Four Steps to Great Letters of Recommendation

Oct. 9, 2014

Letters of recommendation can be the determining factor in fellowship competitions. Because a good letter of recommendation is so much work to write, you want to do everything you can to make the process easy for your professors. With the help of Graduate College Dean, Andrew Carnie, and Graduate College Assistant Dean, Janet Sturman, I have outlined four tips to help you get the best letters possible.

1. Plan ahead:

At some point in your career, you will need letters of recommendation from at least three professors. Even if you are just beginning your graduate student career, do your best to cultivate good relationships with at least three professors. Dr. Carnie, who estimates he writes a gazillion letters of recommendation every semester, has also been a reviewer for numerous fellowship competitions.

“As a reviewer,” he explains, “one quickly learns to spot letters that show a real warmth and genuine regard for a student as a person and a scholar.”

Dr. Sturman, who more conservatively estimates that she writes three to five letters of recommendation a week, acknowledges that writing letters of recommendation is part of her job.

“I realize each letter is important,” she says. “However, if I know a student well and admire that student’s work, writing the letter becomes a pleasure. Inevitably, readers will see my enthusiasm – which will certainly make a difference to reviewers.” 

We do not recommend that you get to know your professors out of professional opportunism. But, although life as a graduate student is busy, it is important to get to know your professors as people.

2. Organize:

Try to think about writing the letter from your professor’s perspective and prepare a file of documents that will help make the process easier. Dr. Carnie and Dr. Sturman agree that the file should include:

  • A summary of the fellowship including the purpose of the fellowship and the criteria by which the competition will be judged.
  • A copy of your CV and drafts of the essays you will submit as part of the application.
  • A summary of what you would like emphasized in the letter. You might want to include descriptions of volunteer activities, summaries of what you did in their classes, and reminders of other significant interactions. Include details.
  • Any forms or links to websites that the professor might need. Usually, the letters are submitted through an online system; be sure to have the correct email address for the professor. Also, give the professor contact information for the help desk. (A recent national competition had numerous issues with their website the week before the deadline.)

3. Ask:

Aim to ask your writers about a month in advance of the deadline. Dr. Sturman says she understands that applicants do not always know about a competition that far in advance. “As long as students are considerate,” she explains, “I will do my best to accommodate them.”

  • Begin with a succinct email describing the fellowship competition, stating the deadline, and asking if the professor would be able to a strong letter of recommendation. Explain that if they are able to do so, you will follow up with more information. Offer an out. For example, say, "I know that you are busy with a grant submission, so if this is not a good time, just let me know." It is better for you to know if they cannot write a good letter at this time.
  • If they agree, email the folder of information and ask if there is anything else that you could provide to make the process easier.
  • Acknowledge that letters of recommendation are time consuming and thank them for their willingness to write one for you.

4. Follow-up

Do not breathe down their necks, but give them reasonable reminders of the deadline – for example an email a week before the deadline you set could be helpful.

Do not feel anxious if you need to ask for multiple letters of recommendation from the same professors. Professors understand and expect this. Dr. Sturman explains that most professors keep copies of the letters they have written for students. “Students should realize this,” she says, “and not be timid about asking for additional letters once a professor has written on their behalf.”

Finally, never forget to thank them!

Go all out. Go to the bookstore and spend four dollars on a nice card. Writing letters of recommendation is part of a professor’s job, but writing a good letter of recommendation is a big favor to you as a graduate student.


The GradFunding Newsletter is a service of the University of Arizona Graduate College, Office of Fellowships and Community Engagement. You may reuse this article but please acknowledge Shelley Hawthorne Smith and the University of Arizona Graduate College Office of Fellowships and Community Engagement.