Writing Recommendations for Nationally Competitive Opportunities

A successful letter of recommendation is anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 pages in length (even more typically: right around 2 pages). The applicant should schedule a time to talk with you about his or her application and provide you with a draft of his or her Personal Statement before you complete the recommendation. If neither of these things has happened, you should feel free to request them. Talking with the applicant or reviewing the Personal Statement will allow you to comment directly on the applicant’s plans in your letter of recommendation.

Although every scholarship has its own criteria, each adheres to a fundamental criteria: to identify and support extraordinary young people. While there are innumerable ways to successfully evidence the nature of a student’s achievement, concrete examples such as a positive, tangible impact on the world around them, exceptional scholarly work, transformative leadership, public service, and/or community engagement help to clarify how the student’s existing body of work aligns with the particular scholarship’s mission. The scholarship committees will look for evidence of this in your letter.

The reviewers will be particularly interested to read about:

  1. Why you believe the applicant is extraordinary. This is best interpreted in a twofold manner: What has the student done that is extraordinary, and how does that work/achievement/accomplishment make them stand out against their peers (and, ideally, amongst other highly qualified applicants)?
  2. How you believe the applicant has demonstrated exceptional potential. What does the track record of the student in question suggest they can achieve, academically or professionally? Do you have specific examples of how the applicant might translate the significant work they've already undertaken to their future goals? In rare circumstances (such as "this student ranks third amongst the several thousand I have instructed") what did the higher ranked students go on to achieve?
  3. How you believe the scholarship experience will help the applicant do the great things that s/he hopes to do. Ideally, your conversations with the student will provide fodder for this point.

It is helpful if you can be as specific as possible in your letter. If you claim that the applicant is the most motivated student you’ve ever taught, be sure to explain why. If you claim that the applicant had a huge impact on your organization, be sure to describe this impact. This will help to convince the reviewers of the authenticity of your recommendation. If the student is proposing to participate in specific research or study, what have they demonstrated for you that leads you to believe they would be successful in their pursuit? Additionally, the ability to quantify a student’s achievements is very useful for reviewers; i.e.: “the applicant is in the top 5% of all undergraduates I’ve worked with over the course of my 30-year career,” or, “in a course of 45 students, the applicant’s work was clearly the most sophisticated.”

For further insight, see Inside Higher Ed's recent article on how to write stronger letters of recommendation by Professor Manya Whitaker.

These suggestions are meant to address the big picture questions of Letter of Recommendation writing. If you have more specific questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to reach out to the College Center for Scholarly Advancement.