Letters of recommendations are a crucial component in all fellowship applications and some research opportunities that you apply for. They provide unique insights into your ability and character that are not apparent in other parts of your application. They also allow selection committees to gain new perspective on your work and your prospective project, and provide the opportunity for an expert in your discipline to attest to your work, academic achievements, and intellectual potential.
Who should you ask to write for you?
Faculty are the main source of letters of recommendation, but some fellowships are open to letters from anyone who has gotten to know you--supervisors, volunteer coordinators, coaches--and can speak to your unique qualities. The rapport you have with this person should be the priority when deciding who might write for you. Faculty members should be able to talk about your intellect and interests in a way that sets you apart from others. Other community members might speak to leadership qualities, work ethic or other attributes.
How to ask for a letter
When approaching potential letter writers, it can be useful to consider a letter writer first as an adviser, and then as a recommender. Talk to them about the fellowships you are considering; see if they might have insight into how your interests might be supported through this (or other) fellowships, and how these opportunities help support your longer term goals. People are usually willing to write a letter when they have gotten to know you well and when you help prepare them. But there are ways in which you can support your letter writer to write the strongest letter possible. Here are some guidelines:
• Request the letter no fewer than 3-4 weeks before a deadline and offer an in-person meeting;
• Give letter writers a draft of your application materials, an outline of your research proposal or plan of study;
• Provide them with your CV or resume;
• Provide them with an overview the fellowship's goals;
• Remind them of your relevant interactions with them, and how they might speak in unique ways to the goals of the fellowship
• Provide them with past course materials;
• Inform them about deadlines and application processes.
• Give them a copy of the instructions that we have developed for the fellowship to which you are applying, so that they know what selection committees expect in a letter of recommendation. You can find these instructions here: https://urf.columbia.edu/article/advice-letters-recommendation
Don't forget to write a follow up communication to say thank you for writing on your behalf. In addition, you should plan to keep everyone posted on how the competition goes!
Getting to know faculty
Office hours are the best way to get to know your professors outside of the classroom. Use these hours to build relationships with them and to learn more about your field. Relationships with faculty members make you a more thoughtful and directed student. This will benefit you as a student and as a potential fellowship applicant.