Writing Recommendation Letters
Faculty are often asked to write recommendation letters for students. Recommendation letters are an extremely important part of a student's application, particularly for a prestigious award with a high level of competition.
The student should provide a letter writer with a substantial amount of information including a resume, drafts of personal statements or other written pieces of an application, and procedures for submitting a letter. The student should also ask the letter writer to compose a recommendation well in advance of the due date, ideally five to six weeks before the deadline.
General Guidelines for Strong Fellowship Letters
- Letters should be 1-2 pages single-spaced in length. Some scholarships appreciate shorter letters, whereas others prefer longer letters that give more details about the student as an individual.
- Address the student's academic performance or extracurricular engagements in detail and with examples. This gives a stronger impression and demonstrates personal knowledge of the student beyond their grade. Some fellowships require recommendation letters to address specific aspects of the student (i.e. academics, leadership skills, employment, etc.); the student should provide you with this information if applicable.
- Provide the context in which you know the applicant and for what length of time.
- Situate the applicant's performance in the larger context of your experience.
- Discuss why the student would be a strong candidate for the specific scholarship.
- Be candid but not negative. Foundations are looking for realistic evaluations of students.
Weak Fellowship Letters
- Too short, too vague, no specific examples.
- Generic letters or letters that have been reused from other purposes (graduate school admission, for example).
- Letters that merely summarize information from application.
- Letters that focus on courses taken or descriptions of activities/organizations rather than the work that the applicant did within those contexts.
- Letters that evaluate the student as mediocre or average or too many negative evaluations.
Do not agree to write a letter if:
- You are not strongly positive in support of the applicant.
- You do not feel that you know the applicant well enough or you do not remember enough to provide a good letter.
- You do not feel that you are the right person to recommend him/her for the fellowship.
Should you choose to write a letter of recommendation for a student, here are more valuable resources for you to peruse:
- Joe Schall's online handbook, Writing Recommendation Letters
- Advice from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Although this text was written primarily for the scientific fields, the advice is applicable to other disciplines.
If you have questions regarding writing recommendation letters for students, please don't hesitate to contact your student or the University Fellowship Office for clarification.