Asking for Letters of Recommendation

Each scholarship or fellowship application has different parameters for the required letters of recommendation. Before requesting a recommendation from a faculty member, familiarize yourself with these parameters and read the guidelines below.

Choosing a Recommender

To ensure strong recommendations, it's important to pick recommenders who really know you and your work. You could seek recommendations from faculty from whom you have taken multiple courses, faculty who have advised you on a project, etc. Make sure these are people who know you, remember your work, and can describe your contributions in concrete ways!

Pay close attention to the scholarship's requirements and suggestions for recommendations.  Some scholarships ask for a faculty reference from within your discipline; some require information from a recommender who has worked with you in a specific capacity (research, service project, etc.); some may require assessments from experts who can speak to your language skills.

In most cases your recommenders should be faculty members, though sometimes staff members or individuals who have supervised you or worked with you in professional or volunteer settings may provide strong references.  Friends or family members are not appropriate recommenders.

If you’re early in your academic career, start cultivating connections with faculty now. Go to office hours to discuss material. Attend lectures and participate in optional departmental events. Get involved in research or creative work in your field. A professor who knows you will not only want to help you but will be able to write you a better letter. Read more about how to work and collaborate with faculty here.

Have at least one or two back-up recommenders in mind. Your referees are under no obligation to write you a letter, and you need to make sure you have options in the event that someone is unable to write a recommendation.

Requesting a Recommendation

You might feel anxious or uncertain about asking for a letter of recommendation, but remember that fielding these kinds of requests from students is likely a part of your recommender’s normal job.  You are not strange or pushy for asking.

Ask for the letter of recommendation at least six weeks in advance of the deadline. You want your recommender to have time to craft a glowing letter. Requesting a professor’s help too close to the deadline does not reflect well on your character, judgement, or professionalism. Although some professors are generous about these protocols, remember that your recommenders are doing you a favor, often at a considerable expense of time and energy. You want to make sure that you seem like someone they would like to take the time and effort to help.

When requesting a recommendation over email, write a more formal request, even if your normal interactions with the professor are very casual. If asking in person, dress nicely. It is not necessary to dress as if you are going to a job interview, but wear presentable clothing. Don't put your professor on the spot by making your request right before or after class; instead, attend office hours or make an appointment.

Make your request specific, and be clear about the reasons you think the recommender can write you a compelling letter. For example:

- “Your course on ____ really helped me solidify my research interests.”
- “Your advising has led me to develop my interest in ______.”
- “I was really grateful for the opportunity to work with you on ____.”
- “I remember our conversation about ____.”

Always make sure you give your referee an “out” -- a way to gracefully turn down your request if they are unable to write a recommendation. Present the recommendation as something that would help you as you progress, rather than something that could make or break your future career. We suggest using the follow phrasing:

Do you feel that you are able to provide a good letter of recommendation for me for this scholarship?

If a Recommender Agrees

Thank your recommender promptly and provide all the relevant information and details about the application process, including the specific type of fellowship, scholarship or program to which you are applying (for example: if you are applying for a Marshall, include the specific degree, department and university); links to relevant parts of the scholarship website (not just the main page); and contact information for CFSA. If you need to register the recommender on the scholarship website, do so.  Make sure your recommender knows how recommendations will be delivered and processed. Confirm that your referee knows the scholarship's deadlines (both official and internal Syracuse University deadlines, if applicable). We recommend providing your recommender with a filled out Student Recommendation Request Form that includes the above information.

Provide your CV or resume, your transcript, and any application materials you’re preparing. It is okay to share your application essay drafts! If your application materials are at draft stage, make sure your recommender knows that. Offer to meet in person or chat over the phone. Provide any other material you think may be relevant and could help your referee write a strong recommendation.

Always consider signing the waiver of the right to read your letters. Some students do not waive their rights to read letters and the letters written for them, no matter how glowing, are often heavily discounted by readers.  Some recommenders will not write for students who do not waive their rights to read letters.

Remember to send your recommender a thank you note or email after the letter has been submitted, and be sure to follow up to let them know the results of your application (whether or not you win the scholarship).

If a Recommender Cannot Write You a Letter

Turning down your request for a letter of recommendation is rarely a rejection of you or your work. There are many different reasons a faculty member may say no: they may be very busy and unable to find the time to give your letter the time it requires; they may feel they do not know you or your work very well; they may have another deadline around the same time that would prevent them from completing your letter; they may not feel qualified to write a recommendation for the particular fellowship or program to which you are applying.

Sometimes a "no" from a recommender you have approached can actually be a good thing. You need the strongest letters possible, and a recommendation from a faculty member who is unable to take the time to write an excellent letter, or who does not know you very well, is unlikely to help you.

Make sure you respond graciously and gratefully. A faculty member turning you down now may be happy and willing to recommend you in the future.