- Letters for major fellowships are usually 1 to 2 pages single-spaced, except for the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship, which requires a short answer form.
- 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 Committee”).
- Make sure the letter is dated and printed on university or other appropriate letterhead.
- Close with your signature and your full title or titles (e.g., “Assistant Professor of Anthropology” rather than just “Assistant Professor”).
You may want to ask your students who else is recommending them and what the others are likely to say. You can then 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.
Although we encourage students to provide their recommenders with detailed information about themselves, the fellowships, and their proposed projects or courses of study, it is not ethical to request that students provide drafts of their own letters. Faculty should also beware of leaning too heavily on material provided by students for their letters, since students give much the same information to each recommender, and following this material too closely can lead to letters that sound too much alike.
When to Say No
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, if a student approaches you in a highly unprofessional manner or if you simply do not have the time, you should say you cannot write a letter of recommendation.
- Provide specific information about the applicant, such as information that committee members can use to determine the applicant’s strengths and that will help shape an interview.
- Provide some context of how you know the applicant (class, research, work, civic, or other context) and for what period of time you have known the applicant.
- Show that you know the applicant personally. For example, incidents or actions that are unique to your relationship are more credible than information that could be gathered from the resume.
- 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 for the specific fellowship. How does this candidate exemplify the personal qualities or selection criteria specified by the fellowship? Specific examples are crucial.
- Indicate 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.
- Letters that are too short and fail to provide specific examples or instances of points mentioned.
- Generic letters or letters for another purpose sent without regard to the specific fellowship, course of study, or project proposed.
- Letters that merely summarize information available elsewhere in the application or that only present the student’s grade or rank in a class.
- Letters that focus too much on the context of how the writer knows the applicant (descriptions of the course or its approaches) and not sufficiently on the student and his or her accomplishments.
- Letters that consist largely of unsupported praise. Kind words that do not give committees a strong sense of how applicants have distinguished themselves are not helpful.
- Letters that damn with faint praise. It is not helpful to say that a student did what might be expected (completed all the reading assignments) or that point to qualities (punctuality, enthusiasm, presentability) not germane to the fellowship.
- Letters that focus on experiences that happened quite a few years ago. Even letters from writers with long-standing relationships with the applicant need to be as current and forward-looking as possible.
- Letters that may be read as implying criticism (beware of left-handed compliments) or whose criticisms might be taken to indicate stronger reservations than stated. 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.
With thanks to Mary Tolar, Deputy Secretary of the Truman Scholarship Foundation.
Advice for UK and Ireland Scholarships
Writing for the Gates Cambridge
The Gates Cambridge selection process calls for two different letters. Both should emphasize the suitability of study in the selected degree program at Cambridge for the student. If you are writing a recommendation for University admission, focus on the student's academic achievement and suitability to undertake the proposed course of study. The one required recommendation for the Gates Cambridge Trust should reflect that the selection process considers: “Leadership potential and a commitment to help society will be as important factors as outstanding academic merit in identifying and short listing the best candidates."
Criteria they use:
- Exceptional achievement in academic studies
- Evidence of potential to make a significant contribution to chosen profession
- Potential to assert leadership in addressing global problems relating to learning, technology, health and social equity
Find further information about the Gates Cambridge, including profiles of current and past winners.
Writing for the Marshall
Note: The Marshall online application system will not accept letters longer than 1,000 words)
The most helpful letters address not only the applicant's intellectual and professional promise but also his or her potential to perform well in a program in the UK, where students will work much more independently than in the US. Scholars are expected to be good ambassadors to the UK and to represent the UK well in the US and to be leaders in their fields. Addressing a candidate’s potential in both areas helps.
A strong letter:
- Explains why the student stands out above others and why you have confidence in his/her personal and professional promise
- Offers specific support for the appropriateness of the applicant's UK academic program and why he/she should study in the UK
- Presents your assessment of the student's character and what you know about the esteem in which others hold the student
- Includes detail about your personal connection with the student and his or her contribution to this relationship.
Find further information about the Marshall, including profiles of current and past winners.
Writing for the Mitchell
The mission of the Mitchell scholarship is "to educate future American leaders about the island of Ireland and to provide tomorrow's leaders with an understanding about, an interest in, and an affinity with, the island from which 44 million Americans claim descent." Mitchell Scholars expects students to become leaders in their fields and cultural ambassadors during their time in Ireland and throughout their careers. The twelve Mitchell scholars do a lot as a group, so a student's ability to contribute as a member of a team is particularly important. At the same time, potential Mitchell Scholars must also be independent and able to fend for themselves, since each is likely to be one of only two awardees placed at a particular Irish university. Lastly, students with interests in Irish-European-US relationships and making people-to-people connections across borders have an advantage in the selection process. To the extent that you can comment on specific attributes of the candidate that are relevant to these considerations, please do so.
Criteria your letter should address include:
- Demonstrated record of intellectual distinction, leadership, and extra-curricular activity, indicating a strong potential for future leadership and contribution to society
- Honesty, fairness, and unselfish service to others
- Strong preparation for the proposed course of study
Find further information about the Mitchell, including profiles of current and past winners.
Writing for the Rhodes
As one Rhodes Selection Committee chair puts it, "We are looking for students who exhibit well-rounded excellence with a 'bulge'-some distinctive quality that really stands out from the many other excellent applicants." Thus, the most helpful letters provide detail not only about the applicant's general intellectual achievements but also what makes him or her a genuinely remarkable individual. Rhodes Scholars are expected to be good ambassadors to the UK and to represent the UK well in the US. The scholarship is intended to be for people who will be leaders in their fields and contribute to the well-being of others. To the extent that you can comment on specific attributes of the candidate that are relevant to these considerations, please do so.
Criteria your letter should address include:
- Proven intellectual and academic achievement of the highest standard
- Integrity of character, and demonstrated interest in and respect for his or her fellow beings
- The ability to lead, and the energy to use his or her talents to the full
Rhodes Scholarship Committees are especially respectful of letters that are both glowing and genuine, with concrete evidence to support the writer's assertions about the applicant. Since committees may be skeptical of letters that are too effusive or unqualified in their praise, recommenders are encouraged to take a forthright tone.
Thus, a strong letter will:
- Address only the criteria most relevant to your relationship with the student
- Explain the significance of the student's particular achievements, beyond "just the facts"
- Where possible, speak to the applicant's strengths in applying for the particular Oxford course of study
- Present the student as a prospective leader, one whose influence will extend beyond the professional realm
- Where possible, offer concrete examples of altruism, activism, and service to others
- Offer evidence that the applicant has the physical vigor and emotional resiliency to take advantage of opportunities offered and adapt resourcefully to unexpected circumstances
- Not hesitate to mention areas in which there is potential for growth
Find further information about the Rhodes, including profiles of current and past winners.