The first thing I learned in graduate school had nothing to do with PCR or cell culture. Walking the halls of the lonely ivy-covered ivory tower, I learned that you are your own absolute best (and sometimes, only) advocate. Nobody, not even your kindly mentor/advisor, will look out for you the same way that you can look out for yourself. Therefore, when you are applying for that coveted fellowship or scholarship, think of it as a blessing when your (lazy) professor asks, “Why don’t you come up with a first draft of the recommendation letter?”
Of course, it is extra work to write the recommendation letter(s) in addition to the required personal statement, research plan, CV, etc., but this is your chance to make your application package a complete story (see my previous blog about a good story). Here are a few tips that usually help me get started on writing the first draft:
1. Make a list of events (such as conferences or seminars) and interactions (both professional and personal) that define your relationship with the recommender.
2. List a few praising or flattering adjectives that you imagine your recommender would use when describing you, your work, or the collaborations you have had with him or her.
3. Think about the achievements that you did not have enough space to describe in detail in your other application materials. List two or three aspects of your work or career that your recommender might illustrate to complete the application package and make your candidacy stand out from the crowd.
4. Do your homework on the fellowship to which you are applying as well as your recommender’s background. Put yourself in the recommender’s shoes, and clearly state how the recommender has the expertise to proclaim without doubt that you are the most qualified/destined-to-succeed/best-fit applicant for that fellowship. 5. Use strong and assertive language to “unreservedly recommend” yourself as a “standout scholar.” Don’t over-dramatize, but don’t be shy or modest either. Let your recommender modify the language of your draft if he or she chooses.
While you might mention some of the obvious aspects (your degree(s), overall theme of your work, etc.), try not to repeat too many of the details if you are writing letters on behalf of multiple recommenders. Also, remember that this is an opportunity to remind your recommenders of your impressive work record and superb writing skills.
Good luck! The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Government.