Asking for a Letter of Recommendation: Some Do's and Do Not's

The most important thing to remember when asking for a letter of recommendation is this: Do Not Be Afraid to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation. UVM professors, staff members and administrators, as well as your former bosses and people you work with in the community want to help you succeed. Chances are good that if you've sought out opportunities to get to know your recommender-of-choice, if you've worked extensively with them, and if they think highly of you then they will be happy to write on your behalf. That said, there are certain things you can do to make the letter of recommendation process easier for you and your letter writer. By following the etiquette guidelines listed below you help ensure that you get a clear, specific and strong letter of recommendation well before your national scholarship deadline.

Do: Ask for a letter of recommendation early. A strong letter from your recommender-of-choice can be upwards of three pages, so be sure to ask early and make sure that your preferred letter writer is supportive. That said, be sure not to ask too early; otherwise your letter writer may forget. Usually asking at least three weeks before the campus deadline gives your letter writer plenty of notice.

Do Not: Ask for a letter of recommendation the day before the letter is due. That's not good for anyone.

Do: Ensure that your recommender-of-choice will write a good letter for you. Instead of asking, "Will you write a letter of recommendation for me?" perhaps phrase your initial inquiry as, "Do you think you could write a strong letter of recommendation for me?" It gives the writer an important out; if they feel like they can't write a strong letter for you, then they can say so. Don't be hurt if your recommender-of-choice gives you this answer; at the end of the day, you want strong letters. It's better to find out early that you need to ask someone else.

Do Not: Ask someone who doesn't know you very well to write you a letter of recommendation.

Do: Provide your recommender with specific information on the scholarship/fellowship you're applying for, your background and why you think you're a good fit for the scholarship. Chances are that many professors, staff members and administrators have heard of the nationally competitive scholarship you are applying for, but they don't know the details of the program (and it's possible that your former bosses or internship supervisors have never heard of the scholarship before). After they agree to write a strong letter of recommendation for you, it's good to follow up with an e-mail that goes into detail on what you're applying for and why. This enables your recommender-of-choice to write a very specific letter on your behalf. Send them a short paragraph on the scholarship you're applying for, including its mission and what it looks for in qualified candidates. Also, write another short paragraph on you, your background, why you're applying and why you fit into the scholarship's mission. Attach a copy of your resume so that your recommender-of-choice gets a better idea of what you've been involved in outside of his/her experience with you.

Do Not: Assume that your recommender-of-choice knows all about the program you are applying for.

Do: Make some suggestions on what you think your recommender-of-choice should write about. Most nationally competitive scholarships are looking to support students who have excelled in the classroom, made a difference in the community, and have proven themselves to be leaders. However, different scholarships place a different emphasis on each of these qualities. Feel free to suggest to your recommender-of-choice what you think they could write about based on your experience with them. Some recommenders may choose to go their own way, but many will welcome the suggestion. (NOTE: Some scholarships, such as the Truman Scholarship, want one letter writer to address academic achievement, one to address leadership experience, and one to address commitment to public service. Be very clear with your letter writers which area they will be addressing).

Do Not: Ask to see the letter. All letters of recommendation are confidential. When submitting a paper copy of a letter of recommendation to the Office of Fellowships, Opportunities, and Undergraduate Research, you should receive a copy of your letter in a sealed envelope that has been signed by your professor on the seal. If you have any questions about this, please ask a Fellowships Advisor (email link).

Do: Be very clear about rules for submitting letters of recommendation. Some national scholarships allow letter of recommendation writers to upload their letter into your online application. If this is the situation with your scholarship, oftentimes your recommender-of-choice will be sent a link by your online application showing them how to upload their letter. Be sure to follow up with your recommender-of-choice and make sure that they receive upload instructions (NOTE: For the Fulbright competition, if your language evaluator is also writing a letter of recommendation for you, you must register them in the Fulbright system using two different e-mails. Talk to a Fellowships Advisor if you have questions about this). Other competitions prefer that each letter writer submit an official signed letter on university/company letterhead. Be sure to ask the Fellowships Advisor any questions you may have about proper letter submission.

Do Not: Forget about this. It's the administrative details that can cause a lot of unnecessary last-second panic for national scholarship and fellowship applicants.

Do: Be very clear about application dates and the deadline for submitting the letter of recommendation Also, it can't hurt to send your recommender-of-choice a reminder e-mail about the letter a week before it's due.

Do Not: Give your recommender the actual campus or national deadline. Set your recommender-of-choice's submission deadline for a few days before; that way you can ensure that everything will be completed and submitted well in advance of the deadline.

Do: Send a thank-you note to your recommender-of-choice after they submit their letter. Again: UVM professors, staff members and administrators want to see you succeed. They put a lot of thought, time and effort into writing strong letters of recommendation for you. A quick e-mail or a thank you note goes a long way.

Do: Keep in touch, and let them know how the competition turns out!

Personalizing a Personal Statement

Some fellowships require a personal statement on top of a research proposal or application. This statement is your chance to talk about who you are, what you've done, what your goals are, and how this opportunity will help you achieve your goals. You get the chance to explain to the committee why you, and no one else, should be given this award. And it's your shot to connect with the committee beyond an intellectual level on a more...human level.

There are a lot of different ways that you can write the essay, but if you're having trouble getting started, keep these four things in mind:

Connect the Dots,
Be specific,
Show, Don't Tell,
Write. Then Rewrite.

Connect the Dots

Connecting the dots applies to the organization of your essay, as well as what you want to include in the essay. Regarding organization, make sure your essay flows. Fellowship committee members read literally hundreds of essays, so think hard about your opening paragraph and how you want to draw the reader in. From there, be sure to organize your thoughts clearly and succinctly.

Connecting the dots also means to make sure that whatever you choose to write about demonstrates who you are, what values you hold, what you've done, what you want to do, and how the fellowship opportunity will help you achieve that. The end result of a personal statement should be a very clear narrative of your story and where you want it to go from here.

Be specific

Your fellowship essay is about you, but it's not your biography. Pick one or two things that you want the fellowship committee to know about you, and focus on those points in depth. Whatever you talk about should be a microcosm that demonstrates who you are. Tell the back story behind one of your favorite accomplishments, talk about any challenges you faced in your life and how you overcame them, or talk about a specific event in your life that influenced who you are and why you are applying for a fellowship.

Show, Don't Tell

After picking out one or two things you want to talk about, tell the committee a story; delve into the intricacies of the issue or accomplishment you're talking about, explain how it affected you, and demonstrate how it's helped to shape your life. Show how it's made you who you are.

Don't worry, all fellowship applications will require you to include a resume, so the committee members will be sure to know about all the wonderful things you've done. But the personal statement is your chance to explain the vision, passion, thought, and reasoning behind one or two aspects of your life.

So remember, don't just tell the committee about what you've done; connect the dots, be specific, and show the committee how you have developed into the person you are today.

And finally...

Write. Then Rewrite.

It's incredibly hard to put all your thoughts, aspirations, hopes and dreams onto a piece of paper (much less format them into an essay). The only remedy to this situation is to write, and then rewrite, and then rewrite until you get all those hopes and dreams organized into a clear vision of who you are and how this fellowship will help you become who you want to be. That's not easy, and everyone has their own methods for trying to piece together a passionate and engaging personal statement. Some people like to do a "brain dump;" they get everything they want to say on paper and then organize it. Other people prefer to outline everything they want to say and then write. There's no right or wrong way to write a personal statement; the most important thing to do is to spend a decent amount of time reflecting on what you want to say, and then refining it into a finished product.

Above all else, be honest and be true to yourself. The committee that will be reading your application is full of very nice, very smart people. They're adept at picking up embellishment. They also know a sincere proposal when they see one. So stick with the latter.

If you need help talk to the Writing Center in Living/Learning or contact the Office of Fellowships, Opportunities, and Undergraduate Research (email link).

Prepare for your Interview

Congratulations! If a fellowship committee has chosen you for an interview, then they are already extremely intrigued by who you are and what you want to accomplish.

A Fellowship Interview Is... Your opportunity to engage in an interesting and intellectual conversation with a group of smart people.

A Fellowship Interview Is Not... A painfully nerve-wracking experience, as long as you do the work to prepare yourself in advance. If you prepare for your interview, you will be cool, confident, and ready to wow the committee.

There are three things to keep in mind as you prepare for your fellowship interview:

Know your Application Thoroughly,
Stay on Message,
Be Yourself.

Know your Application Thoroughly

The majority of the interview will focus on information that was in your fellowship application. This includes your research proposal, personal statement, transcripts, resume and anything else that was included. Be ready to dive into your proposal in depth. If you did a research proposal make sure you can go deeper into the issues than what is included in your proposal, and also be ready to defend the research you have done. Before your interview, talk to your professors, ask them to help you anticipate where questions may come up. Develop a list of questions that may come up in the interview and practice answering them. If your proposal included a personal statement, be sure you remember what you said in that statement.

Stick to the vision, goals, and narrative you outlined in that statement, and be ready to expand on how the vision of who you are and what you want to become has played into other areas of your life. Always be prepared to answer questions regarding jobs or activities listed on your resume, as well as any classes that may appear on your transcript.

Stay on Message

Before your interview, pick three things about yourself that you want the fellowship committee members to have burned into their brain. It should be something about who you are, what you want to do, and how this fits into the mission and goals of the fellowship you are applying for. Try to bring whatever you are talking about back to the core: you, the fellowship, and how you are meant to be together.

Be Yourself

Above all, relax and enjoy the process. Be open and honest about who you are and what you want to accomplish. Be confident in your proposal; at this stage you've put a lot of thought, sweat, and tears into your project, and you should be proud of what you've produced. Finally, be confident in yourself; you've put an incredible amount of work into getting this far, and you have earned the opportunity to be in front of the committee. So enjoy it.

Still don't feel ready? The best preparation for an interview is a mock interview, and there are many offices on campus that would be happy to help run you through a mock fellowship interview, including the Career Center and FOUR (email link)

Characteristics of a Successful Scholarship Finalist

by Louis Blair, Executive Secretary Emeritus, Truman Scholarship Foundation

In my observations of about 2500 Truman interviews over the past 20 years, I sense that successful Truman Scholarship Finalists generally possess the following characteristics:

Comfort/Level of Ease in the interview setting: While they may be nervous at the start, they quickly settle in, enjoy the give and take of the interview, do not get put off by challenging questions nor the lack of encouraging words or smiles from panelists. Perhaps the best sign of success is when the candidate turns the interview into a conversation with the panelists.

Sophistication on the issues: The candidate realizes that there are few clear-cut answers and solutions, that there are problems and obstacles, that our political system rarely moves ahead full-speed...and for good reasons. Just saying that something should be this way or that way is rarely enough. The best ways to become sophisticated are probably through regularly reading the New York Times [especially the editorials] and through small-group or seminar discussions of issues.

Exciting in one or more dimensions: This can be through an unusual career/education program that makes sense, outstanding accomplishments, extraordinary devotion, personal appeal, energy, humor, occasionally sheer intellectual horsepower targeted toward public service.

Breadth of interest and knowledge beyond the intended career field: Single issue folks rarely appeal to selection panels. A frequent question to persons who appear to be single issue is: "What would you do if the problem you want to address suddenly went away?"

Ability to analyze "on the fly": Often panelists ask questions to see how well candidates can grapple with issues and concepts that they have not connected previously. Examples of questions are: "What are the most meaningful books you have read that the President should read?" "What are the biggest issues facing American society?" Successful candidates feel somewhat comfortable in grappling with such far-out questions, maybe even having fun.

Consistency with the written material: Successful Finalists talk the way they write, thoroughly understand their policy recommendations, and display some of the characteristics mentioned in Item 14 and in the Faculty Nomination letter.

Responsiveness to the questions: They address head-on the questions raised and try to respond to what the interviewers have asked, not what the candidates necessarily want to address. Not getting bogged down, especially on questions to which they are not doing well. Few successful candidates answer all of the questions well. It is far better to keep answers short, cut losses, and let panelists pose lots of questions. Keeping the interview and the outcome in perspective: Candidates who come in with the attitude that they "have to win" or are "destined to win" do poorly. This is not a life and death situation. Most Finalists will get to graduate school.