Every year, faculty across campus write scores of recommendation letters to get good students into college or graduate school. But some find that writing recommendation letters for very competitive scholarships and fellowships is a different kind of challenge. Writing recommendation letters for such competitive scholarships as the Rhodes, Marshall and Fulbright requires extra thought and more detail than the typical recommendation letter.
1. When a student asks you to write a recommendation letter, make sure that you understand what the student expects from you. Do you share the student's perception of his or her achievements? Could you wholeheartedly recommend the student for this particular award or program? If not, tell the student you may not be the best person for the task.
2. Ask the student for his or her resume and statement of purpose. You may also ask the student for a more detailed list of accomplishments. These items will spark your memory, especially if it's been a while since you've worked with the student.
3. Know what the selection committee is looking for. Read over the application materials that the student will provide you. If the committee is looking for scholarship qualities, it is fine to briefly discuss the student's other qualities, but target your letter and your examples on the scholarship.
4. Take some time to really think about the student and what he or she has accomplished. Tell a story: for example, compare this student to all the others you've taught in the past five years and discuss how this particular student stands out significantly from others.
5. Selection committees normally weed out mediocre application packets before focusing on the excellent ones. This means that a brief letter with phrases like "good student" and "hard worker" that aren't substantiated with examples will get tossed aside in favor of the detailed letter that doesn't just tell but show how qualified the student is. Be specific and support your points with examples while writing the letter.
6. Most committees look not only for what the student has already done but what he or she has the potential to accomplish. Addressing potential may take a little more time than discussing past deeds, but it may give the student an edge over other applicants.
7. Unlike recommendation letters written for entrance to graduate school, letters for scholarships and fellowships should not bring up a student's weakness and then dispel that weakness with a parallel strength. While this technique seems to show objectivity, it is not a technique that works with competitive awards. Judges have many letters to read and are looking for any reason to take a candidate out of the running so that they can concentrate on a smaller core. If a judge sees a negative phrase such as "Although at first Jane appeared to be a dreamer in class," he or she may never get to "I soon realized that she was actually thinking one step ahead of my lecture."
8. Write at least a page and don't be afraid to go into detail in a longer letter. Committee members have commented that less than a page shows lack of enthusiasm.