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FAQs for References

I have been asked to write a reference for a student applying to an NIH training program. Where should I send my letter?
When the student has completed the online application, you will receive an email requesting that you submit a letter. The email will contain login credentials and directions for submitting your letter. You will be most successful if you compose the letter first and then paste it into the application. NOTE: for security reasons, we accept only plain text submissions. Fancy formatting will be lost when you paste your letter in. It also means that your letter will not be on letterhead or signed.

To whom should I address my letter?
If you are writing on behalf of an applicant to the general SIP program, any of the administrators and investigators in the NIH Intramural Research Program may read your letter. Therefore, something like

  • To Whom It May Concern:
  • Dear NIH Investigator,

is the only choice.

However, high school summer interns will be selected by committees in the NIH Institutes and Centers, and participants in the various summer subprograms administered by the NIH Office of Intramural Training & Education (OITE), i.e., HiSTEP, HiSTEP 2.0, CCSEP, C-SOAR, AMGEN, G-SOAR, and GDSSP, are selected by committees organized by the OITE. You might use "Dear NIH Selection Committee," as the greeting for those letters.

How will I know if my letter has been received?
When you successfully submit your letter, both you and the student will receive confirmation emails.

A student asked me to submit a letter of reference, but I have not received an email request to do so?
There are several possible explanations for this scenario.

  • The student's application may not yet be complete. Only when the application is complete are requests for letters generated.
  • The student may have incorrectly entered your email address or may have used an email account you are not monitoring. The student can access the application to determine whether this is the case, correct the email address, and resend the request for a letter.
  • The request may have been filtered out by your computer SPAM or Junk filter. Check that folder. 
  • Your reference may have enabled auto-forwarding on the email address.
  • One or more servers may have timed out. If the first three explanations do not apply, ask the student to resend the request for a letter. (The student's email confirming receipt of a completed application contains directions for doing this.)

I cannot get the application system to accept my login credential. What should I do?
This situation can arise in two very different ways.

  • Our system-generated passwords are complex. Try copying and pasting yours into the password field. 
  • After asking you to write a letter, the student may have turned to another reference and eliminated you. We advise students to share this information with former references, but they often do not. Check with the student.

I tried to submit a letter and something went wrong. Now my login credentials don't work. What should I do?
Login credentials allow you to access a student's application ONCE. If you need to access an application again, request a password reset.

I am having a hard time making the online system work. Can I just send you a PDF or WORD file?
Application materials must be posted to the online application site making them available to NIH administrators and investigators. We do not have the person power to post letters individually for our thousands of applicants.

I am unclear about the deadline for submission of reference letters.

When your student applies for any of our programs you will receive a request for a letter with information about the deadline for the program to which your student applied. The absolute deadline for receipt of recommendation letters for the Summer Internship Program (SIP) is March 15th. No letters will be accepted after March 15th. The High School Summer Internship Program (HS-SIP), HiSTEP, HiSTEP 2.0, and some SIP subprograms (e.g., AMGEN, BESIP, CCSEP, C-SOAR, DSRTP, GDSSP, and G-SOAR)  have their own deadlines for reference letters, which are earlier than the general SIP deadline. Check with the applicant for hard deadlines.


There are no deadlines for the Postbac Program. We generally suggest that you submit the letter within two weeks.

The deadline for receipt of reference letters has passed and I forgot to submit mine. I don't want the student to suffer. What should I do?
Unfortunately, our deadline for receipt of letters is firm. We cannot accept late letters. If the student is searching for a research position, you can advise them to persist. In the event that the student identifies interested NIH researchers, you can submit your letter to them directly.

My son [cousin, neighbor, congregant] has requested a letter of reference for your program. Would my submitting a letter be OK?
This would not be a good idea. Letters that help build a successful application will come from practicing scientists or teachers who know the student well and can speak in a confident way about their potential to do high quality biomedical research.

I am a scientist at the NIH and one of my trainees has asked me for a letter of recommendation, and I am happy to write in support of the individual. Can I use NIH letterhead and my official title when I write the letter?
An NIH employee can use NIH letterhead and their official title to write in support of an individual when

  • The individual being recommended is seeking Federal employment, OR
  • The NIH employee has dealt with the individual during the course of Federal employment


  • The NIH employee has personal knowledge of the ability or character of the individual making the request.

If you are asked to write in support of a grant application, a contractor or vendor, to support a tenure decision, or in support of a visa action, it would be prudent to contact your IC Ethics Counselor for advice.


I am a scientist at the NIH. What if a student I knew when I was a faculty member at University X asks for a letter?
Unless the former student is applying for a position with the Federal government, you may neither use NIH letterhead nor sign your letter using your official title. You may, however, use personal stationery and refer to your NIH position along with other biographical details in the body of the text to establish your standing as a reference.

The aim, in all instances, is not to imply the Government’s sanction or endorsement of your opinion.

As a NIH scientist, can I write a letter of recommendation for a trainee who has spent time in my research group and is applying to return?