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The Office of External Scholarships

Writing Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are often a deciding factor in scholarship nomination or scholarship award competitions. For most prestigious scholarships, the majority of candidates have excellent grades and participate in a number of academic and social activities, including volunteering in the community and providing leadership among their peers. As a result, letters that help distinguish a candidate from other very talented and hardworking candidates can really make a difference.

Below are some general do's and don'ts for writing a strong recommendation letter for candidate for an external scholarship.

Do:

Write letters more than one page in length, but less than two full pages long, unless otherwise specified.

Be specific about the student's strengths, giving examples.

Use rankings, numbers, or other comparative terms to set the student apart from others when possible, and especially when the information is very positive. Note, however, that a simple ranking is less effective than a ranking plus examples of what makes the student outstanding.

Consider the student's readiness for advanced study: describe characteristics that will enable him or her to succeed in graduate school.
Include how long have you known the student and in what context.

Know the target: what qualities are most important in this scholarship competition? Require that the student provide information about the scholarship opportunity. Explain in your letter why you think he or she is well suited for this particular scholarship.

Write from your own point of view. Provide examples of incidents or actions that are unique to this relationship.

Don't:

Feel compelled to repeat information from the student's resume just to "round out" the portrait of the applicant unless you can comment meaningfully about those additional activities.

Comment on the student's preparation for class or attendance record. Readers assume that students applying for these awards are prepared for and attend class regularly. If the student is unique in this regard, mentioning it in your letter may indicate that the rest of the class was routinely unprepared or attended casually.

Write a recommendation if you feel you do not know the student well enough to write a positive letter. You are likely doing the student a service by recommending a more appropriate letter writer or talking with him about his readiness for the scholarship opportunity. If the student presses you for a letter of recommendation with little time to deadline, saying no is only fair. These letters require a real investment of your time and care, and you should not feel obligated to write a letter for someone who has left preparing the application to the last minute.