Letters of Recommendation
Make or break a student's scholarship application
No doubt you have had some experience with letters of recommendation.
Memories of those experiences might run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous! In the realm of nationally competitive scholarships, however, letters of recommendation need to be taken very seriously. Letters must be carefully crafted in order to best serve the candidate. Strong letters of recommendation provide an articulate and engaging portrait of the applicant. The contents motivate the reader to delve deeper into the application. The details in letters are often utilized during scholarship interviews.
Letters of Recommendation: Presentation and online resources
For additional information regarding writing letters of recommendation, please view the following presentation.
Joe Schall's book, Writing Recommendation Letters Online, offers a comprehensive guide for faculty writing letters of recommendation.
The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article about letters of recommendation written from a professor's perspective.
When writing a recommendation letter, you should:
- Aim for a letter that is 1-2 pages single spaced. Adhere to word limits for on-line submissions. For hardcopy letters, page 1 should be on letterhead and dated; on subsequent pages provide the date and a subject line in the header.
- Address the letter to the specific program committee or committee chair (not “To whom it may concern”). In the body of the letter, mention for which scholarship you are recommending the student . Use your full title at the end of letter with the signature.
- State how long and in what context or capacity you have known the candidate. Give specific examples of incidents or actions that help define your relationship with the student. Insight into the applicant’s personality, disposition and character are valuable. Interesting anecdotes show that you really know the applicant well.
- Provide specific examples of the student’s outstanding work and activities. The examples should highlight the student in action as an assistant, researcher, leader, volunteer, etc. Identify the significance and impact of the cited examples. This should be work you are very familiar with and not second-hand knowledge. Include the potential for the student’s personal and professional growth and contribution in that area or beyond.
- Connect the student to the specific scholarship, criteria and proposed area of study. (Guidelines will be provided by the Office of Nationally Competitive Scholarships). Support and extend the information in the applicant’s essay and proposal. What examples can you provide that qualify the student as a good match for the scholarship? Comment on how you think the student will build upon the scholarship experience and carry things forward.
- Put the student in a larger context: “Jane Doe is among the top 5 students I have taught in 15 years at WTAMU”.
- Offer thoughtful, honest and fair evaluation. Critical comments are taken seriously. If appropriate, offer specific examples of difficulties overcome or insight gained that make a deficit become an asset.
- Know who the applicant’s other recommenders are. The letters should complement each other, not rehash each other’s remarks.
- Use the spelling and grammar check! Read the letter out loud to yourself or have someone review the letter for you.
When writing a recommendation letter, you shouldn't:
- Focus on yourself, your achievements, detailed course content or standards. The student is applying for the scholarship, not you.
- Send one generic letter for multiple scholarship applications from the same student. Each program asks recommenders to address specific criteria.
- Regurgitate or summarize information provided in the student’s CV, transcripts and application materials. A minimum of overlap is acceptable. Too much overlap indicates you don’t know the applicant well.
- Provide the US News and World Report rankings or other standard institutional catalog descriptions.
- Cite examples that focus on classroom performance only. Saying the applicant did the reading for class or always showed up on time is not helpful.
- Give examples of the applicant’s work or activities that are too far in the past. Keep it current and forward-looking.
- Be overly effusive, use vague platitudes, “left-handed compliments”, faint praise or comments that could be misinterpreted.
- Use hearsay or other unsupported evidence.
- Fill the letter with jargon or “50-cent” words.
- Ask the student to write his own letter for you to sign.