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 somewhat from job or graduate college application letters. 

Writing Letters of Recommendation for Nationally Competitive Scholarships

Less Helpful Letters ...

  • Are too short or too long—two-page letters are a good size, or a packed one-page letter. 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. 
  • 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.
    • 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

Include...

  • 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 or other work, especially major research projects. What is the quality or significance of the work, and what does it indicate about the student's potential for significant contributions to the field?
  • 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 22 years at NAU).  Be aware that prestigious scholarships on the level of the Rhodes and Marshall indicate that they 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. 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. 

Along with a focus on the applicant's strong points for the specific award, a thoughtful but brief mention of current limitations can be helpful. As the Rhodes Scholarship letter instructions say, "Committees tend naturally to be dubious of appraisals that imply a given individual has no limitations." 

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