Recommendation letters are a critical element of every application. They validate the claims you've made as an applicant, providing specific examples and details of your academic accomplishments, personal endeavors, and character. Selection committees rely on them to impartially evaluate your performance and potential to be successful in the opportunity you are pursuing. Good letter-writers are those who know you well enough to provide these assessments with enthusiasm and authenticity.
Academic letters are typically written by faculty, lecturers, or faculty research advisors who have overseen your work in courses, research settings, or other academic contexts. These letters generally address how you performed, your potential for future success in the field, and any other attributes that make you qualified for the particular award. Post-doctoral associates/fellows and graduate students may also have insight into your performance if they've worked with you in a course or project. However, depending on the fellowship or research opportunity, they do not usually make suitable academic letter-writers. It is important that you check the criteria of the award and/or check-in with administrators who manage the award to see whether letters from non-faculty members would be appropriate for that opportunity.
Some students, especially those in their early college years, have not yet had the opportunity to directly interact with faculty – perhaps you have had more direct interaction with Teaching Fellows ("TFs"). In these cases, you might consider asking the faculty course leader or head of a research group to work together with your TF to generate a co-signed letter. Keep in mind, though, that coordinating co-signed letters takes more time than usual, so plan ahead. Peers (other college students or recent alumni in student organizations), on the other hand, are not suitable letter writers. If you're applying for a non-academic opportunity, or one that is specifically interested in learning about the applicant's personal attributes (character, leadership potential, commitment to service, etc.), then you might consider asking for a letter of recommendation from a College staff member or organization supervisor, coach, faculty who may be familiar with your work outside of the classroom, work supervisor, or Resident Dean or other House staff.
Letters from high school teachers or your high school years: Soliciting letters from high school teachers is not usually acceptable for fellowship and research opportunities at the college level. However, there are some exceptions to this rule. If you've engaged in research as a high school student and are applying to a competitive research fellowship that funds independent study (e.g. Herchel Smith Harvard Summer Science Fellowship) as a first-year student, it may be acceptable to provide a letter from that experience, but only if the writer can provide strong evidence that you are qualified to pursue an independent research project.
Letters of recommendation are a critical part of academic and professional development. If you need a letter from a faculty member, research advisor, or other Harvard community member, do not be afraid to ask if they'd be willing to provide you a strong recommendation letter (even if the deadline is still years away, for instance, a medical school/graduate school application).
Help them help you.
- Ask for recommendation letters in advance of the deadline—at least 3-4 weeks' notice is typical. Usually, letters of recommendation are due at the same time as your own materials! Please take note of this.
Share your motivation for applying with your recommenders, as well as what you are proposing to do and the importance (to you) to have this experience. Consider sharing your application materials, including drafts of application essays, research proposals, etc. These documents give your recommenders insight into what you are applying for and how their comments can complement your chosen narrative. You might also share a copy of your current resume, tailored to the experience you are applying for, so that the recommender can get a sense for who you are outside of their observation, your qualifications, and how your experiences have cultivated the skills and maturity necessary to undertake the opportunity.
- Remind the recommender how they know you, if they have not heard from you in a while. If being in their course was significant to your development or trajectory, let them know! You might also consider re-sending a copy of a paper or project you wrote for their class, to remind them of your good work.
- Give your recommenders specific instructions – this includes how, where, and when to submit the recommendation letter and any guidance from the selection committee on specific topics recommenders should be addressing. If you'd like the recommender to highlight events, skills, or experiences that speak to your qualifications for the opportunity, tell them so. Invite their questions about your materials and the application process, and check-in with them frequently as the deadline approaches.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for multiple letters. Recommenders who have agreed to support your application for one opportunity may also be willing to recommend you for another. If you are considering asking for multiple letters, you'll need to provide specific information about each opportunity, so that your recommender knows how to tailor their letter to best complement your application. (Remember, give plenty of notice—just because they have written for you before doesn't mean they can write a new letter overnight!) Check in frequently to see if they have any questions or concerns or need more information from you.
Give thanks and provide updates.
Regardless of the outcome of your application, be sure that you let your recommenders know you appreciate the effort and time they put toward the recommendation and update them on the outcome of your joint efforts. Even after the experience is long over, do your best to check-in with those recommenders; keeping them engaged with your trajectory is the best way to keep them engaged as your advocate and mentor.