Suggestions for Writing Reference Letters
Applying for a major scholarship is an intensely competitive process and letters of recommendation from faculty are very important to the applicant’s success. Should a student ask you for a recommendation, please consider whether you know the student well enough to write a frank, detailed and supportive letter. If you feel you lack adequate knowledge about the student, a brief interview might help fill in the blanks and provide context but if you don’t feel you can write a full and helpful letter you should politely decline.
Familiarizing yourself with the criteria that the particular scholarship foundation is seeking in its applicants makes letter writing easier because it provides a framework for arranging the specific things you know about the student. Two general ideas to keep in mind when planning a letter are that specifics are more helpful than general statements and narratives or stories convey more than a list of attributes. Try to fit specific observations you have made into a narrative that shows the applicant’s development and illustrates how the person fits the applicable criteria.
Though each scholarship will have unique selection criteria, there are a few things to consider and/or include in any letter: use university letterhead; address the letter to the chair of the selection committee (by name, if available) or to the committee as a whole (by committee name), provide your name, full title, signature and contact information. Most committees look for letters to be between 1 ½ and 2 pages long.
What is typically helpful:
- Some description of the contexts in which you have known and worked with the student
- Providing clear, concrete examples of the student’s work and personal qualities based on your own observation
- Showing that you know the applicant personally
- Explaining the observations and criteria you used to come to your judgments
- Discussing why the applicant would be a strong candidate for the specific scholarship by tying your observations and judgments to the selection criteria
- Discussing the student’s demonstrated leadership ability
- Discussing what particularly qualifies the student for the scholarship
Things to avoid:
- Very brief letters
- Simply restating facts found in other parts of the application
- Offering general or unsupported praise without focusing on why the student is a good candidate for the specific scholarship
- Using ambiguous language from which readers can infer meanings you didn’t intend, such as indirect criticism
- Not making the connection between your evaluation of the student and his/her being a good candidate for the scholarship.
You may be asked to submit a draft letter of recommendation to this office for use in campus endorsement prior to submitting the final letter to the funding organization. The campus review committee may ask you to clarify or to correct typographical errors prior to submitting your official letter.
The Office of Nationally Competitive Scholarships is happy to try to answer questions you may have regarding letters or to offer more detailed information about specific scholarship foundations and their expectations.