Advice for Candidates
Most national fellowships applications require three or more letters of recommendation. Faculty are the most frequently sought-after writers, as they are best positioned to attest to your academic strengths. Some foundations are also eager to hear from work or internship supervisors, coaches, staff involved with student organizations, leaders of community organizations, or others who can attest to your personal character, leadership qualities, or dedication to the foundation's mission. It is important to carefully consider what the foundation wants to know about you, and who can most clearly and convincingly discuss those things. The Director of Fellowships can help you sort out who in your circle might be best positioned to write for you.
Most foundations require a traditional, narrative letter. They may want it printed on letterhead and signed, or they may require that it be cut and pasted into an online portal. Some ask recommenders to answer a series of specific questions, using a downloadable form. Before asking someone to write you a letter of recommendation, find out what is the required format.For fellowships our office supports, this information can be found on the Overview page for each fellowship.
Occasionally a potential letter writer will ask a student to draft the letter for them. This request is rarely made by faculty, but often made by supervisors of government internships and other places where there are many temporary workers. While this may seem to be an expedient solution to their challenge of writing hundreds of letters, we urge you to decline this request, for two reasons. First, submitting to the awarding foundation a letter that has been composed by the candidate violates the implicit agreement that the letter is providing the honest, accurate, unmediated opinion of the signatory. Second, writing one’s own letter of recommendation is usually ineffective. Selection committees value the opinions of established faculty and other professionals because they can provide an evaluation of your knowledge, skills, and abilities within the context of the hundreds of other high-achieving students with whom they have worked. Furthermore, their understanding of your discipline or field of interest is almost always much greater than yours, which allows them to put the relevance of your research, for example, in context in a way you may not be able to do.
You can and should, however, give each of your recommenders as much information as possible to write you a strong letter. This means providing them your essays (or drafts fo them) for your application, your resume, and a link to the Overview page of our website for the fellowship (so they can know the foundation's aims and desired qualifications for applicants). You might also include a documentthat lists, in bullet points, the specific activities or contributions you made in the context of your involvement with them (names of papers you wrote for a class; projects you did at an internship; or activities you initiated on campus). You could even include favorable comments written in the margins of a paper (or a copy of that page) as a reminder. Providing these materials three to four weeks in advance of the deadline, with a clear indication of the deadline, will show that you respect their time and efforts on your behalf.
Are you preparing to request letters of recommendation? An article recently published in the Chronicle for Higher Education offers a useful perspective on how to ask for strong letters. Read How to Ask for a Recommendation
Suggestions for Recommenders
If you have been asked to write a recommendation letter for a national fellowship, please read these Suggestions for Writers of Recommendation Letters. If you have any questions about the process or what is required by a specific fellowship foundation, please contact the Director of Fellowships by phone or email.