Working With References

Choose your reference letter writers wisely, and help them help you.

  • Your references should be professionals who have been an eyewitness to what you have done: a university faculty member, research mentor, advisor, internship coordinator, volunteer director, employer in your field, etc. The best references are usually professionals you have worked closely with over time, whom you know well and in multiple contexts, and who can write in detail on your recent experience and accomplishments. They must also be able to meet the scholarship deadline.
  • Ask early! Give them plenty of time--a month is courteous.
  • Start by describing the fellowship and why you want to pursue it. Then ask the potential references if they can give you a strong, positive recommendation: "Can you write a strong recommendation for me, for this fellowship, at this time?"
  • If references seem unwilling or uneasy, don’t push.
  • Give references all possible information about the scholarship organization’s mission, deadlines, and the specific criteria for evaluation, as well as your own background. (See specifics below.)
  • Tell each reference one or two specific things you would like him/her to address: this helps keep your recommendations from being too similar and sounding formulaic.
  • Give your references a "gentle reminder" close to the deadline, with your thanks.
  • If necessary, nag.  Politely!

Put together a packet of info for each reference containing:

  • Resume
  • Unofficial transcript
  • Draft of fellowship essays, especially a personal statement and proposal statement
  • List of courses taken with that person, if a faculty member
  • Info on the scholarship including web address, scholarship mission, criteria for selection, how to submit the letter, scholarship website link to recommender advice and instructions if available, and deadline (including the NAU internal deadline if applicable).

Excellent articles!

How to Ask for a Recommendation: And how to supervise the faculty member writing it

How To Respond To a Request To Write Your Own Recommendation Letter


  1. Please ask writers to SEE MY TIPS FOR RECOMMENDERS WEBPAGE for great advice on writing recommendations for major scholarships, which are not the same as writing grad school or job application letters.

  2. Please request that recommendation letters and forms, especially for scholarships requiring NAU official nomination, BE SENT TO ME DIRECTLY at well prior to the writer uploading to the scholarship website. That way I can evaluate your entire package of materials for impact, I can make suggestions if needed, and I receive extra information early to help me write your university endorsement letter.