Writing an Outstanding Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are the most important part of an application after the applicant’s essays and proposals.

Applicants for such prestigious and highly competitive national awards are required to have 3-8 letters of recommendation depending on the award, and these letters are critical to the deliberative process of selecting candidates and ultimately winners of these national fellowships and scholarships.

Following is a list of tips and suggestions for letters of recommendation for national awards:

  1. Different scholarships and fellowships seek candidates with different characteristics, but there are some common elements, and the format and length of the letters are also similar. Tailoring recommendation letters to the individual and the award will enhance the chances for success for a candidate.
  2. The most meaningful letters are written by faculty and others who know the candidate well and understand how s/he is uniquely qualified for a particular award. Letters from prominent individuals (e.g., senators, mayors, governors) who do not know the candidate well tend to be formulaic and not of as much value in the selection process as a letter from a recommender who does know the candidate and his/her unique qualifications well.
  3. Recommenders should not feel that they must write letters just because they have been asked to.  Applicants understand that recommenders can and should say “no" if (1) they do not know the candidate well enough to write a specific, detailed, and strongly supportive letter; (2) they know the candidate but do not see him/her as strongly qualified for the award; (3) they do not have time to write a strong letter that can be submitted to meet deadlines.
  4. Letters with just warm but just general “support" for the applicant not only do not help but can have a negative effect on the candidate’s chances.
  5. Letters from family, friends, and/or relatives are never a good idea (They are obviously biased).

Information to Include in Letters

  1. If the applicant has distinguished her/himself, it is important to say how the applicant has done this. Reviewers look for specific details that demonstrate how the applicant is different and better qualified than others. Please provide specific actions and not just general qualities of the applicant.  Talk about this student in comparison to students and groups of students with whom you’ve worked.
  2. For faculty, if information about your department or your course provides added information or context to the applicant’s accomplishments, include this.  Please avoid, however, just providing a description of the content of your course and the student’s grade.
  3. Without including a grade for a course an applicant may have taken from you, it is helpful for the recommender to indicate the applicant’s level of performance in a class, e.g., “one of the top 3 students in this class."
  4. Recommenders who can speak to the appropriateness of the applicant’s choice of a particular award should certainly provide this information, particularly if the recommender has graduated from or worked at that institution.
  5. Applicants are expected to provide in their personal statements information—“a story"—about where they have come from, where they are now, and how this fits with their desire to study/pursue a given award.  Recommenders can support and enhance this information with further specifics.  To do this, it is helpful to see a draft of the application materials—personal statement, proposed plan of study—whatever the applicant plans to submit. Recommendation letters support, verify, and enhance what applicants say about themselves and their proposals.
  6. Address the individual’s growth and potential growth with specific examples.  Put the candidate’s achievements in context.  For example, if an applicant was a particularly high achiever in your organization or class, explain what set the applicant apart and above others.
  7. It is okay to brag about an applicant, and it is especially helpful for the more modest applicant.  Again putting the information into context and describing in detail will go a long way in supporting the applicant.
  8. Please be candid but not negative.  Reviewers are looking for a realistic evaluation of the applicant but negative information is a “killer." If you have negative things to write about an applicant, do not offer to write on their behalf.

Additional General Guidelines

  1. Letters should generally be 1-2 pages in length (single spaced) but no more than 3 pages.  For these letters of recommendation, selection committees need information that will help them know the student and why this student should be selected. Note: For online letters of recommendation there will be a space/word limit e.g. the British Marshall Scholarship there is a 1,000 word limit.
  2. Please use letterhead where possible.
  3. Please address the letter to the selection committee for each award, e.g., “To Marshall  
  4. Committee of Selection," or “To Rhodes Selection Committee."  For applicants applying for more than one award, the content of the letter may be the same or similar, but please be careful to address each letter to the appropriate selection committee.

A Note About Leadership:

At a recent national meeting of fellowships advisors from colleges and universities across the US, representatives of several national scholarship and fellowship foundations led a discussion about leadership and articulating leadership in a fellowship application. They noted, for example, that 85% of the applications for one national award were unsuccessful because of the way leadership was articulated or not articulated in the scholarship application.  For national fellowships and scholarships, selection committees are looking for evidence of a more “traditional" kind of leadership.  The “Millennials" (the current generation of undergraduate students) often have a different view, even a disdain for leadership where the “leader" identifies a problem, sees a solution, and leads others to bring about some kind of change. “Millennials" tend to be more comfortable with consensus building within a “team" without a designated, clearly identifiable leader.  Foundation representatives have advised that the latter is not what these fellowship and scholarship selection committees are looking for. If recommenders can address the applicant’s leadership ability and/or potential in the more traditional sense, this will strengthen the application.

Your support of Occidental College students and alumni in their application for these prestigious and highly competitive awards is critical to their success and your efforts are very much appreciated.  If you have questions or would like more information, please feel free to contact the  Office of National and International Fellowships at 323-259-2742.