Advice for Faculty Reference
A Guide to Writing Recommendation Letters for Fellowship Applicants a compilation of advice taken from various sources
by Joan Hawthorne
Congratulations on being asked to write a letter of recommendation for a fellowship applicant. Remember that being sought out as a recommender is a vote of confidence in you as a professor and usually reflects positively on the student’s experiences in your class.
Even though you already know this student, my best advice for both student and professor is to spend some time visiting early in this process. As a recommender, you’ll want to refresh your memories regarding this student so that your descriptions can be vivid. You’ll also find that there are aspects of the student’s history and aspirations that haven’t been important to you as a professor but will be very important when you write the letter of recommendation. Talk about why the student came to UND, what the student hoped for out of the university experience, what’s been formative during college, why the student wants this fellowship, what she or he plans to accomplish during the fellowship experience, and his/her long-term goals or aspirations. Understanding the student in this fuller way will help you to write an effective letter of recommendation.
Actually winning the fellowship or scholarship is up to the student, of course, but the nature and tone of your letter can do much to assist an applicant – or to kill that applicant’s chances. Since recommendation letter writing is a somewhat stressful task at best (and most faculty have few opportunities to learn what makes a “good” letter, especially for fellowship applications), I have pulled together information and advice, taken from a variety of sources, that may help you with this task.
What helps in a letter of recommendation:
- Say something about how you know the student, and how long it’s been since you first became acquainted.
- Demonstrate a level of knowledge of the student that goes beyond what any reader of the resume or transcript would know
- Describe the applicant’s strengths in relationship to the nature and goals of the fellowship or scholarship.
- Be specific. When describing the student’s talent, refer to the skills demonstrated in a recent research paper or visible in a clever approach to a problem, rather than describing generally or with no supporting detail.
- Use examples, as described above. Recall a particular class discussion in which the student made a point that deepened everyone’s level of thinking, even your own.
- Link past experiences with the student to the future – to challenges that’ll be encountered during the fellowship year, to long-term goals, etc.
- When possible, speak about the student in comparative terms (Is he/she in the top 5% of all students you’ve taught during your 20 years in higher education? Is this student one of the four or five most promising students you’ve known?).
- If there are others in your department who also know the student well, don’t hesitate to include quotes/comments taken from those individuals within your own letter (e.g., “Student Y is well-regarded by departmental faculty….Prof. X, who knows Student Y from Class Z, described Y as ‘…’”).
What can hurt:
- Don’t be generic.
- Don’t be overly brief. If a 1000 word letter is allowed, don’t write a 300 word letter. It should be clear that you know and admire/respect this student.
- Don’t expect to use the same recommendation letter for all purposes. The level of competitiveness (at least for fellowships) makes it essential that letters be written with attention paid to specific fellowship expectations.
- Don’t repeat information that can be easily located elsewhere in the application (e.g., summarizing transcript information).
- Don’t talk too much about yourself, about the context in which you got to know the student, about your classes, or about anything else that diverts attention from the student.
- Don’t say wonderful things with no substantiation.
- Don’t damn with faint praise (e.g., “this student met all of the expectations for the class”), unless you really do think the student is unqualified. And in that case, maybe it’s better to beg off from writing the letter – or to have a conversation with the student that includes realistic discussion about his/her strengths and weaknesses, as you’ve been able to observe them.
- Don’t be explicitly critical unless it’s absolutely necessary and there’s a clear context so the student is not undercut (if the student is unqualified, see above). Any necessary critique should include brief but thoughtful discussion and comments about the student’s progress in overcoming those weaknesses.
- Don’t be dishonest. Better to say no to writing the letter than to be caught in an awkward situation where you’d be embarrassed to stand behind what you’ve said or forced into praise that’s not sincere.
- Don’t be late. Fellowship programs have very firm deadlines, and late letters of recommendation likely will disqualify the candidate. If you can’t write the letter on time (or even early), it’s better to beg off.
- Many fellowships have strict lengths for their recommendation letters. In that case, make sure your letter fits within the allotted space/word count.
- Address your letter to an individual, if provided with a name, or to a committee (e.g., “Dear Rhodes Scholarship Committee”).
- Date the letter.
- Print on departmental letterhead.
- In addition to your signature, include your full title (e.g., “Associate Professor of Psychology”).
If you have comments or questions about the fellowship application process, call 7-4684 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.