Writing Supportive Letters of Recommendation
A strong and supportive letter of recommendation can make a very significant contribution to a candidate's chances for success.
Here is some guidance for assessing when it is appropriate for you to write a letter on a student's behalf and tips for crafting a supportive letter.
Review the selection criteria for the award. Knowing what the fellowship 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 firstname.lastname@example.org for this information.
Aim to make the candidate come alive. Most top fellowship competitions interview finalists. Your letter should make the selection committee want to meet the candidate in person.
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 award. 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.
Write at least three full paragraphs. Letters that are too brief – one or two paragraphs – convey disinterest or lack of acquaintance and can be harmful to the candidate’s prospects. Aim for one complete page, and possibly more for the most competitive awards. ONIF recommends letters be between 500 and 1000 words.
- If you feel you can't write a strongly enthusiastic letter, gently decline. If for any reason you feel unable to write a strongly supportive letter, it is best for the candidate if you politely decline. You are welcome to help the student to consider other possible letter writers, is applicable. 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 grade(s).
- 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.
Joe Schall has an excellent commentary on what specific national fellowships are looking for in a letter. Please see chapter 6 of his online resource manual, Writing Recommendation Letters.
*Sources used to compile guidelines include the materials distributed by the National Association of Fellowship Advisors and Writing Recommendation Letters by Joe Schall.
We are always happy to respond to any questions you may have about preparing your letter. Please feel free to contact ONIF at email@example.com or 310.338.3792.