Tips for Writing a Strong Letter of Recommendation

Tips for Writing a Strong Letter of Recommendation

LMU is dedicated to helping its students garner competitive national and international fellowships. Part of their success hinges on the willingness of generous faculty to devote time and care to writing letters of recommendation for our candidates.

Competition for national scholarships is intense. A strong letter of recommendation can make a very significant contribution to a candidate's chances for success. Below, we offer some guidance for assessing when it is appropriate for you to write a letter on a student's behalf and tips for crafting the strongest letter possible. 

  • Review the selection criteria for the scholarship. Knowing what the scholarship is looking for will help you understand how to present your candidate. For example, Fulbright looks for candidates with 'ambassadorial' as well as scholarly skills; Truman looks for candidates deeply devoted to public service; Goldwater looks for candidates committed to scientific research; Rhodes looks for all-around excellence at the highest levels. We can provide you with criteria for most programs. Contact us at fellowships@lmu.edu for this information.
  •  Aim to make the candidate come alive. Most top scholarship competitions interview finalists. Your letter should make the selection committee want to meet the candidate in person. Try to express what it was/is about the candidate that makes him or her a special person to have in class, in the lab, or at an internship or volunteer setting.
  • Use specific examples or illustrations. Praise in broad terms, however striking, will not make a vivid impression without specific and substantive illustrations. Discuss specific papers, conversations, projects, deeds that will help distinguish the candidate in the reader's mind. The quality of your examples or illustrations is more important than the quantity.
  • Highlight any unusual or truly outstanding quality or ability you believe makes the candidate especially well-qualified for the scholarship. At the highest levels of competition all candidates have outstanding records and accomplishments. What makes your candidate different?
  • Convey a clear sense of the candidate's intellectual and/or personal qualities. How has the candidate demonstrated superior critical abilities, originality or intellectual curiosity? What personal qualities make the candidate particularly memorable or impressive? How, in your experience, has the candidate’s character or ability to lead or bring about change been manifest? How do the candidate's personal qualities complement or enhance his or her aims and ambitions?
  • Provide a useful and relevant context for evaluating the candidate's promise. Consider the candidate in light of his or her ambitions for graduate study, public service, or professional achievement, and in light of your own relevant experience and background. How does the candidate compare to grad students you've known (for faculty letter writers) or to younger colleagues or subordinates (for internship or volunteer supervisors). Would you be excited to have this student as an applicant for graduate study or employment at your institution? Why? Be specific.
  •  Avoid recapitulating highlights from the candidate's resume. Your letter is most valuable when it shares information, experiences, anecdotes that reveal qualities not evident through paper credentials alone. Spending more time on these personal perspectives, and less on rehearsing information presented elsewhere, will make for a much more effective letter.
  • Write at least three full paragraphs. Letters that are just too brief – one or two paragraphs – convey disinterest or lack of acquaintance and can be harmful to the candidate’s prospects, however positive your language might be. Aim for one complete page, and possibly more for the most competitive scholarships.
  • If you feel you can't write a strongly enthusiastic letter, gently decline. Competition for national scholarships is stiff, so if for any reason you feel unable to write a strongly supportive letter, it is best for the candidate if you decline. You can help the student to consider other possible letter writers, but agreeing to write for a student whom you cannot strongly support is good for no one.Below are some additional factors that may aid you in your decision: 
    • If the students asks too close to the deadline. (We advise students to ask for letters no later than three weeks in advance of a deadline.)
    • If a student approaches you in a highly unprofessional manner.
    • If you recall little more about a student than the recorded grades.
    • If you think that you are not the best person to write a letter.
    • If you simply do not have the time to write a good letter for a student.

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.

We are always happy to respond to any questions you may have about preparing your letter. Please feel free to contact us at fellowships@lmu.edu or 310.338.3792.