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How to get the best possible recommendation letters to put in your application packet for fellowships and scholarships

You have the grades, you have the achievements, you have a future. What you want is the scholarship or fellowship that will help you realize that future. What you need are outstanding letters of recommendation from some of your professors.

It sounds easy enough. You've done well in Professor Doe's class, Professor Jones has been your academic advisor for two years and you were Professor Smith's research assistant last semester. These people know you; they know your work. You assume that they will automatically write you a glowing recommendation to put in your application packet.

But it's up to you to choose the best people to write the letters and to make sure your recommenders have everything they need to write you the best possible recommendation letters.

Here's what you can do:




Speak to the professor early enough so that he or she will have about a month to work on the letter. Since each recommendation letter must be tailored to the individual and to the award, your recommender will need plenty of time to complete it. Everyone at CMU has a lot of work to do, and allowing your professor ample time to complete this task is both a courtesy and a necessity.

Neatly and thoroughly fill out any portion of the recommender's form that is necessary. This could be as simple as typing in your name and social security number. You want to make the task of recommending you as easy as possible for your recommender. Although the decision is up to you, selection committees recommend that you waive your right to see the letter when completed. Waiving your right to see the letter is thought to lend more credibility to the recommender's statements.

Make sure that you provide the recommender with a pre-addressed, stamped envelope if necessary or with other directions if the letter is to be returned to you.

Follow up with the professor in a couple of weeks to see if he or she needs any additional information. A call or an e-mail note from you will also serve as a reminder to the professor if he or she has forgotten to write the letter.

Finally, thank your recommender for taking the time to write the letter and let him or her know the outcome of the application.

Before asking someone to write you a recommendation letter, do some research on the specific scholarship or fellowship and get your resume and statement of purpose in order. Consult the application packet and see what qualities and accomplishments the selection board is looking for. Compare your own qualifications to those sought and take notes. If your recommender asks for some backup information, you will have everything ready.

Particulars count, and examples are crucial. Your recommender may remember that you were "a hard worker" but may have forgotten that you set up a new lab on your own. He or she may remember that you are "extremely bright" but may have forgotten that you not only made straight As in class, but tutored some of your fellow students to high grades in that class as well. Your resume and statement of purpose will serve as reminders of these details.

Choose the right people to write the letters for you. Choose a professor who knows you rather than the department head who doesn't. Good sources for letters are your academic advisor, professors of classes you were active in or people you've worked for. It's a good idea to have not only a couple of references from inside of your department, but to demonstrate diversity by having at least one letter written by a faculty member from another department or college.
Schedule a meeting with the professor to talk about the scholarship or fellowship. Use the meeting to explain why you think you could be competitive. Then ask the professor if he or she would have the time to write the letter and if he or she would feel comfortable writing a supportive and positive recommendation letter for you for this particular award.
If possible, inform the professor a semester or so ahead of time that you are considering applying for a scholarship or fellowship and would like him or her to write you a recommendation letter. The professor will pay closer attention to your actions and accomplishments and will perhaps keep a running file on you to use when it comes time to draft the letter.

NOTE: Though these tips are especially useful for scholarship and fellowship recommendation letters, many of them are also useful for graduate school and employment recommendation letters.