Writing Recommendation Letters
Recommendations are an essential part of the fellowship process and are critical for student success. While many faculty worry that recommendations have become so inflated as to be nearly meaningless, they are still essential in giving selection committees a picture of the candidate as an individual.
Carefully-written, detailed letters are a key part of highly competitive national fellowships, in which all applicants are highly accomplished. It has been our experience that even after meeting with a candidate multiple times and reading through their application materials, we do not get a real sense of the candidate’s strengths as a fellowship applicant until we read the letters of recommendation. Besides putting an applicant’s individual achievements in a broader perspective, recommendation letters can convey a student’s character, goals, and challenges faced.
General Guidelines for Strong Fellowship Letters
- Letters should be one and a half to two pages single-spaced in length. These scholarships appreciate longer letters of recommendation that give the sense of the student as an individual.
- Familiarize yourself with the criteria of the fellowship to which the student is applying (the student should supply this information to you). You are not expected to speak to all of the criteria, but should be able to address some of it and why the student would be a strong candidate for a specific scholarship.
- Be sure you have information about the project or course of study the student will be undertaking through the fellowship (the student should supply this information to you) and make specific mention of it in your letter.
- Address the student’s academic performance or extracurricular engagements in detail and with examples. This gives a stronger impression and demonstrates personal knowledge of the student beyond their grade (the student should indicate what your letter should address, i.e., will your letter be an academic recommendation, leadership skills recommendation, etc.).
- Provide a context in which you know the applicant and for what length of time.
- Situate the applicant’s performance in a larger context of your experience.
- Be candid but not negative. These grant foundations are looking for realistic evaluations of students rather than overly positive hyperbole which may be unfounded or unsupported.
Weak Fellowship Letters (not helpful to the candidate)
- Too short, too vague, no specific examples for points made
- Generic letters or letters for other purposes (grad school admission, for example)
- Letters that merely summarize information from the application
- Letters that focus on courses taken or descriptions of activities/organizations rather than the work that the applicant did within those contexts
- Letters that evaluate the student as mediocre or average or too many negative evaluations