Suggestions for Writing Reference Letters

Applying for a major scholarship is an intensely competitive process. 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 framing the specific things you know about the student in ways that make sense for the scholarship. Two general ideas to keep in mind when planning a letter are: 1) detailed discussion is more helpful than generalization; and, 2) narratives or stories often convey more than a list of attributes or items that are on the student’s resume.  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.

Although each scholarship will have unique selection criteria, there are a few things to remember for nearly 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); and provide your name, full title, signature and contact information. Most committees look for letters to be between 1 ½ and 2 pages long.

Review the submission process and be sure to ask for clarification if needed about deadlines or the submission process.

We are glad to assist you in whatever way we can. 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.

Note:  You may be asked to submit your letter (or a draft) in advance according to a campus deadline when an award requires university endorsement of the candidate.  The campus review committee may ask you to clarify or to correct typographical errors prior to submitting your official letter.

 Just to summarize—

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.

Read suggestions for writing letters for specific scholarships

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