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Managing academic Referees (2/3)

This series of posts, from the Open Dreams Graduate Mentorship WhatsApp Group, was inspired by the recurrent challenges of getting reference letters from some university lecturers. Go to this link for the first post and to this one for the third post

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Each time you think of undertaking further studies especially at the graduate level, think of letters of recommendations. If you have already tried out the scholarship application process of any sort, you must have come across programs that require you to fill out an online application, a request for a copy of your transcripts, and a couple of essays to write to stand a chance to be selected from many others, for the program. While this can be very daunting, many of these scholarship schemes especially the most prestigious ones like the Fulbright, Commonwealth, Chevening etc also require additional documentations like the reference letter. Although like college admission reference letters, this additional component of your scholarship application can play a vital role in moving your name from the rejected pile to the list of contenders. Given that these scholarship schemes often cost thousands of Pounds, Euros or Dollars, it’s not something that should be handled lightly. It takes some critical thinking and robust planning to ensure you receive a recommendation that will stand out among the other applicants. My personal experience shows that we have both low impact and high impact reference letters and the quality of your reference letter very much reflects your relationship with the recommender as well as the positive thoughts of your recommender about your career and professional advancement. As someone who has secured Chevening, VLIR-UOS and Commonwealth Scholarships, I am very pleased to share the following practical tips:

1. Stay in touch with your referee before the application process

High Impact reference letters reflect good relationships. One key area of focus that we deal with unequivocally as Open Dreams Mentors is a recommendation in addition to essay development. As simple and less meaningful as it can be, recommendation letters play a critical role in your application process. I have been recommended and I have recommended; as a result, I can tell you that recommending somebody or being recommended requires more than just the initial request for the recommendation. It is first and foremost a by-product of an existing relationship between the recommender and the applicant. Your referee can be either your undergraduate or graduate supervisor, your former supervisor at the workplace, or someone you take as a role model or mentor. My question is: How often do you stay in touch with them? This is about communication – how many times do you connect with them on a monthly, quarterly or annual basis? Within a year, we have many special events which are opportunities for you to have some exchanges with them. This can be in the form of extending anniversary cards or valentine’s day greeting cards.

Also, life is characterised by compassionate events. How close are you to your mentors and potential referees to know when they experience tragic events and or even good moments? These may seem trivial opportunities that can mean a lot when you need these people at some point in your life like applying for scholarships. Your show of concern can be worth thousands of Pounds, Euros and or Dollars in the future.

While some referees will write just anything in the form of a recommendation to fulfill the basic requirements, others will ask questions like - Why is he only getting to me when he needs something? Remember that this kind of questions or exclamation will never be heard by you. Based on this, it is therefore necessary to underscore that there are two types of recommendations: Low Impact Recommendations and High Impact Recommendations. While the former will cause you more harm than good, the latter will give you leverage.

2. Target the right person for your recommendation(s)

Before I proceed, take this as a WARNING. DO NOT request recommendation letters from your family members even if they have served as your supervisors at work or in another formal space. It is often too difficult for them to provide an impartial opinion about your abilities and/or potential. Instead, find someone who will provide the best feedback about your experience or capabilities as it relates to the scholarship application or call for application. For example, if you are applying for the Commonwealth Scholarship in the area of Food Security and Nutrition, it would make more sense to have a lecturer in that field or someone from an NGO involved in food security and nutrition programmes, write a letter for you than others who do not have any connection in that field irrespective of their relationship with you. For academic-based scholarships, consider approaching your tutors, research supervisors or an institutional administrator. If you are applying for an award that is based on your community service or leadership abilities, a staff member or agency coordinator from a non-profit or civic organization would be an excellent choice. Matching the right person to the right application is one of the most important steps to ensuring a great recommendation letter. Always remember that there is a direct relationship between type of recommender and the quality of your recommendation.

3. Approach the target referees well ahead of time and provide some baseline data about yourself

It’s important to understand that many of the people you may approach to write a recommendation letter for you have other responsibilities and obligations. They may also be writing such letters for other students, as well. The quickest way to have someone decline to write a recommendation, or provide you with a sub-par letter, is to wait until the last minute to ask for their assistance. The best practice is to approach your referee at least one month to complete a letter for you.

You should also provide them with your updated Curriculum Vitae, detailing the list of awards and honours as well as additional training and or workshops you have attended. The more information you can provide, the easier it will be for those writing letters for you to create a masterpiece that breaks the spin of the selection committee.

4. Give your Referees some direction

Although you may be tempted to write the letter yourself, and some people may even ask you to do it, I would advise against it. Scholarship committees are savvy and can usually tell when a student has written his/her own letter of recommendation. Instead, consider providing a brief outline to help direct those who are writing letters for you. Be sure to include the name of the person or committee the letter should be addressed to, as well as specific examples of your work, activities or events that relate directly to the application at hand. It’s very important that those writing for you understand the purpose of the scholarship and what the letter should include (see the last paragraph on point one above).

5. Express Gratitude after you receive the recommendation letter

Understand that mentors and your former lecturers or supervisors be it at school or at work are not required to take time from their busy schedules to write letters of recommendation for you. They do it because they believe in you and want to help you succeed. It’s important that you acknowledge their time and efforts by following up with a note or card. If they have written multiple letters, you might even want to drop off some homemade treats or a gift card. Whatever you do, just be sure to say ‘Thank you.’ It’s not only the right thing to do, but also makes it much easier when you need to go back to them for another letter in the future.

If you follow these simple tips, it will not only make the process simpler for you, but also for those composing your recommendation letters. Proactive applicants prepare for opportunities and one of the key items to ensure a bright future is to identify and nurture relationships with these people you will refer to as referees. They are a pillar to your application and ought to be given the attention they deserve.

Good Luck

- Miki Gilbert Ngwaneh (PhD Student), School of Agriculture, Policy and Development, University of Reading.


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If you look into your neighborhood, city, region or country, there will be one or more people who have missed out on a scholarship or a fellowship opportunity because they failed to secure a letter of recommendation, which is a requirement for over 80 to 90% of such opportunities nowadays. The failure to secure a recommendation by many scholarship or fellowship aspirants has been blamed both on referees and applicants. Now, read how it worked and has been working for me.

When I was encouraged by a brother and mentor (Miki Gilbert) to apply for the Commonwealth and Chevening scholarships in 2019, I went searching for the requirements and realized that I needed three (3) referees: One academic, one professional, and one personal. I used two weeks before the scholarship application was launched to scan through the list of potential people who could recommend me and all of them were people I have related with academically, professionally and personally. I stepped up my relationship with them by attending almost every event that they were involved with, especially my academic referee because I understood he is somebody who needs more attention. After attending a seminar he organized one month to the closure of Commonwealth and Chevening award applications, I told him I was interested in the Commonwealth and Chevening scholarship and I will wish he recommends me. Without hesitating, he accepted.


In the course of seeking to get recommendations (academic), I have interacted with many scholarship aspirants and one thing I have realized is that, many ignore the fact that most Senior University lecturers that they run after for recommendations are not familiar with scholarship application portals and do not even master how to use the Internet effectively, and will not sacrifice their precious time to learn what will enable them to help somebody who just popped up when he or she needed help.

NB: A lecturer will not call you to come and show him or her how to submit a reference on an application portal because of ego; he might decide to let you down than cause you to understand his or her limitations on the skillful use of technology and the Internet.

HOW TO GO ABOUT:

1) When you identify a potential recommender for a particular scholarship, start discussing with him or her before you could ever approach him for a recommendation.

2) Get familiar with potential recommenders, to the extent that they will even feel like giving you their email login details.

3) Do not waste your energy behind senior lecturers because the seniority of your recommender or referee will not give you the scholarship; what gives you the scholarship is the quality in the content of the recommendation or reference letter (which indeed should reflect your abilities). Your application will never be considered anywhere because of the seniority of your recommender.

My academic recommender for Commonwealth scholarship didn't know how to use the application portal well. That would have affected me if I wasn't closed to him. I personally directed him and he did the submission.

- Ntang Julius Meleng, Cameroon| ntang@unityfoundationcameroon.cm| ntangju@yahoo.com


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