Asking For ... and Receiving ... Good Letters of Recommendation

You will need to get a professor (for summer) or two (for semester-long or longer programs) to write you a letter of recommendation. If you are going on a program that has a language requirement, one of these letters will probably need to be from a professor who knows your work in the foreign language.

The purpose of the letters of recommendation are twofold: they tell us that a) you are academically prepared for a study abroad experience and b) you are mature enough to manage the additional pressures, stresses and obligations of being on a study abroad program. It is important that students do not go on study abroad until they are ready, nor would it be in the University's best interest to set you up for failure and have that reflect poorly on our student body as a whole. For these reasons, letters of recommendation are extremely important tools to help IAP determine if you are eligible to go on a program.

It is preferable that these letters come from UMKC faculty or staff. Hopefully you have cultivated a relationship with your professors and they can comment about your academic strengths and weaknesses, your motivation for study abroad and whether your goals are realistic, and whether or not they feel you would be a good representative of UMKC abroad. If you don't already have a relationship with a person who can do this for you, start building it now.

The questions your reference writer should address include:

  1. How long and in what capacity have you known the applicant?

  2. What do you feel are the applicant's academic/intellectual strengths and weaknesses relevant to study abroad?

  3. What is your understanding of the applicant's motivation for studying abroad and do you feel his/her goals are laudable, realistic and attainable?

  4. Do you feel that the applicant would be a good representative of UMKC abroad? Why or why not?

Please feel free to include any other information or insights that you feel would be relevant to this student's application for study abroad.

How to Ask for ... and Get STRONG Letters of Recommendation
(for scholarships in general)

These are vitally important documents that should support your application in a variety of ways: they should talk about you as a person and a scholar; they should indicate real knowledge and understanding of the particular fellowships for which you are applying; they should make clear why the scholarship is important for your continued development in your chosen field.

[Adapted from a hand out provided by Jane Curlin, Willamette University]
  1. Approach potential recommenders first as advisers. Get to know them and let them get to know you. Discuss your larger interests and goals. Ask for their advice about potential projects, reading, courses of study, graduate programs etc. These conversations will be invaluable in themselves, but they will also allow you to judge who are likely to be your most enthusiastic recommenders. These meetings will allow those who write for you to write more informed and more personally engaged letters.

  2. Ask for someone who knows you well and who will be able to discuss in specific detail what distinguishes you.

  3. Ask well in advance of the deadline. Two to four weeks may be adequate. However, you should consult with the recommender to see how much lead-time is needed. This is especially true for letters for major fellowships and for letters to be written over the summer.

  4. Ask: “Do you feel you know me (or my academic record, my leadership qualities) well enough to write a strong letter of recommendation for the …. scholarship?” You have now given the professor the opportunity to decline gracefully. If the answer is “no,” do not push. This inquiry may be done via email – if you already have an established relationship with potential recommender.

  5. Schedule an appointment with your recommender to discuss the scholarship, its selection criteria, your most recent and commendable activities, and to suggest what each recommender is going to say, so that they can write letters that complement rather than repeat one another.

  6. Bring to this meeting (or at the very least email):

    • A current resume or a list of your activities and honors. Be sure to include internships or work/research experience, community service, conference papers/presentations, other creative or leadership experiences.

    • A copy of your personal statement, project proposal, and/or course of study proposal, or other descriptive information from the application (information about career plans, foreign travel experience, or non-academic interests is sometimes requested). If you have not yet completed these materials, provide an informal version in the form of a 1-2 page statement.

    • Any pertinent reminders about the work you have done for this professor that will help them highlight what makes you a strong candidate; past papers or exams are especially helpful.

    • A copy of your transcript (if applying for a nationally competitive fellowship). This can be an unofficial copy and is to give your recommender an overview of your academic program to-date as well as your grades. If your grades are not what you think they should be, be ready to identify any extenuating circumstances (e.g. family or other responsibilities, number or level of course taken, etc.)

    • The official description of the criteria the recommender’s letter should address and the deadline by which the letter is due. Supplement this description with you own suggestions as to what you would like your recommender to emphasize.

    • Any coversheets or official recommendation forms that should accompany the letter. Be sure to complete any section that pertains to you: name, address to which the letter should be send, etc. Each scholarship is different. Make sure you have waived your right to access under the Family Rights and Privacy Act. Selection committees often fail to take non-restricted letters seriously.

    • If you are asking for more than one letter (as for graduate school or multiple fellowships), provide the following information on a separate sheet, as well as stamped and addressed envelopes for each fellowship:

    • To whom each letter should be addressed (individual or committee, relevant titles, address).

    • Whether each letter should be mailed directly to the funding agency (as in the case of the Rhodes, NSF, Mellon) or remitted to the IAP for the inclusion in the application packet (Study Abroad Application, HyVile, Talge, Marshall).

    • The deadline. Be sure to distinguish between a “postmark” and a “received by” due date.

  7. Ask your referee if she or he would like an example or two of a letter of recommendation for this particular fellowship. The Honors and Awards office may have examples on hand.

  8. Finally, be sure to write you recommenders a note of thanks and let them know what happens.

See also: The Personal Statement