Writing Letters of Recommendation for the Udall Scholarship
The Morris K. Udall Scholarship is a very prestigious national awards competition. Its purpose is to recognize and encourage future leaders in environmental activism, research and policy, who have demonstrated commitment to preserving and sustaining our natural resources. The scholarship also recognizes Native Americans who are interested in tribal policy and health care. About 75 scholarships are awarded each year; virtually every candidate will be in the top ten percent of their class, have demonstrated significant interest in environmental or tribal policy, and have engaged in environmentally related activities and/or research. Therefore, an effective letter of recommendation must go far beyond the standard, boilerplate letter to a graduate or professional school admissions committee.
The selection committee will look for evidence of academic excellence, intellectual independence, and sincere motivation to pursue a career in environmental or tribal policy in the application, and your letter should emphasize the ways in which the candidate displays such qualities. Successful candidates will be those who "walk the talk" and can demonstrate ongoing pursuit of their stated ideals and goals both in the classroom and in their activities on- and off- campus. You may find it helpful to sit down with the candidate and discuss his or her academic work, extracurricular activities, and future education and career goals. Applicants should also provide you with drafts-as they revise-of their applications.
The most effective letters run to over a page, and will take several hours to write. An effective letter will:
- State how long, and in what capacity, you've known the candidate.
- Describe the candidate's personality and work habits. Evaluate the candidate's ability to express ideas, motivate people, and organize to effect change.
- Be vivid and specific, including personal memories of the candidate, suggestive anecdotes, something to indicate that you know this candidate very well and think highly of him or her. Letters that matter to selection committees bring the candidate to life on the page.
- Describe and evaluate in detail the candidate's scholarly work, especially a major research project. The letter should help the selection committee understand the significance of this research, and the contribution it has made.
- Reflect, refer to, and elaborate on themes in the candidate's application.
- Rank the candidate in relation to other students you have taught and/or worked with, and if possible, compare the candidate to Udall Scholars you have known.
- Comment on the prospects for the candidate to play an influential role in future environmental endeavors.
- Because most of our students are from the Pacific Northwest and California, areas that already have a strong presence in environmentalism and in the Udall scholarship program, our students really have to work hard to stand out from the crowd. Any additional perspective that you can offer on the candidate's acting on their commitment to the environment or to tribal policy is particularly important.
If you are not able to write knowledgeably and favorably about the candidate, you should decline to write at all. A lukewarm letter will hurt in this competition.