Expert Tips for Excellent Letters of Recommendation

Dec. 8, 2022
From left to right: Dr. Brown, Dr. Hoit, and Dr. Tax

Dear Graduate Students,

When I began graduate school, I thought letters of recommendation did not matter much in fellowship competitions because all letters submitted would be excellent. I have been wrong about a lot of things in life, but the degree to which I was wrong about this cannot be overstated.

First, letters of recommendation matter tremendously. The strength of the recommendation letter can literally make the difference between a student receiving an award or not receiving an award. Second, poor letters of recommendation are sometimes submitted. While I have never seen a letter say something negative about a student, I have seen short letters, letters with several typos, and letters mentioning the wrong student or the wrong fellowship. Anything but a carefully crafted, glowing letter of recommendation can extinguish the chance of a student being awarded a fellowship.

So, how does a student get an excellent letter of recommendation? We went to the experts to find out. The three faculty we interviewed have written countless letters of recommendation, successfully helped many graduate students get funding, and launched many graduate students onto successful careers. Let me introduce them: 

Dr. Meg Lota Brown is a Professor of English and Affiliate Faculty of Gender and Women’s Studies. She works with many graduate students and faculty as the Associate Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, Associate Dean of the Graduate College, and Director of the Graduate Center. In her estimation, she writes about 35 letters of recommendation each year.

Dr. Hoit is a professor of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, as well as the Director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs. Dr. Hoit estimates that she writes about 25 letters of recommendation each year, but previously wrote many more when she was teaching more undergraduate classes. If you are not lucky enough to have taken Dr. Hoit’s Survival Skills and Ethics class (see the GradFunding Newsletter for details on the class); I highly recommend it.

Dr. Frans Tax is a Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology and affiliated with Plant Sciences, Applied BioSciences, and Genetics. He works with many graduate students as the Faculty Director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion in the Graduate College and the Director of the National Institute of Health Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) Program at the University of Arizona. Dr. Tax currently writes about 50 letters of recommendation each year.

The three professors above responded to questions that students frequently ask about letters of recommendation.

  1. Whom should I ask for a letter of recommendation?

The single most important factor, according to all three professors, was that a student must ask faculty who know them well and admire them as a person and student. Having faculty who think you are the cat’s pajama’s is the foundation and the scaffolding of getting strong letters. Dr. Hoit emphasizes that getting an excellent letter of recommendation begins long before you ask for one. She suggests that you consider doing a research rotation or independent study with the faculty member, serving as a TA or preceptor in a class, or engaging in outreach with the faculty member.

“The bottom line is,” Dr. Hoit says, “faculty need to really know you so that they can write a meaningful letter. That takes time and planning.”

Further, Dr. Brown mentions that it is important to have been in fairly recent contact with the person you ask. Faculty can write an average of over a letter a week, so it is important to first develop strong relationships and then stay in contact with professors. In general, faculty love to hear from former students. Stay in touch with faculty, letting them know what you are doing and the ways in which you are successful.

If you are brave, you can, as Dr. Hoit suggests, ask a potential writer if they can write a strong letter of recommendation to give them a moment to consider the extent to which they know you and can endorse you before they agree to writing a letter.

  1. When should I ask for a letter of recommendation?

Giving faculty ample time to write a letter was a repeated theme in the interviews. All three agree that three weeks to a month is about the right amount of time. Dr. Tax recommends the following timetable:

  • About a month in advance, ask for the letter
  • Shortly after you ask, send early drafts of research and personal statements
  • About a week before the deadline, send a reminder
  • About two days before the deadline, if you don't have confirmation that the letter is in, send another reminder. As long as it isn’t daily, no one minds being reminded.
  1. What materials should I provide to a letter writer?

Writing letters of recommendation is hard work. Whatever you can do to make the job easier will be appreciated. Dr. Brown recommends providing the following materials:

  • Information about the fellowship: a link to the web description; the deadline; how to submit the letter on an application portal or the contact information of the person to whom the letter should be sent
  • Eligibility and selection criteria for the fellowship (so that the recommender can address specific metrics that the selection committee is looking for)
  • Your updated CV
  • Copies of all your application essays

In addition to the materials above, Dr. Hoit suggests asking faculty if they want you to give them a list of points you would like covered in the letter. A list like this, if they want it, can make starting the letter easier.

Dr. Tax points out that an additional benefit to sending early drafts of the application essays is that you may get feedback on the drafts. He says, “I may not have time to read the draft, but if I do, I will always give feedback. I’ll point out the strong parts and the red flags, suggest what to phrase differently, and where to put a more positive spin on lessons learned.”

  1. What other suggestions might help students get strong letters of recommendation?

Dr. Brown suggests that applicants take a moment to think of how the letters will fit into the other application materials. The letters can help tie together, for example, your transcript, CV, and career plans. Also, she points out that many essays are constrained by word count restrictions and suggests that you ask your recommender to address experiences/credentials that you couldn’t fit into your own essays.

The three professors agreed that the one take-away is that a strong and sustained professional relationship is the single most important factor for getting a strong letter of recommendation.

“From the first day of graduate school,” Dr. Brown says, “develop strong relationships with your professors. Take the time to talk with them about your own work and interests and about their work and interests; stay in touch, ask questions, share successes, consult about challenges, provide updates. And thank them for writing your letters!”

Finally, as someone who has worked with many students as they solicit letters of recommendation, I have seen that asking for letters can be part of developing the strong relationship that is so important to getting excellent letters of recommendation. If you feel like you do not yet have the strong and sustained professional relationship that is necessary for a good letter, don’t despair. Use the process of asking for a letter to help develop the relationship. If you ask early, provide what they need, give timely reminders, and thank your writers, this will be a big step toward developing strong professional relationships.

For more information on faculty’s perspective rec letter writing, check out these articles from UPenn and Brown.