Writing Letters of Recommendation for Nationally Competetive Scholarships

by Corinne Welsh ('01-B.A. Honors/English, '03-M.A. English)

General characteristics scholarship committees value:

  • Intellectual curiosity
  • Academic rigor, leadership, and risk-taking
  • Collegial attitudes & practices
  • Excellent oral and written communication skills
  • Personal integrity, maturity, warmth, sensitivity, energy
  • Great potential for making major contributions to field and society at large.

How can you write a letter that best reveals these characteristics in your student?

  • Ask to see the student's resume, application essay drafts, and information about the scholarship. (We're asking the student to supply you with this information as well).
  • Ask yourself what you like about this student. Why does he stand out, why do you admire her, what makes him delightful? Think about how you realized these characteristics existed, and consider describing that process to the committee.
  • Be detailed. Give concrete examples of your claims about the student's brilliance so the selection committee can understand him/her in quite specific terms. Potential sources for such details include:
    • Excerpts from student's papers
    • Explanations of student's research and how he/she went about it (professionally, meticulously, energetically, etc.)
    • Formal and informal conversations you've had with the student during office hours, before or after class, over coffee, etc.
    • Notable contributions to classroom discussion or classroom dynamics
    • Notable thinking, reading, writing, or communication skills/strategies the student has displayed.
    • Student's interaction with you, other faculty members, staff, or peers.
    • Your first and subsequent impressions of the student, observations on his/her growth.
    • Observations on how the student has changed or enriched you.
  • Consider a brief visit to the scholarship's website so you can discuss why you think the student is a good fit for the award.

Less Helpful Letters ...

  • Speak exclusively to grades---the selection committee can glean this information from transcripts, so grades need not be a focal point.
  • Could apply to any solid honors student (too generic). Since every applicant for prestigious scholarships is a solid honors student, you should paint your student in specific, personal terms. Concrete examples and copious details are key.
  • Too short or too long---most letters are 1 and a half to 2 pages. 3+ pages are appropriate if you have a great deal of useful information to offer, but are not necessarily the norm.

Additional criteria for specific scholarships ...

  • Rhodes/Marshall/Gates Cambridge/Mitchell: personal integrity, altruism, adequate academic preparation for proposed course of study
  • Fulbright: ability to adapt and flourish in another culture, ability to be ambassador for America, feasible project proposal
  • NSF/Goldwater: strong scientific research aptitude
  • Truman/Udall: informed interest in public policy
  • Ford/Mellon/Javits: strong teaching & research potential  

Sample Recommendation Letters

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