Letters of recommendations are a central piece of your application materials. Since they are usually confidential, you will not be able to know (or control) what recommenders say about you and your work. That being said, there are a few things you can do to maximize your chances of submitting outstanding letters of recommendations along with your project:
- Selecting your letter writers: look for faculty who know you and your work well; although the scholarly stature of your letter writer (e.g., whether she is a tenured faculty member with many important publications) is a relevant factor, look for people who you think will speak highly and in considerable detail about your skills and work. If you have an advisor, this person should be one of your letter writers. The letter from your advisor is the most important letter in your application. She should be able to articulate the research you want to pursue and why you have the skills to carry it out in detail. Most importantly, she should be able to articulate the scholarly merit of your research and why it deserves to be funded. The importance of your advisor’s letter cannot be stressed enough.
- Approaching a potential letter writer: if you think it would be a good idea to have a letter from professor so-and-so, send her an email briefly describing the award you want to apply for and what the professor would have to do to submit her letter. Try your best to approach a potential letter writer about your application at least a few months before the deadline. If you do not have a draft of the project to share with her then, make sure you say when you will be able to send her one. You should also send her your CV and/or a link to your professional website.
- Making sure your letter gets delivered: it is your responsibility to ensure your letters get delivered. Once someone has agreed to write you a letter, remember to emphasize when the letter is due. Check periodically with the funder to see if your letter writer has submitted her letter. If the deadline is one month away and she hasn’t yet submitted her letter, send her a polite reminder. If the funder (or the letter writer) asks for the letter to be submitted by mail, provide the letter writer with the right envelope and stamps. The idea is to make the process as easy as possible for the letter writer.
Although following the steps above does not guarantee that you will get an outstanding letter, they are time-tested ways to maximize your chances. I am sure many of you have questions about how to work with letter writers. Let us know what those questions are below.