How to Apply
Recommendation Letter: Faculty Guidelines
Faculty recommendations for students applying for nationally competitive scholarships weigh heavily in the evaluation process. Students will inevitably be judged on the quality of the faculty recommendations submitted in support of their applications. Your letter, therefore, should be written with the same care as the student’s application. It should be clear, concise, well-organized, original, insightful, and professional in tone as well as appearance.
Foundations often provide specific guidelines for faculty to follow in preparing recommendations for students who are applying for nationally competitive scholarships. These guidelines emphasize the difference between a recommendation for graduate study and one for a major fellowship. In addition to academic achievement, foundations are interested in the student’s leadership experience, community involvement, and, in some cases, undergraduate research opportunities. They are also interested in a student’s character and personality. Above all, they expect concrete evidence, not simply positive adjectives, to support the claims that you make about the student’s performance and potential.
The following “generic” guidelines have been gleaned from a variety of sources as well as personal experience in working with faculty who have been asked to write on behalf of students. Please feel free to check the foundation website for additional information about the fellowship. Your letter should address the selection criteria as well as the specific guidelines provided by the foundation.
Carefully review the student’s resume, personal statement, and required essays, such as a policy proposal or outline of study.
Review the description of the fellowship itself.
Use university or department letterhead, even if submitting online.
Make clear how long you have known the applicant and in what context. Introduce yourself: academic specialty, rank, etc.
Directly address the scholarship criteria:
- Explain why you think the student meets the criteria. Provide specific examples that demonstrate how well the student meets the criteria.
- When possible, give convincing evidence that you know the applicant personally. Discuss incidents or activities that have enabled you to get to know the student, and write with authority regarding her/his abilities, qualities, and character.
- Keep in mind that all the students who will be competing for the fellowship will be at the top of their classes. Find a way to distinguish this student. A general description – e.g. top 5% of students taught in 30-year career – should be accompanied by references to the student’s work. Describe a research project, a paper or presentation, or a work of art, and explain what was remarkable about the student’s achievement. Keep in mind that those evaluating the application may not be specialists in your academic field; if that’s likely to be the case, find a way to explain the importance of the student’s work without lapsing into highly technical language.
- Speak to the student’s ability to fulfill the obligations of the fellowship, including the course of study and/or the proposed plan of research. Refer, for example, to language skills, completed course work, independent research as well as personal qualities, such as creativity, originality, initiative, self-discipline, consistency, and capacity for hard work.
- Describe extenuating circumstances that may have prevented a student from engaging in extra-curricular activities, e.g. a heavy work schedule outside of class or family responsibilities that may be required of a non-traditional student.
- Seek to complement the student’s application materials; mention and elaborate on the ideas, proposals, and plans raised by the student.
- Stay within the recommended length.
- Include your formal title in the closing.
Above all, make the deadline – note that some recommendations must be post-marked by a certain date; others must be received by a specified date.
A few words of caution:
- Do not include a description of the university and its current standing.
- Do not rely on a student’s grade as sole evidence of academic achievement.
- Do not cite expected behavior – i.e. “did all the readings for the class, completed all the assigned problems” – as evidence of outstanding performance.
- Be honest, but cautious about criticism. Be fair to the applicant and to the committee.
- Do not resort to general platitudes.
- Focus on a student’s recent record when citing achievements.