Before you submit your scholarship application package, you are supposed to submit at least three letters of recommendation. And one thing to know, these letters are confidential, therefore you need to really know the person who is going to recommend you. In other words, you have 100 percent trusted that person and your entire application package now relies on that person. I am not scaring you, rather explaining the reality and how you can go about it. I have a story of a person I know, despite his impressive resume, very good GPA, and test scores on the English proficiency test, TOEFL, he was denied a scholarship at one university. When the university was sending the rejection letter, they explained why admission committee members didn’t admit him. They told him, one of the recommendation letters received, expressed some concerns with plagiarism in one of the subjects where the person writing the recommendation claimed to be the teacher of that course. Whether it was true or false, plagiarism is taken very seriously in the academic field. You don’t know what is going to be written in your letter. I know some other professors or references tend to show you the content before they submit it. That’s not allowed, though many people do that.

The answer above from the American University’s admissions office is proving the importance of the recommendation letters. These are endorsements and the most important ways for the admissions committee to understand you more and fact-check your resume and statement of purpose. 

When I was applying for scholarships, first and foremost I was very selective to find references. I had two types of references - professors who taught me at the university and supervisors for the jobs I had. And I didn’t just go and ask every professor to recommend me, rather I looked at those who taught me many courses, supervised my research or seminar presentations. In general, I wanted to have someone who was able to write not just one paragraph as a letter of recommendation. I wanted someone who could write so many things and know me well beyond grades in the class. Someone who knew my ambitions and future professional life I would like to have, helping and participating in various projects in the community and bring some positive changes and development of the country.

Even in your case, when you are at school, make sure your professors know you very well. I know there are some challenges in Developing Countries for professors to know many students. This is obvious because you find out one-degree program has over 500 students. I remember in my political science class for undergraduate studies back at the University of Dar es Salaam had over 600 students. When we went for those compulsory core classes like political science 110, the lecture room was full packed and others stayed outside. It’s practically difficult to have good relations with professors. This is vastly different from Developed Countries where a class has not more than 30 students. Professors know their students very well. No matter what, you need to start having professional relationships with professors, supervisors, and so forth.

If you are just a recent graduate and you don’t have a job, you will need to have all three recommendation letters to be from your former professors. But in case you are currently working and let’s say you graduated a couple of years ago, you will need to have both recommendations. I usually advise applicants when they say three recommendations, have at least two recommendations from your former professors and one from your employer or supervisor to explain your competence and professionalism in the work area. 

Forms of submitting recommendation letters

     There are basically two main ways of submitting letters of recommendation. These are through paper recommendations and online. Most universities nowadays prefer more online recommendations. But sometimes you are given both options and you are the one to choose which one you would like to use. You can decide to have two letters online and one paper recommendation or all paper or online. But the first thing you have to know and follow the instructions, which format do they want you to submit.

     Paper Recommendation

     When you are submitting a paper recommendation, there are things that must be there for your letter to have some impact, and taken seriously. These items are:

1. Official Letterhead. The recommendation must be written from the 
company’s or institution’s stationery. See the sample letter headed recommendation letters

2. Official Envelope. For your paper recommendation to be considered, it must be official. And to be official as I mentioned above, the letter must be written on the official stationery (with the company’s letterhead). Then the letter must be in the company’s envelope. If you just buy a plain envelope will not count as an official recommendation letter. Each company of institution needs to have official stationaries. Examples of envelopes to be used are here below

The first thing the person writing a recommendation must clearly state the nature of the relationship between you two. And also to indicate how long that relationship has been (how long have you known each other and under what capacity).

The second thing is to explain your competence and how he/she feels you are a good fit for the program you are applying to and the scholarship. This goes hand in hand with endorsement on confidence he/she is with you, upon completion of studies, you will be having a positive impact to your community and country, and not just your personal life.

Some of the things the admissions committee members are looking at the letters of recommendations include: 

Online Recommendation

     In this format, in the online application form, the applicant is supposed to include names of references, titles, institutions, e-mail addresses, etc. Once you include those, the person responsible for recommending you will receive an e-mail and instructions on how to do online recommendations.

Once online the recommendation is submitted, the applicant will receive an e-mail with the status that a recommendation letter from your reference has been submitted. Therefore you can track how many references have been submitted and how many (and who hasn’t submitted).

E-mail address is very important in this aspect. Many people use personal e-mails like Yahoo and Gmail. Remember, these are not given higher consideration when it comes to real competition. If you are adding references from university (professors) or supervisors from your employment, you will need to include their OFFICIAL e-mail addresses. By official e-mail, it must have the company’s or institution’s domain name. 

Challenging situations on getting recommendations


     I didn’t experience any difficulties in getting recommendations from my professors and supervisors. There were various reasons that worked in my favor. The number one reason was the fact that when I was applying for my master’s degree, I was already in the United States. I was a Fulbright Scholar, teaching and also taking some non-graduate courses. Therefore, I used my professors and supervisors in the United States. This made a huge difference because in In western Countries when you ask for recommendations, professors and supervisors are very happy to help, obviously the majority of them. You’ll not get those unnecessary excuses I don’t have time or my laptop didn’t work. It is expected of any professor to recommend the students. And most importantly professors are expected to help their students succeed in their education and careers.

     Even when I was still in Tanzania, applying for a Fulbright scholarship, I didn’t face much of the problems of my professors. I had a very good professional relationship with professors. I was among the top students in my political science department - that also worked to my advantage.

     But this is not the case for many people. Many applicants face challenges in getting recommendation letters. Some get recommendation letters of poor quality, others get them very late after the deadline and others don’t get them at all. As an applicant, it’s your responsibility to overcome this challenge and have a master plan at the very early stages of your application. There are things you should know first:


·         For university teachers - remember they are teaching thousands of students each other. If you didn’t stand out, it’s very difficult for them to always remember you. In that case, before you just write down the professor’s name as references, make sure you talk to him over the phone or in person. Don’t assume that he still remembers your conversation three years ago that you were planning to apply for a master's or Ph.D. Find him, talk to him right before you put his e-mail because after adding his e-mail, he is going to receive an online recommendation e-mail and instructions. If he doesn’t remember, he might delete or ignore it. But by talking to him in advance, he will remember you and you can discuss what university, what program are you planning, why are you applying and what’s your plan after completion of the studies. Those things will help him to write a personalized professional competitive recommendation letter than having a general template recommendation letter.


·         For employers and supervisors is a little bit tricky. There are some employers and supervisors who are very supportive of their staff to go and study abroad and are promised to keep their jobs once they get back. These employers and supervisors will definitely write very good recommendation letters, doing everything they can for you to get such scholarships. But on the other side, there are employers and supervisors who are totally against staff development, either for personal jealousy or company policies. Either way, it’s very difficult to get support from them, so don’t expect to get recommendation letters from them, and if you get it will be not that good at all because they don’t want you to succeed. It’s you who works there, therefore you know the nature of your employers and supervisors.


I hate to say this: In some countries especially in Developing countries, university lecturers don’t like to write these letters. There are various reasons, some are fact and some are just how many people think about it.


·         Many lecturers in Developing Countries think that writing recommendation letters is just doing a favor to a student. With that in mind, some making harder for students to get, others want to be begged and feeling special with power. They don’t realize that being a university lecturer, it’s technically part of your job to recommend your students for their professional development, be it for work or scholarships. I have seen many times an applicant goes to his/her professor is told to come tomorrow, then another day, tomorrow again until even a month of following up with one letter of recommendation.


·         Some lecturers don’t know how to write these letters. You find out some of the lecturers have never written even one letter, and don’t know at all and don’t want to learn. So they start delaying and giving you different dates Togo to pick it up. The funny part of you suggests to them that, should I compose a letter then you will look at it and sign it - they just say yes. Some lecturers tell you upfront that goes and write the letter and bring it to me and I will sign. This is not right at all. These letters need to come from professors (lecturers) not applicants and should be confidential. To be on the safe side, you need to find teachers you trust and are able to do it right and on time.


·         Finally, you need to plan ahead. You need to know the rough number of scholarships you are planning to apply for. With that in mind, you will start figuring out how many recommendations you will need from one lecturer or supervisor. This will reduce someone to see as you are disturbing him/her. In your initial conversations to request recommendations, you can mention your plan to apply let’s say 15 universities and you are requesting him to recommend to at least all of them. With this in mind, you can get good letters to support your applications.


For Video on Recommendation Letter, CLICK HERE

   Ernest B. Makulilo 
Missouri, USA

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