It goes without saying that honest, articulate, informed letters of recommendation are crucial to a successful application, and thus the recommender, whether a professor, SJU administrator, coach, minister, priest, should be chosen with great care. Above all, make sure that the recommender actually knows you and your academic achievements. To this end, you should supply each recommender a description of the award, a copy of your unofficial transcript, your proposal, and your curriculum vitae, in order to give him/her the specifics necessary to write a persuasive letter of recommendation. At times, a well-crafted letter of recommendation can offset other factors; likewise, a mediocre letter can lessen the chances of a promising student receiving the desired fellowship/scholarship. The recommender should know what is expected of him/her and be willing in advance to fulfill the commitment of writing a recommendation.
Thus, after consulting with an SJU Resource Person and the Rev. Patrick Samway, S.J., Director of the Fellowships Office, you need to approach potential recommenders 6 weeks to a month in advance. A short chat in the corridor or a phone call normally is not the best approach. A visit to the person in question will give you a chance to explain what you are applying for and the timetable for submitting the application. You need to ask those who know your strengths, who can write from experience of their knowledge of you as a person and of your academic work, and who have the necessary time to do so. If 3 letters of recommendation are needed, then you might select 3 individuals who know differing, but essential, dimensions of your life and work, whether they be academics or not. There is no point in approaching a faculty member or anyone else who does not really remember you.
On the other hand, do not be hesitant about approaching someone whom you know could write a good letter on your behalf. Should you receive a “no” reply, take it in good faith, and continue, knowing that this potential recomender had good reasons for saying this. You should keep in mind that some potential recommenders might be away on sabbatical during the “crunch time,” or have travel or research plans that prevent them from writing a letter for you. Letters sought from persons living abroad need special consideration, given a host of potential problems.
Be willing to deal with practical matters yourself. 1) Make sure that the recommender has the appropriate form; 2) type out an envelope addressed to the fellowship / scholarship foundation, with a return address of the recommender in the upper left-hand corner, and affix the necessary postage, if necessary; 3) if the letter is not to be sent in directly to the foundation, then pick it up and deliver it personally to Father Samway at least 10 days in advance of the absolute deadline for submitting the application. At all times, the applicant should know the status and whereabouts of the letters of recommendation that have been requested.