Fellowship Words Frederik Meijer Office of Fellowships

Writing Letters of Recommendation

Top Ten Things to Consider When Writing a Compelling Letter
for Nationally Competitive Awards (or for any opportunity, really)

by: Amanda Propst Cuevas, Director, Frederik Meijer Office of Fellowships

  1. Know Yourself.  Do you truly have time to write a strong letter that will add to the applicant’s file?  What kind of writer are you?
     
  2. Know the Student.  Do you know the student well enough to provide new and insightful information including areas of strength and growth? 
  • If not, gracefully decline the opportunity and suggest that the student approach another colleague who might know the student even better.  It is better to decline the opportunity than provide a letter that says little or expects a reader to “read between the lines.” 
  • If so, what information do you need from the student?  Obtaining a recent Resume/CV and/or copy of application essays may be helpful.  A personal interview with the student may be necessary to have the student share stories that may be useful to you in writing the letter.
  1. Know and state the award or opportunity for which you are writing. Are you writing for a specific nationally competitive scholarship? If so, name it.  Read up on the scholarship to have a better sense of what the screeners will be looking for when reading your letter of recommendation.  Tailor each letter whenever possible.
     
  2. Provide details.  If you make a claim in the letter about the student, back it by evidence including clear examples.  Dig deeper.  Avoid clichés or hyperbole.  Reference Writing Recommendation Letters: A Faculty Handbook by: Joe Schall available on-line.
     
  3. State your relationship to the applicant.  How long have you known the applicant and in what context?  Considering all of the students you have taught or advised in your career, where does this student rank?  How does this student compare to peers nationally (if able to observe)?
     
  4. State the student’s potential.  What potential does the student have to excel in program/career/opportunity? What might the student both gain and contribute through the opportunity?
     
  5. Salutation. Be specific.  Example, Dear Marshall Scholarship Selection Committee.  Avoid “Dear Sir or Madam.”
     
  6. Signature. Sign your letter and/or provide an electronic signature.  (Scan your signature on a white piece of paper and save as a .jpg or .tif file.)
     
  7. Letterhead.  Place your letter on department or university letterhead.  Some awards may require that you simply upload the text, but others will request a .pdf copy on letterhead.
     
  8. Edit. Review your letter for misspelled words including the student’s name and other typos.  Although your typos may not necessarily cost a student the opportunity, it certainly does not reflect positively either. 

 

Additional Resources:

What Makes for Strong Letters of Recommendation

Ten Commandments for Writing Recommendation Letters by: Joe Schall

5 Principles for Writing Effective Letters of Recommendation for Grad School Applicants

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