essays, or a summary of your career and educational goals
- A list of your activities (sports, organizations, leadership and volunteer positions)
- A description of pertinent work or research experiences
- A copy of your transcript
- If a number of quarters passed since you worked with a recommender, also provide a copy of your paper or class project
Write out all submission instructions and deadlines
There should be no question as to when and where to submit the finished letters. Provide properly addressed, typed, stamped envelopes.
Keep in touch with your recommenders
After submitting your application, send recommenders a thank-you note expressing your appreciation for their guidance and support. Update them on your progress throughout the stages of the competition and inform them whether you are selected for the award or not. Should you need a recommendation in the future, this kind of follow-up communication will continue to foster a close, positive relationship with your faculty sponsors.