Resources for Faculty

Writing Recommendation Letters

Because nearly every applicant for these awards boasts an impressive transcript and GPA, after an applicant's essay or proposal, letters of recommendation are the most important part of an application. These letters are critical to the deliberative process of selecting candidates and ultimately winners of these national fellowships and scholarships. Writing effective recommendation letters for students applying for nationally competitive fellowships and scholarships requires faculty to pay close attention to the specific selection criteria of each fellowship or scholarship and to address as many of those criteria as possible in one's letter.

The single best resource for faculty writing recommendation letters for students applying for competitive fellowships is Writing Recommendation Letters Online: A Faculty Handbook. This resource includes general information and suggestions for writing effective recommendation letters for students applying to graduate school and/or fellowships as well as fellowship-specific information, suggestions, and sample letters for a number of nationally competitive fellowships including the NSF, Fulbright, Goldwater, and Truman.

General Tips and Suggestions

  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 generally be a space/word limit (e.g. the British Marshall Scholarship has 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 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.

Your support of Gustavus 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 Provost's Office.