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:
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:
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: