In the last post we talked about the two central questions you should answer in your statement of purpose: why do you want to pursue graduate training, and why are you a good candidate for the Fulbright scholarship. Your recommendation letters are not much different than that. Ultimately, they should also answer these questions, but in the third person.
Choosing your recommenders right.
Think of this as a trial, with the difference that you want to be found guilty of greatness. You will need strong witnesses to convince the jury that you are the person described by the evidence, which in this very weak metaphor, is your statement, test scores, and transcripts. Recommenders are the experts that lawyers bring to the trial in support of their final arguments. The recommendation letters not only serve as evidence of your talents and abilities, they also carry additional power because they are written by accomplished and respected professionals, whether in the academic field or in the industry. Because of their role in the selection of the candidates, recommendation letters are then a critical part of the Fulbright application process.
Who should I choose?
Choosing your recommenders should be a strategic decision. It depends greatly on what parts of your application you want to reinforce. I applied to Fulbright ten years after graduating from my Bachelor’s degree. Because I had professional experience outside of academia, including a non-academic letter would demonstrate that I had a good professional record. Additionally, my statement of purpose focused on bridging the academic and non-academic worlds as my primary goal, so it was important and strategic to show that I could perform in both spheres. I also needed to demonstrate that I could succeed in grad school specifically, so I also asked two professors to be my recommenders, one of them a former Fulbrighter.
Perhaps my strongest advice is not take this selection lightly. Getting good letters is very challenging because it implies time and effort for your recommenders, who are probably very busy. In my case, I made sure to select people who could talk about specific occasions in which I knocked it out of the park – there were not many of them but a few were enough. The two professors I chose knew my performance in more detail than most of my instructors. I had worked with both in research, and one of them had directed my Master’s thesis. When they accepted to write the recommendation, I organized meetings to show them my application materials, and to explain my professional and academic goals. I went beyond sending an email asking for the letter. I needed them to fully understand why I was applying to the Fulbright program so that they could write a more effective letter. This type of interaction will depend on how confident and close you feel with them - another reason why a careful selection is so critical-. Importantly enough, I was always very careful not to cross the line. That is, you cannot interfere in the process, you cannot write your own letters. I did, however, share links to tips and advices they could use as resources.
Actions speak louder than words
You have probably heard that expression, right? A similar logic applies to the recommendation letters. They need to be able to tell something more than “she is a good student”. If the only thing they can say about you applies to any regular person, maybe you should look for someone else. The strength of these letters lies in how personalized they are. They should talk about your academic, professional, and leadership abilities. Remember that the Fulbright Scholarship is not only about performing at school, but also about your potential as a leader in your field once you return home. Therefore, the letters should stress your intellectual talents as much as your potential to transform this knowledge into a progress-tool in your country.
Here are some tips that worked for me in getting my recommendation letters:
- Start with time (my recurrent advice in every post). These letters are beyond your control so you need to make sure they are uploaded on time. Unfortunately, it is rather common that one recommender ghosts you. You count on that letter and suddenly the professor disappears or comes up with an excuse. You need time for a back-up plan. Time also allows you to talk multiple times with your recommenders about your expectations. This will help them write a better letter.
- In your talks with the recommenders, remind them of specific anecdotes that demonstrate your potential. Talk about that good project you wrote for their classes and do not forget to mention your plans beyond school, how you see yourself after your graduate training.
- If possible, find a former Fulbrighter to recommend you. I was lucky enough to have a former grantee as one of my professors. Whereas I cannot know for sure, I imagine her letter was tailored specifically to this scholarship. Grantees know the game. They played it and won, so it helps to have them as recommenders.
- Monitor the progress of your letters but do not overstep the mark. You do not want to be the annoying student who sends dozens of emails. Send one follow-up, two max, and with temporal distance in between. If they do not respond, it is time for the back-up plan. It is better to look for another letter than to get a very standard one. Do not wait for too long, you risk being disqualified from the process for an incomplete submission (it has happened, sadly).
Great, we made it to the end of another post. As always, here’s a quick summary. Choose recommenders that know you well. Talk to them about your expectations and provide them with information that helps them write personalized letters. Start working with them with sufficient time and have a back-up plan. Monitor the progress. If possible, get a Fulbrighter onboard as a recommender.
Happy Fulbright application and stay tuned for more tips!
About the author: Santiago Lopez Alvarez is a third year doctoral student in political science, and a Fulbright grantee from Medellín, Colombia. He is currently studying how violence affects voting behavior and political preferences, using statistical and data analysis techniques. After his doctoral studies, he plans to work somewhere between the academic and the practitioner world. Read more about Santiago and Fulbright at Rice here.