Advice on Letters of Recommendation by Doug Cutchins
Here Doug Cutchins, Director of Social Commitment at Grinnell College, offers advice to faculty about writing recommendations for scholarships and fellowships:
As the scholarship and fellowship liaison for Grinnell College, I see dozens of letters of recommendations written by faculty every year. As more than one faculty member has remarked to me, there is a real art to writing these letters, yet this is not a task for which graduate schools prepare faculty members. I hope that you will find the following advice and guidelines to be helpful the next time you are asked to write a letter of recommendation for a student's application for a fellowship. Additionally, I would recommend that faculty refer to Joe Schall's excellent booklet, Writing Recommendation Letters. Schall's booklet includes specific advice on writing letters of recommendation for major scholarships and fellowships, internships, graduate school, and jobs. Please note that the following guidelines are meant solely for letters in support of fellowship applications; for further guidelines on other letters of recommendation, please see the booklet by Joe Schall mentioned above.
The importance of letters of recommendation
The difference between a winning scholarship application and one that does not win is often minute. Every year, for example, approximately 1600 candidates apply for 32 Rhodes Scholarships. The vast majority of these candidates have GPAs above 3.8, are campus leaders, accomplished athletes, and have a strong record of community service. Letters of recommendation are one of the best places for selection committee members to differentiate between candidates, as these letters should show an honest portrayal of the candidate from a source that knows the candidate well. To emphasize the importance of these letters, the Rhodes Foundation asks each candidate to have eight letters of recommendation submitted on their behalf. These letters often make the difference between a candidate being selected as a scholar or not. Because of the high importance of these letters, it is our duty as a college to provide the best letters possible for our students.
The purpose of a letter of recommendation
Scholarship applications ask students to submit a wealth of information about themselves, so it is not important that you give basic information already available to the selection committee. Instead, your letter of recommendation should:
- 1) Provide a context for the student's achievements.
- 2) Describe the student and the student's achievements, providing new information or a new lens through which to view information.
- 3) Confirm and validate the impression they have of the student from the student's application.
General guidelines for letters of recommendation
The best letters of recommendation bring a student to life through concrete, specific examples that show the student's talents and abilities. Instead of just describing a student as insightful, dedicated, or talented, the most useful letters provide stories or narratives that show the student exhibiting these qualities. When you describe a student, instead of just giving an adjective, as yourself: how do I know this about this student? When has this student demonstrated this quality? Then tell the foundation about this example. Personal memories and anecdotes are not only permissible, but are encouraged.
Before writing a letter of recommendation, read the criteria for the scholarship carefully, and be sure that your letter addresses these criteria. Too often, we see letters for scholarships, such as the Truman or Watson, which have very specific criteria, but that read more as graduate school letters of recommendation. After ensuring that you know what qualities the foundation seeks in its candidates, ask yourself: what is unusual about this student, or makes this student stand out in your mind? These are the qualities that the foundation will want to hear about beyond their own criteria.
In general, the best letters of recommendation are longer than one page, but are less than two pages, and, of course, are carefully proofread and edited. If you have questions about a specific scholarship or fellowship, or would like further guidelines, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Working with the candidate
Before you write the letter, it is my hope that you will have a discussion with the student regarding their application. Why is she applying for this scholarship? What are his future career or academic goals? Why does she think she is a good candidate? What does he see as his principle activities and accomplishments? Why did she choose you to write a letter of recommendation? What topics does he hope you will address in your letter?
Students have obligations to faculty and staff who they approach to write letters of recommendation for them. Letter writers should be asked at least two weeks before the application is due; if you are not given this level of consideration, you should feel free to refuse to take on the letter. Students should provide you with whatever information you deem necessary for you to be able to write an effective letter. At a minimum, they should give you a recommendation form (with the release signed), an official description of the criteria the Foundation wishes you to address, instructions on where and when to submit the letter, and to whom the letter should be addressed. Additional information you may wish a student to give you might include a copy of their application form, any essays or other supplemental materials they are required to submit with the application, a resume, a transcript, examples of the best work they have submitted to you in the past, or a letter reminding you of work that the student has done with you (courses, grades, research activities).
Because the best letters of recommendation come from faculty members who know a student well, you should not feel obligated to write a letter for a student who you do not know well. More often than not, committees can tell when a faculty member does not know the student for whom they are writing very well, and the letter is ineffective at best. If a student who you do not know well asks you to write a letter of recommendation, you should have an honest talk with that student about whether or not there would be a faculty member who knows the student better who can write the letter.
What to include in a letter of recommendation
- It is generally helpful to include the following in a letter of recommendation:
- Begin the letter by stating the nature and length of your relationship with this student. If the student has completed advanced-level work with you such as a MAP or internship, this should be noted, as should any contact outside of the classroom you have had with the student.
- Describe and evaluate the student's scholarly work, especially major research projects. What is the quality or significance of this work, and what does it indicate about the student's future?
- Describe the student's personality, disposition, and work ethic. This is one of the only places that the foundation learns about the student's personality before the interview.
- Refer to and reflect on themes in the student's essay
- Rank the student in comparison to other students you have taught, or compare the student to past prizewinners you have known. You can use specific, even quantified data to describe the student (in the top 5% of students I've taught...among the 10 best students I've had in 15 years at Grinnell...reminds me of past students I've known who have won the Watson Fellowship).
- You may also ask your colleagues for quotes, comments, or descriptive stories about the student that support comments that you have made.
Pitfalls to avoid
- The following are common problems with letters of recommendation:
- Do not focus on your own resume, achievements, or stringent standards. Stating "This student received an 'A' in my class, and I am a tough grader" tends to be less impressive to a committee than a description of why the student received that "A".
- Do not be generic, and avoid vague platitudes such as "John is a bright, conscientious, hard-working student." Read your letter and think about how many students your description might apply to. Again, specificity and details help make a high-quality letter.
- Do not provide information already available to the committee on a transcript, resume, or other information provided by the candidate. Instead, place this information in context, or provide the story behind the grade or activity.
- Do not remark on the student's attendance or preparation for class. It is assumed that top students attend class regularly and complete their homework in a timely manner. By stating that a student does these things, it implies that this is unusual or noteworthy, which does not speak well to the student's classmates.
- Be honest but highly cautious about criticism. Committees take criticism very seriously, and it is often the kiss of death for a candidate. If you feel the need to include criticism in a letter of recommendation, you should reconsider whether or not you are the most appropriate person to write for this student, and perhaps discuss these concerns with the candidate.
- Do not compare the candidate to other students in that one class ("Mary was the second best student in my section of 101 last year"). This is rather weak evidence of the student's abilities, and does not provide a broad enough context for the student's achievements.
Logistics of letters of recommendation
Please feel free to contact me with questions about a scholarship, a particular student's candidacy, and deadlines. Many times, with advance warning, it is not difficult for me to grant an extension on a deadline for a letter of recommendation; this is especially true for awards given by Grinnell College, or for on-campus deadlines for nominations for national awards.
(Sources used in compiling these guidelines include materials distributed at the National Association of Fellowship Advisors conference in Portland, June 2002, and from the Truman Scholarship Foundation)