Student Academic Grants and Awards

Writing Effective Letters of Recommendation for National Scholarships

Your letter must be a very special one, written especially for this student and for this competition. The best letters are from 1½ to 2½ pages in length, and can take several hours-often more than a day-to write. You may find it helpful to sit down with the candidate and discuss his or her academic work, extracurricular activities, and future educational and career goals. It is also worthwhile to spend some time on the program websites for the scholarships for which your students are applying: understanding the program's specific criteria will help you shape your letter, and some programs, like the Truman scholarships, have pages of advice for recommenders. Links for these programs appear in the list of national scholarships elsewhere on the SAGA websites

An effective letter

  • State how long, and in what capacity you've known the candidate.
  • Describe the candidate's personality and work ethic, using concrete examples that demonstrate a strong relationship.
  • 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 student's scholarly work, especially a major research project. The letter should help the selection committee understand the significance of this research, the contribution it has made, and include examples of the student's ability to make future contributions as a scientist, policy maker, environmentalist, etc.
  • Address the scholarship criteria specifically in ways that demonstrate your abundant confidence in the student and your knowledge of the candidate beyond grades and classroom performance. You may not be able to comment on the student very much beyond relatively specific interactions such as class, academic advising, or research projects; this is OK. The student will have a range of recommenders, so no one writer has to cover the entire student. Just be as clear and detailed about the ways in which you do know about the student, in general and in relation to the specific program to which she or he is applying.
  • Provide evidence of the candidate's leadership and service: the more concrete examples that you can give of a candidate's public service-altruism, volunteerism, activism-the better. The most effective letters use narrative technique to highlight the student in action, as a teaching assistant, researcher, volunteer, innovator, and activist.
  • Reflect, refer to, and elaborate on themes in the candidate's essay. A generic letter of support is not helpful in these competitions.
  • Rank the candidate in relation to other students you have taught, and if possible, compare the candidate to Rhodes, Marshall, Truman or other Scholars you have known. Please note: FERPA regulations currently prohibit specific mention of the student's letter and number grades, so please avoid these details-an evaluation like "among the top 10% of students I have taught in ten years" is a more helpful assessment, and the student's grades are available from her/his transcript.
  • Comment on the likelihood that the candidate will prosper in graduate school, in a tutorial-based learning environment (for Rhodes, Marshall, Gates Cambridge), as an independent thinker and effective researcher (Goldwater), or as cultural ambassador and self-directed learner (Fulbright, Rotary), etc.
  • Avoid common pitfalls. Unhelpful letters will:
    • Focus more on the letter writer's own resume, achievements, and stringent standards, than on the student's qualifications for the scholarship.
    • Be so generic that almost anyone's name could be inserted into the text of the letter.
    • Provide no more information than could be gleaned from the transcript and application, or merely list the student's accomplishments without a sense of personal contact on the referee's part.
For more information on writing letters of recommendation, consult Writing Recommendation Letters, by Joe Schall, on file in the Office of Student Academic Grants and Awards.  You are welcome to contact Dr. Monique Bourque in the SAGA office for general questions, specific advice, and feedback on program requirements or letter drafts at any time.  The samples of letters for specific programs elsewhere on this page may also be helpful.