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Writing Letters of Recommendation

Adapted from advice by Stephen H. Wainscott,
Director, Calhoun Honors College

An effective scholarship letter of reference... special.
Some scholarship applicants spend 50+ hours on their applications. Your letter need not require this much time, but it should reflect considerable effort and thought. In many selection processes, letters are as important as the application itself.

...tells a good “story”.
Vague superlatives (“John is bright, conscientious, hard-working…”) are of little value. The letter must bring the student to life with specific examples of his or her exemplary qualities. Interesting anecdotes show that you know the applicant well. If you really think the applicant is “one of the two or three most outstanding students I have encountered in my career” (or something along these lines) you need to say why.

...makes the case for excellence.
Every student who advances in scholarship competitions is assumed to hold great promise. If you regard the student as exceptional, your “evidence” should include more than his or her performance in one class. Your task is to go beyond the grade book. Avoid empty statements like “turned in assignments on time,” and “had perfect attendance in my class,” as they are hardly characteristics of excellence.

...confirms and validates.
Scholarship applicants must show solid evidence of research experience, explain their career goals, and discuss an issue or problem of particular interest. It is important for recommenders to comment on the seriousness of the student’s interests and career goals, to attest to the student’s research activities, and to assess the student’s potential to make a significant impact on the world of discovery in his/her field.

It is helpful to selection committees if you can favorably compare the applicant to other undergraduates -- and graduate students -- you have taught who have gone on to graduate programs and have been successful in their careers. How does the applicant stack up against these students at a comparable stage of educational development? It is particularly helpful if you can compare the applicant favorably topast scholarship winners for whom you have written.

...speaks to an educated reader.
In preparing their applications, scholarship candidates are often advised to assume that selection committees are generally knowledgeable in the applicable field or discipline. You should assume the same, even though it is unlikely that all reviewers will be from the student’s particular field. about the applicant.
Selection committees don’t particularly care about an institution’s US News ranking or other bragging points. Nor do they want to spend time reading about your accomplishments or “how tough” your course is.” Your spotlight should be on the student.

...addresses scholarship criteria.
Selection committees do not like letters that appear to be generic or “canned” -- written for graduate school applications with only the names of the applicant and institution changed. Scholarship letters should be original creations and should speak to the unique qualities envisioned in X or Y Scholars, with particular emphasis on the student’s skills, overall intellectual ability, and potential for a career.

...adds to the package.
A good letter brings an element of perspective to the materials the student has prepared for his or her application. A weak letter is one that merely rehashes the student’s resume or application essays.

...avoids “hearsay.”
Don’t base your letter on second-hand observations (“Professor Jones informs me that Jane’s work was the best in his class”). Write about what you have witnessed.

...complements as well as compliments. 
It is beneficial when each of the letters in the application packet to stresses different strengths and qualities, rather than echoing each other. If possible, ask the applicant who the other writers are, contact them, and compare notes about the applicant.

...expresses reservations.
Don’t take this too literally. The point is that selection committees are skeptical of letters so effusive and unqualified in their praise that the applicant comes across as too good to be true. If there are areas where the applicant could stand improvement, say so. But don’t overdo it – and don’t feel that you have to come up with something “negative.” This will hurt the applicant’s chances and make reviewers wonder why you agreed to write the letter in the first place. medium-sized.
You’re a selection committee member. It’s midnight. You’ve been reading about 40 application dossiers. You pick up a half-page, two-paragraph letter. Realizing it can’t possibly say much, you set it aside. The next letter, a four-page rambling epistle, also gets short shrift. Scholarship recommendation letters should be between one and two single-spaced pages. letter-perfect.
Typos, misspellings, errors of grammar and syntax can doom a student’s application. Do not tolerate them in your letter.


What Selection Panel Members Like to See,
and What Leaves Them Cold!

By Louis Blair,
Former Executive Secretary of the Truman Scholarship Foundation

What helps:

Point to some specific examples of what the Truman [insert any scholarship] Candidate has done -- gave a terrific presentation, was a dedicated employee who figured out new business practices -- look for results.

Provide information about the student's strengths in an interview. Letters should assist the committee in interviewing a student.

Be specific. If the student wrote a brilliant paper on quarks, mention the title and why it stood out.

Make the case for why this person would be a strong Truman (Rhodes, etc.) candidate. The letter should avoid the redundant information about GPA, class standing, etc. (unless there's something about it not captured in the numbers). Knowing what's unusual about the student (in areas relevant to the scholarship) is really critical.

Give the reader some context of how the person knows the Truman Candidate --school, civic, work, etc.--and for what period of time that the person has been known.

Provide specific dates, times and location of the event/activity being reviewed.

Put the student in perspective. Percentages sometimes help; "top 10% of students in my 50 years of teaching" when true is useful.

Give serious indication that you know the candidate personally (when possible). For example, incidents or actions that are unique to your relationship are more credible, than writing about things that are obviously on the resume and can be repeated without verification. Comments about character from personal knowledge are also quite credible for me. That means that the referring official is somewhat going out on a limb, and that means a lot.

What hurts:

Do not write three boilerplate paragraphs about the school or university. The committee does not particularly care where US News ranked the school. The letter should be about the student. Include information about your institution only when it helps the reader interpret the student's activities or academic record, i.e. provides relevant context.

Avoid letters that only tell what grade was given in what course. They are useless. Letter-writers should provide substantial information about classroom experiences. The fact that a student did the reading for the class should not be included in the recommendation. It should simply be expected and implies that other students did not do the reading (reflecting badly on the institution).

Be honest, but cautious about criticism. Committees take it seriously. Be fair to both the candidate and to the reader.

Do not include general platitudes that the Truman scholar is a great person and is a candidate for sainthood.

Avoid citing experiences that happened quite a few years ago -- the more recent the better. What the student did in high school is not relevant in the vast majority of cases.

Note: it is a real downer if the person writing the letter mentions that they only briefly met the Truman Candidate but the staff said nice things.

And a few general observations:

Advisors should encourage the candidate to seek out the people who really know them well. Think outside the box of tenured professors at the university. Not that those are bad, but they may not be the people who are most familiar with the candidate. However, if the letter is coming from someone outside an academic setting, it would be a good idea to acquaint the person with the Truman Scholarship program and to the general style of letters of recommendation.

For advisors, this may also require some earlier identification of scholar candidates, to make sure that they are hooked up with professors and people in their communities who will be able to get to know them well. Some young people don't bond very well with people outside their age group on their own, and they may need a little encouragement. 


On the Lighter Side

Words of wisdom from Scott Henderson,
1982 Truman Scholar, Veteran Member of the Truman Scholarship Finalists Selection Committee, and Assistant Professor at Furman University

Helpful components in a letter of recommendation

  1. When I read a letter, I want specific, even quantified data. For example: "Steve is among the three best spellers I've taught in 27 years at Bee University." Or, even if qualitative, I look for specific instances cited in support of a general point: "Susy's leadership was also demonstrated last March when she organized a campus-wide demonstration against Dr. Henderson's dress code."

  2. Related to number two above: I find quotations from other professors/individuals helpful. "Dr. Drone also notes that 'Steve is among the top five students I've ever taught...clearly headed for academic success in grad school.'"

  3. I also look for some sort of assessment of the student's personality and/or disposition. For instance: "Even though he has the highest GPA of any chemistry major at Test Tube University, Charlie's outgoing, friendly, and a lot of fun to be around. And the practical jokes involving litmus paper are a hoot."

Characteristics that undermine a letter of recommendation

A letter that is nothing but a summary of the application is utterly useless. I feel like the writer is assuming that I can't read (sorta like sitting next to someone who reads movie subtitles out loud to you). Certainly, there can be SOME overlap between a letter and an application, but it should be kept to a minimum. Otherwise, one can get the sense that the writer really doesn't know the applicant (see #2 below).

  1. The writer should know the student well. If not, then another writer should be chosen. [Emphasis added. Don't be afraid to say "no" to a request if you cannot write a compelling letter.] If this, for some reason, isn't an option, then the writer should at least have a couple of meaningful/informative conversations with the student prior to writing the letter.

  2. I'm really turned off by letters in which the writer talks about how well the student did in his/her class. Even in a letter attesting to academic potential, this is weak evidence to adduce; it's like saying, "Bill is one of the smartest people I've seen in the last 20 minutes." And, invariably, the professor throws in a line about how tough HIS/HER classes are; this makes it sound like it's the professor who's applying for the scholarship.

  3. Related to number 2 above, a letter shouldn't be written by an "important person" unless the person really knows the student. In other words, I would not be impressed by a letter from Bill Clinton if it were obvious that Clinton didn't know "that woman." At the other extreme, I'm generally not impressed by letters written by family members. I assume that a letter written by an applicant's mother will be positive regardless of the child's mediocrity (or prison record). Since I've actually read a Truman letter of rec from an applicant's mother, there's more truth than poetry (or humor) in my observation.

  4. Letters should avoid vague platitudes that, in fact, are really evasions in disguise: "Betty is not a traditional leader, but instead leads by example" (translation: Betty hasn't demonstrated any leadership). Or: "Shelly's GPA should be evaluated in light of the tough standards we set here at Pleasantville Community College (translation: Shelly isn't a particularly good student). Or, finally: "Don completed his assignments on time." (translation: next application, please).

  5. Letter writers should not feel compelled to substantiate or agree with every assertion an applicant makes. In 1997, for example, an applicant wrote this for number 7 (leadership example): "One part of leadership is the ability to inspire others. As a fashion model, I presented clothing in a way to inspire others to buy." Regrettably, the professor who wrote the leadership letter tried to justify why this was a good example of leadership. The applicant was not selected for an interview, and our tracking satellites have lost contact with the professor.


Examples of Recommendation Letters


Example of a Weak Letter

A weak letter is short, vague, full of generalities, and “damns with faint praise.” In the worst case, it doesn’t talk about the specific scholarship or even mentions the wrong one. Here is one such example:

Jane Doe is a double major honors student in X and Y, with a cumulative average of 3.45. I am the Chief Undergraduate Advisor in X. Jane is focusing her X major on issues of minorities in urban settings. Jane has been able to meet the demands of both her majors, as well as spend a semester doing an internship and study program abroad. Here at University she has been involved in both the Golden Key Honor Society and the Annual Fund. In the Spring semester she was very involved in raising awareness and funds for disaster relief in Albania.

Example of a Strong Letter

A strong letter is specific, contains one or two memorable examples, and compares the student to others. It should be long, but not too long, and should express enthusiasm. It should also be tailored to the particular scholarship.

It is with great pleasure that I am writing this letter in support of Jane Doe's application for the AAA Scholarship. I have known Jane since the fall of 2008 when she was enrolled in my XXX seminar. Jane distinguished herself immediately as the student who was most filled with passion, enthusiasm, and excitement about the course material. My initial impression of her did not abate as the semester progressed. Jane earned an A for her work in this course, revising her papers and being critically open-minded about expanding the parameters of her thinking. She was always an active and engaged class participant, and her final project in the course (investigating the elections process in newly formed Russian democracies) was extremely well researched and well presented.

In addition to producing excellent academic work, Jane has involved herself in numerous campus and volunteer organizations. She has worked for the past two years as a supervisor for the Annual Fund, and currently serves as a member of the University Affirmative Action Committee. She has succeeded in helping this Committee establish a clear mission statement and guidelines. She is motivated and motivates others with her dedication and accountability. In addition, Jane is Secretary of Golden Key, and has been an undergraduate representative to the department's executive committee. Since 1995, she has served as a student senator to the Student Government Association. In all of these activities, Jane has been instrumental in designing and implementing policy, as well as serving as a liaison between students and the administration. She has given students and their cause a fair voice. Jane is interested in social justice and follows her beliefs in her daily life inside and outside of the classroom. She has also been actively engaged in community activities, in which she has been involved in outreach and organizing. These activities have allowed her to demonstrate and refine skills that will benefit the community in which she decides to settle.

I am equally impressed with Jane's record of volunteer service throughout her busy career in college. Her volunteer activities include working at soup kitchens here and at home, gathering relief money to be sent to Albania for the relief effort, and serving as a translator in the International Volunteer Program at the Everywoman's Center. She also holds a second paying job to make ends meet. In addition, during her semester abroad in Romania, Jane worked with two women's collectives dedicated to feminist and community empowerment through the acquisition of construction skills, as well as through legal advocacy and educational programs.

Jane is also a guitarist and singer who just recorded her first CD. Her many talents and interests are astounding. Their common thread is her belief in cooperating with others and helping them to achieve their goals. She believes that each one of us has to contribute to a better world by our own actions.

Jane is an optimistic person who finds solutions in times of crisis. Her fellow students look to her for advice, but she is also fun to be around. Work gets done but at the same time new avenues of thinking are opened. Jane is a leader who is humble. She pursues the goals of her groups with passion without letting her own needs or interests get in the way.

I will be saddened when Jane graduates in May. There is no other student I can think of from my fifteen years of teaching at University who has had such a varied and productive career-- both in and out of the classroom-- as Jane. She is an exceptional student and person who has earned university recognition for her academic achievements, her commitment to others, and her service to several communities. Her cooperative spirit, her compassion for the well-being of all, and her flexible leadership style make her an outstanding leader who is destined for significant accomplishments in graduate work and beyond.

See also:
Writing Recommendation Letters Online: A Handbook for Faculty by Joe Schall
*Includes the 10 Commandments for Writing Recommendation Letters


UK Scholarship Recommendation Advice
and Sample Letters