Writing Letters of Recommendation

Thank you for supporting a GVSU student or alumnus in their pursuit of a nationally competitive scholarship or fellowship. Your recommendation will be a critical part of their application and we thank you in advance for the time you invest in this process. If you are seeking additional information, please feel free to contact us at [email protected] for additional support.

Things to Consider When Asked to Provide a Reference for Inter/nationally Competitive Awards

First, ask yourself two questions: 

Do I truly have time to provide a strong, detailed letter of reference that will strengthen the student/alum's application for funding? 

Do I know the applicant well enough to provide insight into their academic/ professional/ personal goals and intrinsic/extrinsic motivation in pursuing this opportunity? 

  • If the answer to either is no, please gracefully decline the opportunity and perhaps recommend another colleague who can better speak to the student's qualifications.  
  • If so, what information do you need from the student? Most major awards expect two-page, detailed letters which outline applicants' personal, professional and academic qualifications and preparation for the opportunity for which they seek funding.  In order to facilitate this process, the Office of Fellowships staff direct students to share a recent Resume/CV, personal statement and other application essay drafts and bullet points or other key information related to a funder or their application priorities. We also strongly encourage students to meet 1:1 with faculty/staff recommenders AT LEAST 4 weeks prior to award deadlines.


On structure:

1. Letterhead. Except Fulbright ETA, which uses a single-page form, most awards expect a c. 2-page, single-spaced letter of strong endorsement from the most competitive applicants.  This should be printed on department or university letterhead in most cases. Always upload in pdf vs. doc(x) format in order to ensure formatting and readability.  Some awards require that you simply cut and paste text, but this is less common.

2. Salutation. Address to "Dear Schwarzman Scholarship Selection Committee" vs. "Dear Sir or Madam" or "To Whom it May Concern." Be as specific as possible.

3.  Signature. Sign or provide an electronic signature. (Scan your signature on a white piece of paper and save as a .jpg file or make use of the many iOS or Android signature capture apps.)

4. Name the applicant + the award for they are applying (and include host country, institution, organization, etc. where relevant). We instruct applicants to provide recommenders with specific information on each award to which they apply, including supporting evidence of their "fit" for the award. Ideally, each letter should be tailored to the opportunity, funder, and student whenever possible.

5. Unless otherwise included on a recommendation cover sheet or form, state your relationship to the applicant. How long have you known them? In which context(s)? How many courses have they taken with you? Have you mentored research, supervised an internship, or gotten to know them in another framework?  Of all students you have previously taught or advised, where would you rank this applicant? Can you provide any broader comparison to their peers regionally or nationally? 

6. Details are critical. As we tell students, SHOW readers, rather than telling them.  Marshall evidence to back up any claims you make about the applicant. Offer anecdotes or narrative examples. Avoid clichés or hyperbole. We have resources who served as a reviewer for many awards (Gilman, Fulbright, CLS, Boren, CBYX, DAAD, NSF, and more) and can provide feedback on are award-specific letters upon request. Remember to focus in your letter on qualities that are pertinent to the fellowship or award: vague descriptors of general demeanor (particularly comments about sweetness, gentleness, or niceness) are much less useful than precise descriptions of and brief anecdotes about the applicant's actions and approaches to learning in classroom, field or lab, and/or the applicant's leadership experiences and style, known aspirations, pertinent background, and achievements and potential in scholarship, research or creative expression.

7. Document potential or demonstrated leadership, academic excellence, character, etc. What potential does the applicant have to excel in program/career/opportunity? What might they gain and contribute through participation in the opportunity at hand? 

8. Edit. Please remember that Microsoft Word will not necessarily catch typos in award or student names.  For example, autocorrect will often turn Fulbright into Fullbright and fails to recognize Gilman.  Please carefully review your letter to avoid these errors.

Page last modified September 23, 2022