Writing Letters of Recommendation
The information below is general advice pertinent to most major fellowships and certainly applicable to smaller competitions. Of course, not every strong letter may be able to support the applicant in each of these ways, but all strong letters provide a vivid sense of what distinguishes the applicant.
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- Provide specific information about the applicant that committee members can use to determine the applicant's strengths and that will help shape an interview.
- Incidents or actions that are unique to the relationship with the student are more credible than information that could be gathered from the resume.
- Point to specific examples of what the applicant has done. (e.g., If the student wrote a brilliant paper, mention its topic and why it stood out.)
- Speak to the specific merits of the proposed research project, course of study, internship, etc.
- Convey the positive impact the fellowship will have on the student's short- or long-term goals. Be specific about how the proposed experience will fit into the student's trajectory.
- Place the student in a larger context. For example, a letter could compare the present applicant to others who have applied for similar honors in the past or who have succeeded in such competitions. If possible, the student can be compared to graduate students or professionals. Quantitative remarks and percentages may be useful: "among the three best students I have taught." The strongest comparisons have the widest reach: "top 5% of students in my 20 years of teaching" is stronger than "the best in his section."
- Draw on the remarks of colleagues for supporting evidence or the acknowledgement of specific strengths. Letters from professors may also draw on the comments from teaching assistants who may have worked more closely with the applicants.
- A letter that consists largely of unsupported praise and fails to provide specific examples 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.
- Letters that focus too much on the context of how the writer knows the applicant (e.g., descriptions of the course or its approaches) and not sufficiently on the student and his accomplishments.
- Letters consisting of 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 (e.g., punctuality) 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 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.
- If the students asks too close to the deadline. (We advise students to ask for letters no later than three weeks in advance of a deadline.)
- If a student approaches you in a highly unprofessional manner.
- If you feel that you cannot be emphatically positive in support of a student.
- If you recall little more about a student than the recorded grades.
- If you think that you are not the best person to write a letter.
- If you simply do not have the time to write a good letter for a student.
You can help the student to consider other possible letter writers, but agreeing to write for a student whom you cannot strongly support is good for no one.
- You may want to ask your student who else is writing for him/her and what the other writers 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.
- If you are called upon to write letters for two or more applicants for the same fellowship, beware of using too much of the same language in each, especially if they will be read by the same committee (e.g., the same Yale College fellowship committee or Rhodes State Committee). Such repetition weakens the force of your letters. If you have questions about whether two or more students are applying through the same state/region for national fellowships, please contact Fellowship Programs (firstname.lastname@example.org or 203-432-8685).
- 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 the same.
- If you have written a letter in collaboration with another faculty member, be mindful about how you and your colleague use subsequent versions of that letter. We want to avoid situations in which a student is represented by different letters with largely identical language from two different faculty members.
(Some of the items above are responses to an informal survey of Truman Scholarship selection panel members. With thanks to Mary Tolar, Deputy Secretary of the Truman Scholarship Foundation.)