Effective Letters of Recommendation – Application for Fulbright U.S. Student Program

Welcome to the webinar on getting
Effective Letters of Recommendation for your Fulbright Application. I’m Jenny Sullivan. Letters of
recommendation are very important pieces of your application for the Fulbright
because they come from credible sources, usually academics. And the people on your
screening committees are made up of academics, and they really trust the
opinions and views of their colleagues in the field. And they’re also a great
way to discuss or give credence more towards things that aren’t reflected
necessarily on your transcripts, or in other places in your application
such as your character, your maturity. This is why they’re very important. I
want to clarify really quick, before we move on, and I talked about this a
little bit later, but to make a clear distinction between the types of
recommendations that are necessary for students applying for the research or
study awards, versus the recommendations that are
required for the english teaching awards. Students applying for the research /
study awards must receive actual letters of recommendation on letterhead. To be
clear, your referees, who will write the letters on letterhead and sign them, will
actually upload them to your application themselves. You will never see the letter,
unless they choose to share with you. But it is a formal letter on letterhead.
Those applying for the ETA, you do not receive formal letters, your referees
actually log into your application in Embark, and they fill out a questionnaire
about your skills, experiences, and abilities. The questionnaire asks things
like describe the candidates communication style and skills; Or
describe their ability to act as an ambassador for the US; their maturity
level, and things like that. But from now on throughout the webinar, when I talk
about your referees, or if I say letters of recommendation,
I’m really talking about both types of recommendations. So who should you ask? Well, first it
should be and most importantly, it should be
someone who knows you well. Someone whom you’ve built a relationship with, maybe had
a couple classes with. You’ve performed well. Maybe you worked on a research
project with them. Somebody who can speak to a well-rounded
sense of who you are and what your skills are. It will be
even stronger if your letters or responses are from someone who has
knowledge of your subject area, and or research, so they can say, “The
candidates proposing to do an archaeological project in this
particular country using this technique or working with this group of people. I
have done that myself, and so I know details about what the student needs to
be successful and this student has those skills.” That can be very powerful. It can
be (but doesn’t have to be) someone who has knowledge of your
host country. Somebody who says, “This student is
proposing to go to South Korea, I have been there many times. The candidate and I have had many
conversations about the culture, about how to adapt, and I think they are well
equipped and well prepared to go to this particular country.” That can be very
powerful as well, but it should always be someone who knows you well. That should
be prioritized first. Your priority is always going to be
professors. The more that they are full tenured professors with PhDs, the better. You might also reserve 1 of your 3, for co-op supervisor, or an employer. An
employer, if your job is in your field, or maybe
a very strong mentor. For ETAs you have a little bit more flexibility. You
might be able to ask at an academic advisor, or an advisor for club where you
sit on a leadership board, or a coach. Maybe someone has knowledge of your
teaching experience, or who was themselves a Fulbright fellow, and can
speak to their knowledge of what the Fulbright is all about, and your
qualifications for the Fulbright. Unfortunately research and study
applicants are strictly professors, and maybe one employer. So it’s important
for you to build a relationship with your referees because you will get a
stronger letter if you do. In addition to having a stronger
relationship with your referee there are other benefits such as
receiving their advice, or opportunities from them for professional
movement or academic choices that you make. These just become strong
mentors. So how do you build a relationship with
a referee? Well, relationship building takes time, so start early. If you haven’t
already start now. Do research on your mentor, demonstrate a connection. So look on their LinkedIn page, or look at their CV. The more ways you can connect personally and professionally the more you’re going to have in
common, and the stronger your bond will be. Have regular meetings with them, and
communicate with them regularly. It doesn’t mean you have to pester them
weekly, but meet during their office hours or take them out to coffee once in
a while. But maintain that communication. Ask
for their advice on anything from your own research you’re conducting, on
graduate schools you might be considering, professional associations that you
should join, or readings that you should do that would really strengthen your
professional growth, and academic growth in general not just your Fulbright.
Understand the criteria that you will be evaluated on by the Fulbright committees
and address it with your mentor. So if you think your week in one area make
sure you have some of those conversations. Then remember everything
you do or say is fair game for the letter, so if you’re routinely late for
your meetings that’s going to affect the character
portion of your letter. Or how committed the referee is to even writing you a letter
in the first place. How should you ask for the letter? You
should do it professionally! If you’re going to do it in
an email, make sure it’s a professional
communication. Make sure you provide…this little bit
further down this list… but provide at least a month, or do it in a timely manner so that
they have plenty of time and you’re not asking at the last minute. A
good way to ask is to say “Do you feel you know me and my project
well enough to write a strong letter of recommendation for the Fulbright? If they
say no, you might be able to send them some materials, or have some
conversations that reinforce their confidence in you as a candidate. And
help them understand your project even more and thus receive a stronger
letter. I would suggest that you provide them with instructions – clear
instructions- and supplementary materials (we will talk about what some of those are) that might help them create a stronger letter. And discuss the confidentiality.
It’s not expected that a referee ever has to share their letter with you,
unless they feel comfortable about that. There are a few reasons why a referee
might say no. It could be straight up that they just
can’t positively support you. I’d much rather have a faculty member
say, “I’m sorry I cannot write you a letter, I don’t feel
comfortable writing you a letter.” That’s good feedback for you. It also
prevents you from getting a poor letter. A poor letter is going to be more
damaging then… or a weak letter… to your application, then if you were to ask
somebody else. They might say no because you asked in an unprofessional manner or
not giving them enough time. They might say no because they feel that they don’t
know you or your project well enough, or they might feel
unqualified; It is beyond their scope of expertise or their title. Those would be good reasons for them,
maybe they know better – that they would have the right credibility that somebody else might have. It’s better to… again it’s always better
that they say no honestly instead of getting a poor letter. And
give you an opportunity to ask somebody else to write a strong letter for you. Strong letters are going to provide
context for how the referee knows you, the student, and their area of expertise.
So it’s really building the credibility and why the audience should listen to
this referee. If they have known you… if they can say, and speak to the fact that
they known you for a couple of years or, that they have the expertise in an area
that you’re going to be conducting research in, or studying in; those are
going to be strong credible referees. They should address the criteria
required. Meaning they should talk about you and
your skills as it relates to the project, and where you’re going. And relate to
specifically what Fulbright wants in a letter, not necessarily what a grad
school want in a letter, or another fellowship is looking for. They should be personalized. They should
be about you, not about themselves. We see a lot of letters, actually that’s
been three quarters of the letter talking about the faculty member. And
then might have one paragraph about you. They should be personalized to you, not
generic. Not something where you could instant insert another student’s name
and it would be very similar. It should provide very specific examples
that they’re going to say this student is great at research. They should give
you an example of a research project you worked on, and what your role was, and
how you perform them. They should be honest and sincere and that may
include minor criticisms, but help give a well-rounded picture of who you are as a
person. Weak letters are basically going to have the opposite of all those,
they’re not going to address that criteria necessary specifically that Fulbright is looking
for. They’re going to be generic or not tailored. Weak letters are ones that summarize or reiterate information available
elsewhere in your application. Maybe they just look at your resume and listed all
of your accomplishments that’s nothing new. They might include clichés or
unsubstantiated praise or unclear criticism. Or there may be errors or
format issues in misspellings. This is the most common issue that we see in
letters of recommendation or recommendation responses. In general you
should give at least a month, as I mentioned for your referees.
Especially during the summer time when faculty are traveling, or they might
be on sabbaticals, or might be doing research trips themselves. You want to give them some time. Claire and I are going to provide you with a letter of
instructions on the best practices, with what Fulbright’s all
about, what they’re looking for, and with how to submit the letter. This is very very important that you
provide this directly to your referees. It”s also very important that you read
this letter yourself and are very familiar with the process so that if
faculty members have questions you can answer them, or direct them to me. I’m going to talk about what’s included
in this letter, and a submission process a little bit more in just a second. You might also provide resumes,
transcripts, a copy of your essays, and an outline of your research proposal to
help referees craft strong responses. Then I would always recommend that you
send a thank you letter to them afterwards. Keep them updated on your progress throughout the application – if you are recommended -if
you win… These are your fans, these are people
who really champion you, and should be involved in that success. As I mentioned before and I want to reiterate; those who are applying for the research
or study grant: your letters of recommendation are actual formal letters
on letterhead from the organization. They should be addressed to Dear Fulbright Selection Committee. It should
include the referee signature and title at the bottom. They’re typically one to two pages
single spaced, and they are actually uploaded online to your application by
the referee themselves. For english teaching assistants, yours is actually a
form filled out online by your referee. I recommend they formulate their responses
to these questions offline – maybe on a word document and then cut and paste
those into the form. Here’s a submission process. It can
be a little bit complex so hear me out You are working on your application in
Fulbright’s online application portal called Embark. You have a login
username and password. You can login and logout as many times as you want to work
on your complete application. On one page in your Embark
application is going to ask you for the names of your referees – your three
referees, and their contact information. Their email addresses. Once you submit that information in your
application, it’s going to kick an automatic email to
your referee that gives them their username and password for logging into
your application and submitting their recommendation. Once they submit their recommendation, it
can is very very difficult for them to make changes, or get it back or remove it.
So once it’s in, it’s done. So I wouldn’t recommend submitting your referees names
and email addresses in Embark until, for sure you’ve had a conversation with your
referees, and they’ve agreed to recommend you. And
until hopefully they’ve submitted a draft of their letter, or responses, to to me or Claire to look over. I’m
going to talk a little bit more about that in just a second. But that should be
closer to the end of the process, so they know what to to watch for and how to
submit their responses. So your referees going to write their recommendation and
or their responses, and they’re going to send a version of it to me and Claire. We’re going to take some time to review
the letter or their responses on a word document. To look for grammatical errors,
were going to make sure it addresses the criteria. We might even do
things like say…you know we’ve seen the other letters of recommendation and they
really address the students research abilities but what’s missing from the
overall application is a discussion about the students ability to really be
an ambassador for the US, in their character. Could you speak a little bit
more about that? If the faculty member is open to the feedback; they
don’t have to be, but if they are and if they’re in the spirit of; they want you
to be a success successful as possible. Then hopefully they’ll be willing to make
some minor changes and modifications before they actually submit their letter.
Once we give them the ok, they’re going to upload and
submit their final version in Embark. Before the Fulbright deadline in October.
Again once it’s submitted it cannot be altered. The letter i’m going to
provide for you, is going to detail these instructions. If you want to get a good strong
letter, I recommend these following tips: Think about telling your referees who else are writing letters for you. Maybe if
they’re in the same department or maybe if they know each other they might have
a quick conversation. “Hey what are you writing about.” “I’m going
to write about this.” That could be helpful. If your
referees relied too much, only on your application materials, and not your
relationship, the letters may all sound the same. Make sure you’re choosing people who can speak to; like I said your maturity and
your character too. You should not draft a letter for a busy referee. If a referee says
I’d love to do it, you drafted it. I’ll look it over, and submit it. That’s really inappropriate and
unethical. If one suggests this you should push back, or have me reach
out to that faculty member, or the referee and explain that’s not
really appropriate. Explain a little bit better what Fulbright is
looking for. RIT Fulbright committee is made up of
five or six faculty members who might be people you want to ask as references.
That is fine. There’s no conflict of interest there. They do this all the time. You should not however, reach out to ask
for one of the faculty members for a recommendation just because they are on
the committee…and you think they might have an edge. But maybe they know you
less well than somebody else. That’s not really appropriate. You should have
some alternate referees in mind just in case your original request fall through.
This is it. I hope this was helpful for you. Of course as always if you have any
questions about letters of recommendation or your Fulbright
application, please reach out to Claire or I. Have a great day!

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