Writing Effective Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are critical for the success of a student’s application. In fact, a strong letter of recommendation may compensate for many shortcomings found in the applicant’s essays or transcripts. Alternatively, a mediocre or lukewarm letter of recommendation can effectively kill an otherwise strong application.

Because applicants are competing on a national basis for a very limited number of scholarships, it is imperative that your letters of recommendation provide as much relevant detail as possible. Specific examples and concrete comparisons with other students make a stronger case for our best candidates.

In general, scholarship/fellowship committees give preference to candidates who combine high academic ability, the potential to make a significant contribution to their discipline and professional career, personal integrity, and an ongoing commitment to civil society and the greater good.

Selection committees like to see letters of recommendation that:

  • Bring the applicant to life on the page
  • Describe and evaluate in some detail the applicant’s scholarly or other relevant work
  • Help the committee understand the significance of the applicant’s research/work
  • Include the contribution the applicant and/or the applicant’s research/work has made
  • Comment upon the applicant’s ability to make future contributions
  • Reflect, refer to, and elaborate upon themes found in the student’s application.

Try not to rely solely on a summary of the applicant’s performance in a class or a cursory review of her/his transcripts and/or résumé. Rather, seek a balanced, detailed, honest yet favorable portrait of the candidate from your perspective that addresses the criteria desired by the particular scholarship organization.

Recommendation letters should be frank and devoid of hyperbole. If you feel that you are only able to provide a lukewarm or pro forma letter, please suggest that the applicant seek alternative recommenders.

Ideally, the applicant should provide you with a copy of the scholarship’s selection criteria, her/his transcripts, résumé, and draft essays or rationale for applying to the particular program.

Feel free to ask the applicant if there is anything that she/he would like you to mention in your letter.

Powerful letters generally exceed one page in length and provide ample detail and evidence of:

  • Your familiarity with the applicant (provide the reader with some context of how, why, and to what extent you know the applicant; comments about character from personal knowledge are also quite useful)
  • Perspective on the student — percentages sometimes help; “top 10% of students in my 50 years of teaching” when true is useful
  • The applicant’s past accomplishments (provide some specific examples)
  • The applicant’s leadership potential  and potential for distinction in her/his field and chosen profession
  • The applicant’s plans and preparation for research or study
  • How such plans fit into the applicant’s long range career goals
  • Why the applicant merits strong consideration by the selection committee

In some cases, it is beneficial for letters of recommendation to provide information about the student’s strengths or weaknesses that may be anticipated should the applicant receive an interview in front of a national/regional selection committee.

In all cases, the letter should avoid providing redundant information about the applicant’s GPA, class standing, etc., unless there’s something about that information that should be explained.

Scott Henderson, a 1982 Truman Scholar, veteran member of the Truman Scholarship Finalists Selection Committee, and associate professor, Furman University, says that when he reads a letter:

  • I want specific information (e.g., quantitative evidence: “Steve is among the three best spellers I’ve taught in 27 years at Bee University” or qualitative evidence: “Susy’s leadership was also demonstrated last March when she organized a campus‑wide demonstration against Dr. Henderson’s dress code.”)
  • I find quotations from other professors/individuals helpful (e.g., “Dr. Drone also notes that ‘Steve is among the top five students I’ve ever taught …clearly headed for academic success in grad school.’”)
  • I also look for some sort of assessment of the applicant’s personality and/or disposition (e.g., “Even though he has the highest GPA of any chemistry major at Test Tube University, Charlie’s outgoing, friendly, and a lot of fun to be around. And the practical jokes involving litmus paper are a hoot.”)

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