The best way to make sure you have a good letter when it comes time to submit a proposal is to develop a consistent and professional relationship with your advisor and other faculty members in your area over the long term. This includes class participation and being an active member of your program. You will want to make sure you have a dialogue about your research or other scholarly issues relevant to your field with at least one, but preferably two or more professors in your field during your tenure as a graduate student.
Establishing professional relationships with faculty members makes asking for recommendation letters easy and comfortable. They know students need letters, and most are willing to write them. Your job is to make it easy for them to say wonderful things about you, your work, your intellect, and your potential as a scholar. Not only will this help you in the long run, but it will also help the professors when they sit down to write for you.
Even with the best intentions, sometimes we have to ask a professor we don’t know very well to write for us. If you need to do this, don’t stress, but you will strengthen your case by making your appeal convincing and thorough. Who you ask will need to know you chose them for a reason. Try to make sure it is someone you have worked with in a classroom or lab setting. It is helpful to pick someone who is already familiar with your work as a student and scholar. They will likely refer back to any work you did with them as a basis for their letter. You can write them an email, or ask them in person, but you’ll need to be prepared to explain why you are asking them, what the grant/fellowship is for and why you need it, and possibly what work you’ve done for them (in class or lab) that is relevant to the particular grant or fellowship.
No matter how well they know you, make sure to ask your faculty writers well in advance of the deadline for the submission of the application and the submission of the letter (each which may have different due dates). At minimum, you should give them at least a month’s advance notice. This becomes especially important if you are asking them to write you a letter for the first time.
Once you’ve politely and well in advance asked the professor to write you a letter, you’ll want to try and make it as easy as possible for them to complete their task. Find out the details of the specific grant. Are letters submitted online, or by mail? Is the deadline the same, or is it earlier or later than the rest of the application? Does the foundations stipulate that the letter touch on a specific topic? If they will need to mail the application, you can make sure they have a pre-labeled and stamped envelope. Once it gets close to the deadline, you can send them a polite reminder about the letter and the date it is due.
With those tips in mind, be sure to take a deep breath, and be confident in your own skills and abilities in your field. Recommendation letters are just one part of your grant or fellowship proposal and armed with the tools of GradFund, you’re on your way to putting your best foot forward!