Our students compete against the very best in the country when they apply for national fellowship awards, and every word in their application matters. Your recommendation letters are no exception. They are in fact an essential component of the application and are taken quite seriously by selection committees, who turn to you for an insider's sense of a student's real capacity, demeanor, and potential. Thus, a letter that merely says that the student seems nice and did fine in class will actually hurt your student's chances for success. Strong recommendation letters for fellowship applicants:
What else can I do to assure my letter will be viewed as positively as possible?
How do I know if my student is a good candidate for a particular award?
- Use department/company letterhead.
- Begin with an explanation of the context in which you know the student (has been a student in my class for three semesters; has worked as my research assistant for the past year, etc.).
- Avoid excessively florid language and superlatives.
- Back up all claims with evidence.
- Follow the instructions from the student on where to send the letter. If you are not getting clear information, either from the student or the foundation, please contact the Drexel Fellowships Office.
- Keep a dated copy of the letter on file.
- Send a copy of your letter draft to the Drexel Fellowships Office in advance of the deadline. We can help with pointers for specific awards.
- Additional insights available from Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning: isites.harvard.edu/fs/html/icb.topic58474/Verba-recs.html
Letters that are just too brief – one or two paragraphs – convey disinterest or lack of acquaintance and can be harmful to the candidate’s prospects, however positive your language might be. Aim for one complete page for a fellowship letter, and up to two for the most competitive awards such as Fulbright, Rhodes, Marshall, or NSF.
Use Detail and Anecdote
You want to convey a clear sense of the candidate's intellectual and personal character. Be generous, but be honest. While praise is good, overly florid language isn’t really convincing unless it’s backed up with specific and substantive illustrations. Therefore, write mainly about areas that you know firsthand.
Include detail that demonstrates, in as personal and individualized a fashion as you can, exactly how and why you’ve come to think what you do about the student. Discussing specific papers, conversations, projects, and deeds will help distinguish the candidate in the reader's mind.
And while good ideas are always important, perhaps at least as important is the student’s character. Do they follow through on ideas and plans or are they all talk? Do they reach out in sincere ways to engage others or are they seemingly only interested in advancing their own selves? Do they exhibit genuine intellectual curiosity and do they have the thinking, research, and writing skills to follow through? Are they professional, mature, sincere, energetic? In other words, a strong recommendation letter has a thesis claim about the student: she is intellectually curious, for example, or he is committed to using his skills to improve the lives of others. Then back up your claims with detailed evidence to support your claim. You are trying to paint a detailed picture of the student that you admire so that readers will come to view him or her through your eyes; this is the point of the recommendation letter.
- Think about what you genuinely like about the student in front of you, and what about that student inspires or delights. What is/was it that makes this student a special person to have in class, in the lab, or at an internship or volunteer setting.
- Think back to when you first met the student and describe specific instances in which the student has exceeded requirements or expectations.
- If you’ve seen the student grow or change over time, try to articulate how, when, and why the change happened.
- Think about where and how the student excels: is it in research skills? In their passion and creative ideas? In interpersonal skills with students or faculty? Is the student precise and meticulous? Energetic and dynamic?
- Do they exhibit genuine intellectual curiosity, superior critical thinking abilities, or originality? And do they have the thinking, research, and writing skills to follow through? When and how have you seen these displayed?
- When has the student exceeded expectations? In what ways?
- How, in your experience, has the candidate’s character or ability to lead or bring about change been manifest?
- How do the candidate's personal qualities complement or enhance his or her aims and ambitions? Are they professional, mature, sincere, energetic? What makes the candidate particularly memorable or impressive?
It can be helpful to ask to meet with the student to discuss how they wish to present themselves. You might also ask for the student’s resume or CV, a summary of the award they are applying for, a draft of their application essay if available, and the date the letter is due. Students who have come through this office should have these at the ready to give to you. You may also wish to ask for copies of papers the student has written, a transcript, or additional information on the award. However, avoid recapitulating highlights from the candidate's resume. Your letter is most valuable when it shares information, experiences, anecdotes that reveal qualities not evident through paper credentials alone.
Reference the Program Requirements
At the highest levels of competition *all* serious candidates have outstanding records and accomplishments. What makes your candidate different? If your student hasn’t provided you with information on the award for which they are applying, take a few moments to look on the program website or contact the to review the selection criteria. Knowing what the scholarship is for will help you understand how to present your candidate. Again, be as specific and concrete as possible.
Highlight any unusual or truly outstanding quality or ability you believe makes the candidate especially well-qualified for the specific scholarship for which they are applying. For example, Fulbright looks for candidates with 'ambassadorial' as well as scholarly skills; Truman looks for candidates deeply devoted to public service; Goldwater looks for candidates committed to scientific research; Rhodes looks for all-around excellence and vigor at the highest levels.
Some awards ask for letters to address specific qualities, often some variant on intellectual capacity and personal character. Be sure your letter addresses the qualities that are being asked.
Write for Students You Admire
If you can't write a strongly enthusiastic letter, gently decline.
As with college admissions panels, fellowships reviewers can spot the snow job a mile away. So what to do if a student you are not all that enthusiastic about asks for a recommendation letter? You might try taking the time to meet with the student anyway. Ask to hear more about their vision for themselves. Ask about their most exciting and engaging experiences. Some students shine outside of the classroom, and you might see the student in an entirely new light.
If you still feel tepid about the student, it is in their best interest for you to find a gentle way to say no. Don’t assume you are their only or even their best choice. Indeed, you might help guide the student to more appropriate recommenders. Something like: “Perhaps you’d do better with someone who knows you better than I do, and can better speak to your strengths. Let’s think who that might be.” Most students will hear you.
The extremely helpful book Writing Recommendation Letters: A Faculty Handbook, by Joe Schall, can be downloaded for free and is available at https://www.e-education.psu.edu
/writingrecommendationlettersonline/.The book covers everything from ethical issues of writing letters to matters of form to the specifics of letters for nine national scholarships. The book also includes about 30 sample letters of recommendation written by faculty from a variety of schools.