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Instructions for Applicants

Selecting appropriate referees is among the most important aspects of any application. Failure to adhere to the guidelines of a specific fellowship will disqualify you from consideration for that fellowship.

When fellowships require faculty referees, at least some of your referees should be Standing Faculty (Professor, Associate Professor, or Assistant Professor).  Lecturers and Adjunct Faculty can be valuable referees, but Standing Faculty can add particular weight and support for your application.  That said, it is inadvisable to solicit letters from Standing Faculty who do not know you well enough to comment in detail on your academic performance and intellectual abilities, so choose wisely.

In any case, the most important question you should ask any potential referee (in person, if possible) is:

"Can you write a strong recommendation letter for me for this fellowship by this deadline?"

If you receive anything less than an affirmative response to each aspect of this important question, then you should probably ask someone else to write on your behalf.

In your initial request it is important for recommenders to understand how studying or working with them has been important to your academic and/or professional development. It is always wise to thank them for their mentorship and to note how their guidance and inspiration has been important in your development. Asking faculty and other mentors with whom you have not studied or worked recently is quite common (and often necessary). In this case, it is particularly important to remind them of a paper or project you completed under their guidance, the project's findings or impacts, and in some cases the other individuals with whom you collaborated (e.g., post-docs, other organizations, etc.).

After your recommenders agree to write for you and you are about to generate an online recommendation request, you should provide your recommenders with a concise email that includes all of the following:

  1. your reason(s) for doing the program(s), with specifics about what you hope to study, and who you wish to study with and why
  2. an explanation of your long-term goals, how the program fits into them, and why the program will be helpful to you
  3. a discussion about how your academic coursework, research, and other relevant activities have qualified you for this program
  4. an up-to-date CV or resume

Keep in mind that faculty and other recommenders are extremely busy, especially during the summer when faculty are focused on their research and all recommenders are trying to squeeze in vacation time. NOTE: Penn online recommendation requests for Rhodes, Marshall, and Mitchell applicants should be submitted to faculty recommenders no later than June 30 (over one year before you intend to commence graduate study).

Applicants are responsible for providing referees with as much information as possible about themselves, their goals, and the fellowship(s) for which they are applying at least six weeks before the date their letter is due to CURF (or to the fellowship, if there is no CURF deadline), including:

  • a resume or CV
  • to whom each letter should be addressed
  • materials (such as academic papers) the applicant previously submitted to the referee
  • Most importantly, the applicant must inform the referee of the submission deadline(s)!

Since each referee will serve a specific purpose in your application, you should help each referee understand the role s/he is being asked to play by emphasizing what aspect of your abilities you hope they can speak to in their letter. While it is extremely helpful for referees to receive a copy of your resume, you need them to write about specific instances in which they saw you working effectively. It can be very helpful to a referee, for example, to know why you are asking them to write on your behalf by reminding them of a project or situation in which you excelled during their class, internship, or workplace, and how your work exemplifies one or more of the qualities the fellowship seeks.

See below for details specific to each fellowship. Please consult CURF advisors for questions on other fellowship recommendations or questions not addressed here.

Multiple applications

It is common for applicants to apply for multiple fellowships simultaneously, and it often makes sense to have the same referee write letters for all applications. For the prestigious fellowships CURF supports, a standard or generic letter – especially handled through a credentials service – makes a poor impression and is often logistically impossible. Instead, the referees can write one basic letter for an applicant applying to similar programs and produce one variant for each application – taking special care to refer correctly in each letter to the specific school and degree program and the specific fellowship. If the applicant is applying for dissimilar programs, the letters might vary slightly – but the essential points of the recommendation will remain much the same.

Applicants register referees with online application sites that will send an automated notice to the referees allowing them to log in and upload their letters. In some cases, these automated notices get caught in spam filters; applicants should remind referees to check their spam or junk mail folders. Many online application forms also include a space to list referees’ information; applicants should not confuse this with the actual referee registration process.

Applicants will need to register referees with each application they are requesting a recommendation for, and referees will need to upload/submit one letter for each application.  There is no mechanism to submit one letter to multiple application sites.

Academic vs non-academic

An “academic” letter of recommendation comes from someone who has supervised the applicant in coursework or research (ideally in a graded setting). All other letters are “personal” and do not need to be academic (but can be). All letters should come from someone who has supervised your work of some sort, whether academic, paid, unpaid, or community service. While mentors and informal advisors can be crucial in helping applicants think through their goals and plan accordingly, letters from these individuals often do not carry as much weight as letters from individuals who have worked closely with or supervised an applicant on a specific project(s).

Applicants must provide the exact number and type of recommendations required. Additional letters are not permitted, except in rare cases in which the number of recommendations is flexible.

Recommendation Information for Referees

Please see the Recommendation Information for Referees page to learn more about how to best support students who have asked you to write a letter of recommendation.

For information about specific recommendation letter requirements for specific fellowships, please visit that fellowship's page in the Fellowships Directory. Please consult CURF advisors for questions on other fellowship recommendations or questions not addressed here.