Nearly all award, job, or school applications require letters of support and these letters matter! Letters of support are used by review committees to authenticate nomination statements and learn about the exceptional qualifications of the nominee. These letters are highly valued as evidence of the extraordinary work of the applicant. In fact, I have experience in which revising only the letters of support from a previously non-winning application resulted in a win. Letters of support influence the outcome!
If these letters are so important, who should write these letters and how will you ask? When considering letter writers, it can be difficult to know where to begin. To enhance your likelihood of success, there are several criteria to consider before selecting a writer and making the ask!
Who should write my letter of support?
Identifying letter writers can be tricky business. While you may be able to think about many people who would say nice things about you (no you cannot ask your mom), there are several criteria to consider as you make your selection.
1) Is the person a previous recipient of the award or position? Previous winners of the award or position you are nominated for are highly regarded by the organization and committee bestowing this award. In addition, previous awardees will have particular insight into the organization that may impact how they frame their comments about you and your work.
2) Does this person meet the requirements of the award or position ? Awards may have specific requirements/recommendations for nominators or letter writers. The specific award application will provide guidance regarding your selection. For example, an award may require letters from students and faculty, practitioner collaborators, letters from outside of your institution, letters from organization members, or a letter from your direct supervisor or mentee. It is essential to have a letter reflecting each required person in the application materials. Even when not specifically required, selecting a diverse group of writers can ensure writers speak to different strengths of your work. For example, for a faculty position select letter writers to share about your research and teaching excellence.
3) Does this person meet the criteria of the award or position? Awards and positions always have specific criteria that characterizes an exemplary candidate. Successful applicants select letter writers who meet these criteria. If you are applying to a research award, select writers who are excellent researchers. If you are applying to a teaching award, select writers who are exceptional educators themselves. Often award or position applications require a statement about the qualifications or the CV of the letter writers in order to frame their letter within the context of their expertise.
3) Is the person well known in the field for the criteria? After you have identified writers who meet the award criteria, ask yourself, “Is this person the top in this field?” If the writer must be an organization member, ask yourself, “Is this person active in the organization?” Ask the most prominent, active, or senior person who knows your work well enough to speak candidly about it.
4) Does the person know your work well? It is important that your writers know your work well. Informed writers can better identify which of your amazing attributes to highlight for any specific award. They will have specific evidence to provide to support the arguments they make about your expertise and extraordinary contributions to the field. Pragmatically, someone who knows you may be more likely to find the time to write your letter of support.
5) Is the person a strong mentor or advocate? If the writer is a strong mentor or advocate they are likely to be more invested in writing your letter than otherwise. At minimum, they will likely complete your letter on time.
How Do You Invite Letter Writers to Write for You?
I am always asked, “How well do I need to know my letter writers?” The answer is, it depends. Some letter writers you might know very well. For example, the award criteria may lead you to select your graduate advisor, a peer colleague, a student or a mentee. For other awards or positions, you may have met your writer just a few times at a conference, but they are on the steering committee for the awarding agency or are top in the field making them an excellent selection. Proactively prepare for soliciting letter writers by intentionally meeting folks at a conference or when they visit your institution. Ask to be introduced so you can at least begin your request email with, “I enjoyed our conversation when we met at…” Whether you know your letter writers well or not, there are some important steps you should take when inviting letter writers to write for you.
Once I write my first letter of recommendation, I am very happy to revise it for a new award or position. Thus, feel free to ask your same letter writers for multiple letters if you are applying to multiple awards or positions and the letter writer meets the criteria.
Below we provide some example emails requesting letters of support for awards or positions. We hope you find them to be useful model texts as you Make the Ask to Seal the Deal!
Example #1 (unfamiliar)
Dear Dr. XXXXX
It was a pleasure talking with you about XXXXXX when we met at XXXXX conference. I am writing to ask if you would be willing to write a letter of recommendation for me for the XXXXXX award. I have included the criteria of the award here and hope you can speak to the importance of my research for under-resourced communities. I am attaching a draft letter for your convenience and my CV. The nomination package is due XXXX so please submit your signed letter on letterhead to XXXXXX at XXXXXXX.org.
Please let me know if you are willing to submit a letter on my behalf.
I’m not sure where, but I recently read that writing letters of recommendation is “ubiquitous for academics or those following a research career.” Isn’t this the truth! It seems like a very short time ago that I was the student asking for a letter for graduate school or an award, but now, I am pretty consistently asked to write letters for students moving on in their academic careers. I know the weight that these letters can carry. I also know that I didn’t ever receive any sort of formal training or instruction on how to write an appropriate, impactful letter. If you are in the same boat, then you will love the series of posts that will be coming on our website over the next 6 months!
Our first post, written by our very own Dr. Hope Gerde, focuses on how to ask for a letter of support. This post will be followed by one about writing letters of support for students for grad school and for faculty positions, with more to follow. We hope you find these helpful!
Chair of the Professional Development Committee