LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION
The following information is adapted from the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation web site.
The Foundation asked members of its selection panels to share their perspective on the letters they
review. The panels were asked "What do you like to see in a letter of recommendation and what
leaves you cold". While these comments were specific to the Truman Scholarship, they are
relevant to most letters for major fellowships and scholarships.
Remember that strong letters will provide a vivid sense of what distinguishes the applicant
from all of the other applicants. All of the students applying for national scholarships and
fellowships will be among the best and the brightest. Your letter should focus on what makes
them stand out academically or how they have engaged in a significant way with one or more
activities on campus or in the community.
Provide specific information about the applicant.
Provide information that committee members can use to determine the applicant's
strengths. Letters should assist the committee in interviewing a student.
Provide some context of how you know the applicant.
For how long have you known the candidate and in what capacity. Did you have the
student in class, did the student work in your research lab or on a creative endeavor
project under your supervision? Do you know the student from volunteer or community service
Show that you know the applicant personally.
Citing incidents or actions that are unique to your relationship is more credible than
writing about information that could be gathered from the student's resume. Don't just
reference the "A" that he received in your class. Asses the student's personality
Point to specific examples of what the applicant has done.
If the student wrote a brilliant paper, mention its topic and why it stood out. If the
student did outstanding work in another regard, explain the nature of this work and its
particular strengths, especially as they relate to the goals of the fellowship.
Discuss why the applicant would be a strong candidate.
Discuss why the student is a strong candidate for the specific scholarship/fellowship
for which she is applying. How does she exemplify the personal qualities or selection
criteria specified by the fellowship? Specific examples are crucial. To know what is
important for the scholarship, ask the student to supply you with information about the
specifics of the fellowship to which she is applying.
Indicate what particularly qualifies the student.
How does the student embody the characteristics of the fellowship. Discuss what
particularly qualifies the student for the course of study or project that the applicant is
proposing. Such letters provide the links between past performance and what is proposed.
Use this as an opportunity to pull together the various activities the student has
accomplished over a period of time.
Place the student in a larger context.
For example, a letter could compare the present applicant to others who have applied for
similar honors in the past or who have succeeded in such competitions. If possible, the
student can be compared to graduate students or professionals. Quantitative remarks and
percentages may be useful: “among the three best students I have taught,” “top 5% of
students in my 20 years of teaching.” The strongest comparisons have the widest reach:
“among the best in my x years of teaching” is stronger than “the best in his/her
Draw on the remarks of colleagues.
Letters from professors may also draw on the comments from teaching assistants who may
have worked more closely with the applicants.
Know who else is writing a letter of recommendation.
Ask the students who else is writing a recommendation letter for him and what they will be saying. Try to provide information in your letters that will complement what is being written by others, so that together the letters will provide a more comprehensive picture of each applicant.
Lack of Specifics-give examples.
Letters that are too short or do not provide specific examples are not helpful. Do not
merely summarize a students GPA, extracurricular activities or other information that is
already included on a resume. Letters that consist largely of unsupported praise are not
Dwelling on the past- keep it current.
Avoid citing experiences that happened quite a few years ago -- the more recent the
better. What the student did in high school is not relevant in the vast majority of
cases. The letter should be as current and forward-looking as possible.
Not focusing on the student.
Do not go on and on about the university. The committee does not particularly care
where US News ranked the school. The letter should be about the student. Include
information about your institution only when it helps the reader interpret the student's
activities or academic record, i.e. provides relevant context.
Being overly critical.
Letters should be honest—and honest criticism, if generously presented, can enhance
the force of a letter—but committees take critical comments very seriously. It is best
to be cautious when making critical remarks and to avoid any sense of indirection.
If you are called upon to write letters for two or more applicants for the same
fellowship, beware of using too much of the same language in each, especially if they
will be read by the same committee (e.g., the same Rhodes State Committee or Marshall
Regional Committee). Such repetition weakens the force of your letters.
Being uncomforatble writing the letter.
Know when to say No" when you have been asked to write a letter. If you feel you
cannot be emphatically positive in support of a student, if you recall little more about
a student than the recorded grades, or if you do not have the time to write a solid
letter, you are probably not the best person to be writing the letter. Tell the student
that you are probably not the best person to writ ethe letter. You can help the student
to consider other possible letter writers, but agreeing to write for a student whom you
cannot strongly support is good for no one.
Tips on formatting letters of recommendation:
Address letters to the individual who chairs the fellowship committee, if that
information is provided, or to the committee as a whole (“Dear Marshall Scholarship
Make sure the letter is dated and printed on department or other appropriate
Letters for major fellowships are usually 1 to 2 pages single-spaced.
Close with your signature (in a color other than black to distinguish the original
from copies) and your full title or titles (e.g., “Assistant Professor of Anthropology”
rather than just “Assistant Professor”).