Requesting Letters of Reference

Almost every scholarship application requires letters of reference. Here are some tips to walk you through the process of soliciting those letters.

Choose Your Letter Writers

  1. Pay attention to the instructions. For example, the Rhodes stipulates that at least four references must come from your professors.
  2. Choose people that know you well. Anecdotes and examples are important. Letters from people with impressive titles are nice, but if your contact with them was limited, the letter will come out flat.
  3. Letters from high school teachers, family friends, your minister or your peers usually do not carry as much weight after you begin college. Do NOT ask members of your family.
  4. If an individual has volunteered previously to serve as a reference, that usually means they will write an enthusiastic letter on your behalf.
  5. Most references should speak to recent and relevant efforts: things you have done within the last two or three years ideally.
  6. Most applications should include at least one instructor, academic advisor or research supervisor from your current university.

Make the Request

  1. Give your writers adequate time, three or four weeks ideally.
  2. Ask your recommenders if they would be able to write a strong letter of reference for you. Heed their answer.
  3. If they agree to write for you, follow up with written instructions. E-mail instructions will let you include convenient hyperlinks and/or attachments.
  4. Written requests/instructions should include:
  • Deadline. Specify whether it is a POSTMARK or RECEIPT deadline if they are mailing it.
  • Name and address of the intended recipient. A stamped/addressed envelope is courteous in some cases, but most K-State faculty/staff will prefer to use departmental envelopes for the sake of formality.
  • Information about the scholarship and its aims.
  • Any forms that the recommender must complete.
  • A copy of your CV (or a promise to provide that soon) and a summary of your aspirations (or a draft of your personal statement).
  • An explicit FERPA waiver.

FERPA Compliance

FERPA (the law that governs the confidentiality of student records in higher education) limits what information K-State faculty/staff can provide WITHOUT written permission. Thus, always request letters of reference in writing and explicitly release recommenders from FERPA limitations so that they feel free to sing your praises and provide specifics. Here is some sample language that you could use/adapt for that purpose:

I grant you permission to include information that would be considered confidential under FERPA (the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act) that you might deem relevant to the XYZ competition. This includes information about my grades/GPA/class rank and details regarding specific projects/tests/assignments. It also includes candid evaluation regarding my performance in relation to any of those elements.

Also note that many competitions will ask you to waive or not waive your right to see letters submitted on your behalf. Candid letters are said to carry more weight. Thus, you should usually waive your right to see the letter.

Electronic Submission

Many applications now require electronic submission. The online application will generate an automated e-mail to the recommender once you enter their information into the system. You should do this AFTER they have agreed to write for you. The automated e-mail usually assigns them a login/password and directs them to a submission site. It does not hurt to check with your recommenders to make sure they received that automated e-mail. Last minute calls to tech support are no fun!

Finish Strong

  1. Send reminders before the deadline. Check again closer to the deadline if necessary. Be polite but never just assume that your letters were written and submitted.
  2. Write thank you notes to your recommenders. They are donating their time and energy to help you succeed.
  3. Keep your recommenders in the loop and share the results of the competition after the fact.

Concluding Thoughts

Remember that good recommenders are individuals who want to help you succeed. If you ask the right people, and if you have EARNED their support, they should be glad to help you. It also helps to remember that once a recommender has written for you once, they have something they can revise in the future and will usually prove willing to support you in more than one competition.

In a nutshell, strong support from those who know you is essential for scholarship success. Treat your writers with the utmost courtesy and give them the information they need to support your candidacy effectively.