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Letters of Recommendation

Tips for Students

Faculty and other mentors with whom you have worked should be eager to write a strong letter of recommendation for you; it’s part of their job and your success is important to them. That said, you can’t ask just any professor you’ve taken a class with for a letter and expect great results. Strong letters are based on sustained, constructive and professional relationships, and those relationships take months—if not years—to take shape. Make building these kinds of relationships a part of your “action plan” during your college years; your efforts will pay off. When you are ready to request a letter, here are some tips that will help you secure a strong letter.

Who to ask

  • Ask professors or mentors with whom you have extensive experience either inside or outside the classroom. For example, a professor who has had your for three classes in which you performed very well might write a strong letter, as would a professor who has supervised your research or overseen other extracurricular activities.
  • It is okay to include a letter from someone who has closely supervised non-academic work, but check with the NCA office to make sure the letter will be suitable for a given award.
  • Ask writers who would be able to furnish anecdotal evidence about your performance; if all they can do is re-hash the bullet points on your resume, the letter will not get you closer to achieving your goal.

When to ask

  • You might informally request a letter of recommendation months in advance of a given application deadline. If you approach letter writers this early in the process, the goal is simply to provide them with a rough timeline, remind them of the work you have performed for them, and ask them if they will be able to write a strong letter on your behalf. Note that more complete details about the deadline and instructions for submitting the letter will follow as the deadline approaches. 
  • Though you might have informally requested a letter well in advance, you should provide letter writers with more specific information within six weeks of the deadline. This letter should include details about the award for which you are applying, drafts of application materials such as your personal statement, an updated resume, and samples of work you produced in a given academic or research context for your respective letter writers.

How to ask

  • First, make sure you ask, respectfully, for the letter. Do not say that you “need” a letter, and don’t passively state that this or that application requires one. Even if you are 100% sure that a given professor or mentor will write you a letter, asking respectfully shows that you understand that it is a serious commitment to write a strong letter.
  • All of your correspondence with professors or mentors about letters of recommendation should be deferential and professional. It’s okay to request a letter over e-mail, but you might also ask for an appointment at which you can discuss the opportunity—along with your experience and qualifications--in more detail.
  • Ask your recommender if they will be able to write you a strong letter, and include evidence in your e-mail that you think warrants a strong letter.
  • Express your appreciation for your professor or mentor’s consideration and ongoing support. Strong professional relationships are based on mutual acknowledgement for the work begin done.

What to include in your request:

  • Make sure the writer has all the information they need—your resume, samples of relevant work, etc.—to write a strong letter.
  • Include instructions for where to send the letter and always waive the rights to review the letter. Letters of recommendation are confidential and will not be taken seriously if they are viewed as public documents.
  • If you have a particularly close relationship with your mentor, you might let them know who else is writing on your behalf, and which experiences you hope the writer will emphasize.