Writing Strong Letters
Letters of recommendation are crucial to a student’s success in a prestigious fellowship competition. After the student’s own essays, they are the most influential part of an application. As such, your role as a letter writer is fundamental.
These tips are intended to help you tailor your letter for the scholarship competition at hand; they are based on feedback given directly from members of selection committees for the Rhodes, Marshall, Goldwater, Truman and others in workshops and conferences with the National Association of Fellowship Advisors (of which KU is an institutional member).
More resources are available from Dr. Anne Wallen (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Address the Criteria
Each Fellowship or Scholarship has a specific set of criteria that they want the letters to address. Note that what may be useful in a recommendation for graduate school or a job is not always well regarded by scholarship committees. Most of these awards are interested in much more than what a student did in the classroom.
Familiarize yourself with the mission of the foundation and find concrete examples of the way that the student meets their expectations.
For some awards, your may need to explicitly address a specific topic in your letter, such as leadership.
Be Vivid and Specific
It can help a student stand out for the selection committee if you can relate anecdotes about the student that provide a sense of the student’s character, as well as his or her achievements.
Prestigious awards often include programs and events for all the recipients, so the committee is interested in the student’s personal qualities that will make them a part of the scholarship community.
It is usually not necessary for letter writers to go into detail about a student’s GPA or other awards, as this information is typically covered elsewhere in the application.
Make Careful Comparisons
It can be very helpful to rank the student in comparison to other groups of students – i.e., among the best undergraduates I’ve ever taught; as good as my graduate students.
However, we recommend that you be careful with comparisons to specific past winners, as several foundation representatives have expressed that this is frowned upon in their committees. One committee member mentioned that she tends to have one of two reactions: “That person was awful, there’s no way I want another one like that!” or “That person was so good, there’s no way this student can compare!” Neither helps the student. The Goldwater Scholarship is one exception to this rule, but if you are ever in doubt, we are happy to provide guidance.
Keep in mind that at the national level, committees see only outstanding students, so they are unmoved to learn, for example, that "Student X was in the top 15% of my class."
Details – Do and Don’t
- State how long and in what capacity you’ve known the student.
- Make a declaration early in the letter of your general assessment of the student to frame the rest of your text.
- Take advantage of short paragraphs to create more “white space” on the page. (This may seem trivial, but committee members mention it very frequently!)
- Describe the student’s individual contributions to the classroom, a lab project, community service project, etc.
- Comment on the student’s potential for success in graduate school, in a tutorial setting (at Oxford or Cambridge), as an independent researcher, etc. as appropriate for the scholarship at hand.
- Give a lengthy description of your course syllabus or your grading policy.
- Write very long letters. Some scholarships have strict limits of 750 or 1000 words. A two-page letter is typical.
- Overly emphasize that the student always came to class on time and did homework, etc. – committee members tend to think two things: Is the student so unremarkable that this is worth mentioning? And, are the rest of the students at your university slackers?
- Mention “grade inflation.” This seems to be a running joke with committee members, who apparently do not take claims of universities or departments “not participating in grade inflation” at all seriously.
- Write letters unless you know the student well and are comfortable doing so.
- Ask students to write their own letters. Students should provide you with the information you need and could perhaps give you a list of things they would like you to highlight, but it is against the NAFA Code of Ethics to have students draft their own letters of recommendation. Please contact us with questions. We are happy to advise you through the process of writing your letter.
Submitting Your Letter
Most applications are now submitted electronically, so in most cases we will only need a PDF of your letter on letterhead. The student or the fellowship advisor will contact you to let you know the details of submission.
Some programs (such as the Marshall Scholarship) require you to paste the text of your letter into a textbox in an online form, thus preventing any formatting. While some foundations require that you submit the letter yourself, others (such as Astronaut, Truman and Udall) have you submit the letter to the campus representative.
When students are still at the campus nomination stage of the process, we ask that you submit your letters via this online form.
The Office of Fellowships requires that students waive their right of access for all letters submitted on their behalf and will never share your letter with students. If you wish to share a letter you may do so, but we leave that decision to you. Our policy is in keeping with the wishes of the foundations, many of which will only accept confidential letters.
Keep in mind that letters submitted to the Office of Fellowships will be read by campus nomination committee members. At the campus nomination stage, you may consider your letter a draft to be read by KU colleagues; there is usually plenty of time to make revisions before the national deadline.