LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION
Among the most important elements in the application process are the letters of recommendation that will be required from faculty primarily, but also from outside academia. We hear over and over from those making fellowship decisions what a profound impression, positive or negative, these letters can make. A substantive, glowing letter can overcome other issues in a portfolio, while a lukewarm one can sink an otherwise promising application.
You should begin as soon as possible to think about people whom you feel will be willing and able to speak to your strengths. This is not just a matter of sending an e-mail to ask them to write you a letter. It is a cultivation process.
We will stress throughout your time here that you should take advantage of opportunities to get to know professors outside the classroom. Visit them during office hours, after class or have coffee together on campus. Demonstrate your interest in them, their work, and their fields of inquiry. Let them get to know you, your aspirations, and your questions.
You will first want to seek out the professors in whose courses you excelled and who will remember you for the quality of your work. Obvious choices will be professors who have taught you in seminars or recitations, or professors in whose lab you have worked. In addition, some fellowships like the Rhodes (requiring eight letters) may offer opportunities to seek letters from outside a purely academic context. These may come from an employer, someone for whom you have done community service, coaches, clergy member, civic leader or others who know you well.
In each case, the ideal first step is to visit, call or preferably write a letter to the person you wish to ask for a recommendation. Explain the fellowship(s) for which you are applying. Indicate what the organization wants to know about you, what is expected of the recommender, and what the deadline is. Provide a description of the award, a copy of your resume, your application essay and a stamped, addressed envelope if appropriate. If the application requires more than one copy, attach a clear note with your supporting materials. Near the deadline, it is appropriate to call and see if the recommender has any questions or other needs. This also acts as a reminder.
Do not feel shy about making the request. A person who holds you in high esteem will welcome the chance to do this for you. It was once done for all of us and so we all know this as a familiar process and an honorable expectation. There may be circumstances, however, when someone says no. It may be that the person does not know you well enough, or may not have the time to do the job properly. Some prospective recommenders may be away for the term and not available when you need them. This is why asking several people is a good plan. Securing letters of recommendation is one aspect of the application process that should start early.