Tips for Recommenders

Letters of recommendation supporting students for nationally competitive scholarships are absolutely critical to a student's chances of success. The Goldwater Scholarship, for example, awards 25 percent of a student's ranking points to the reference letters. 

Here are some thoughts on writing for this specialized venue, which differs from job or graduate college application letter practice. Be sure to see the "Caution" below!

Writing Letters of Recommendation for Nationally Competitive Scholarships

Less Helpful Letters ...

  • Are too short or too long—two-page letters are recommended. Three pages could be appropriate if you have a great deal of useful information to offer, but are not the norm.
  • Rely upon platitudes which could apply to any solid honors student. A litany of vague superlatives ("Sarah is a bright, conscientious, and hard-working student") is of little value. Paint your student in specific, personal terms. Concrete examples and copious details are key to a letter with impact.
  • Regurgitate information already available to the committee on the transcript, resume, or other material supplied by the candidate. 
  • Remark on the student's attendance or preparation for class.  It is assumed that top students attend class regularly, complete their assignments in a timely fashion, etc. It does not speak well of your classroom or the institution to suggest that this kind of thing is unusual or noteworthy.
  • Contain typos, misspellings, errors of grammar and syntax—these can harm an application. Make it letter perfect.

Writing Strong Letters: It's All About Specifics!

  • Ask to see the student's resume, application essay drafts, and information about the scholarship. Talk with the student about his/her motivations for applying and long-term career plans. (We're asking the student to supply you with this information as well).
  • Consider a brief visit to the scholarship's website so you can discuss why you think the student is a good fit for the particular award and the funding organization's mission.
  • Tell stories. Ask yourself what you like about this student. Why does he stand out, why do you admire her, what makes him delightful? Think about how you realized these characteristics existed, and consider describing that process to the committee. Bring the student to life in a very specific and personal way. 
  • Reviewers crave details. Provide concrete examples to back up your claims about the student's achievements and ability as they relate to the scholarship criteria. Potential sources for such details include:
    • Formal and informal conversations you've had with the student during office hours, before or after class, over coffee, etc.
    • Notable contributions to classroom discussion or classroom dynamics, accomplishments in internships or assistantships, etc.
    • Excerpts or impressions from student's papers and presentations
    • Explanations of student's research and how he/she went about it 
    • Notable thinking, reading, writing, or communication skills/strategies the student has displayed
    • Student's interaction with you, other faculty members, staff, or peers
    • Your first and subsequent impressions of the student, observations on his/her growth
    • Observations on how the student has changed or enriched you
  • If you can, address why study with a particular university, program, or mentor; or experience of a certain kind in a certain place; is a perfect fit for the student's future and career goals.


  • The nature and length of your relationship with this student. If the student has done advanced-level work with you, such as an internship or teaching/research assistantship, this should be noted, as well as contact outside of the classroom you have had with the student.
  • A description and evaluation of the student's scholarly work, especially major research projects. What is the quality or significance of the work, and what does it indicate about the student's future?
  • A description of the student's personality, disposition, and work ethic.
  • A ranking for the student in comparison to other students you have taught. You can use specific, even quantified data (in the top 1% of students I have taught...among the top five students I have worked with in 20 years at NAU).  Be aware that prestigious scholarships on the level of the Rhodes and Marshall are ONLY interested in students writers place in their top 1%.... 
  • Quotes, comments, or descriptive stories about that student from colleagues, if needed, that support comments that you have made.

A Caution on Criticism...

Be honest but cautious about criticism.  Committees take criticism very seriously in national competitions composed of the best of the best, and it can  be the kiss of death for a candidate. If you feel the need to include substantive criticism in a letter of recommendation, you should consider whether or not you are the most appropriate person to write for this student, and perhaps discuss these concerns and/or suggest that the candidate find an alternate writer.  One thoughtful paragraph on a student's current limitations and how the award or proposed program/project can be helpful to the candidate, however, is usually appreciated.

Additional criteria for specific scholarships ...

  • Rhodes/Marshall/Gates Cambridge/Mitchell: personal integrity, altruism, strong academic preparation for proposed course of study, solid reasons to study in the UK and at the selected university, ability to be an ambassador for the UK in years to come. Social activism and community service are valued by all and are particularly important to the Rhodes, Gates Cambridge, and Mitchell.
  • Fulbright: ability to adapt and flourish in another culture, ability to be ambassador for America, feasible project proposal and valuable project or excellent potential as an English Teaching Assistant. 
  • NSF GRFP/Goldwater: strong scientific research aptitude and planned research career.
  • Truman/Udall: informed interest in public policy, ability to be an agent for change, record of leadership and service.
  • Ford/Mellon: strong university teaching and research potential.  

With thanks to Corinne Welsh, Doug Cutchins, Stephen Wainscott, and others.