Recommendation Letter FAQs


Letters of Recommendation are a frequently-encountered part of nationally competitive scholarship applications. Often, these letters are required to be confidential, meaning you do not get to read them, yet they play an important part in the process of application review. These questions and answers may help make these letters less mysterious, and include tips for making requests.

Why does my application need letters of recommendation?

This is a great question! To give a holistic view of you as an applicant, reviewers want to see what you say about yourself as well as what others say about you. A professor who has observed you in the classroom, in a laboratory setting, or in a university employment or internship setting may be well equipped to do that. Often, letters of recommendation disclose details about the applicant’s ability to succeed in whatever program/fellowship/scholarship is being applied to, using particular examples to make that clear. It means something substantive when coming from someone who taught, advised, or supervised you.

How do I know who to ask to write a letter for me?

Also a good question. It depends on your relationships. The point of these letters is to give the reviewer of your application more insights into who you are as a thinker, a student, a researcher, etc. (whichever of these apply). As a result, you want to focus on strength and quality of the relationship than on the fame of the professor or other external factors, though those external factors (e.g. the professor’s rank or tenure status) may matter to some extent to reviewers. It is always better to have a strong letter with clear examples than a weak, abstract letter from a “big name.”

Can I ask a family member or friend to write a letter of recommendation for me?

In general, this is not a wise idea. Letters from friends and family may be supportive, but they may be less useful to reviewers because they will not be able to comment directly on your university or professional work. Be sure to check the specific language in the application requirements as well, since letters may be required from faculty members, or from some combination of faculty and professional supervisors. Altogether, your friends and family are valuable sources of support, but you should ask someone else.

How should I go about asking them?

This is another really good question. Generally, it is advisable to make the request early and in person. On the flip side of that, never ask late via email, and never fill their name and email address into the application form, assuming they will write for you, without confirming it with them much earlier. Otherwise, it is likely that the request will be ignored. To make a request, you might email to arrange a meeting, saying you’ve learned about some opportunities and you’d like to discuss them together, and ask for advice. During the meeting you can lay out a few details about your plans to apply, mention letters of recommendation are involved, and ask if they would be able support your application with a strong letter. It is always wise to say “strong letter” since it is not just the fact of the letter that matters, but its quality. If they say yes, include the professor in your plans to apply if they are able and if it squares with the time remaining before the deadline (e.g. showing them drafts of a personal statement, and asking for feedback). If they say no, do not take it personally, and ask them for suggestions about who else you might be able to ask. They may have a good idea!

I’ve already asked Professor Bhargava for a letter of recommendation before. I’m starting a new application today, with a deadline in 3 weeks. Can I ask Professor Bhargava again, or is it better for me to ask someone new, like Professor Kazarian?

With 3 weeks until the deadline, it would be appropriate to ask Professor Bhargava again. In fact, since she has already written a letter for you, her letter is close to ready (unless there have been any new updates or developments in your academic / professional life that you want to mention to her, so she can update your letter). The first time you ask a professor is a “big lift,” but a second ask is considerably less time-intensive, so you should feel good about returning to someone whom you asked already.

What did my recommender say about me? What should they say about me?

In most cases, you simply won’t know! Letters of recommendation are often confidential, and in many cases you’ll have to waive your ability to see its contents, meaning you’ll never know what it says. The idea behind the confidentiality is that the reviewers want to see the professor or supervisor commenting originally and authentically from their own point of view, and not merely signing off on something that you write, which can be seen as dishonest. That said, it is not out of bounds to talk with your recommender about the specific opportunity before they complete their letter, and to share any application materials and your resume or CV with them too. This allows them to have a rounder picture of your activities and person than they would have otherwise, and therefore results in a stronger letter. Meeting and discussing with your recommender is an important part of this process whether you see them every week in the laboratory or it’s been a semester or two since you took their course.

When is it too later to request a letter of recommendation?

This may depend on the person who is being asked, but a general rule of thumb is that months ahead is wise, weeks ahead is appropriate, and days ahead is likely too late. You ought to make your request as soon as possible, ideally in person, and with the expectation that there may be a reason why they may not be able to do it (especially if you get near the three-week mark before the deadline). Professors are very busy, but this does not mean that they do not have time for *you* — it merely means that you must plan ahead so that they can get your letter on their schedule, well ahead of the day it’s due. You should never expect a last-minute request to be completed.

I feel like there aren’t really any people I can ask. I want to apply to one of these competitive awards though! What can I do?

First, don’t panic. Second, take stock, and brainstorm. Academically, whose courses meant the most to you? Have you had a chance to share that fact with the professor? Professionally, maybe there was someone who supervised an internship where you learned a great deal, or learned something about yourself. Have you touched base with them recently? It may be an 11th-hour ask at this point, but just because you’ve been a little out of touch with past professors or supervisors does not mean it must remain that way forever. Use this as a moment to reach out to them and discuss your interest in applying for a competitive opportunity down the line – it may not be this one, but another, and you can talk with the Scholars Advisor to help identify other opportunities.