There are number of ways in which letters of recommendation, and specifically the writers of those letters, can influence or change the course of a student's life. Some scholarship or fellowship programs may have specific requirements or guidelines (see the examples below), but others may simply ask for "letter of recommendation."
But what do we mean by this? What are readers hoping to learn that an applicant could not themselves make clear in an application packet or essay? How can a letter writer ensure they are supporting an applicant to the best of their ability, and what happens when that isn't possible?
With years of experience with all kinds of letters (and applicants) Dr. Henry Dyson, Director of ONSF has some advice. In a recent ONSF article, "The Purpose of Letters of Recommendation," he writes "an essential task of a letter writer is to see and articulate for the reader potential that an applicant might not be in a position to see in herself. Or, at least, to make the case for her potential future in a way that the applicant herself cannot."
In other words, application essays serve to define an applicant's vision of their future work and transcripts "the purpose of the application essays is to define the field and the applicant’s vision of this future work. The purpose of the transcript and resume of activities is to provide the data points for the first five years. The purpose of the letters of recommendation is to draw the line - in other words, to make the applicant’s future trajectory tangible, credible, even seemingly inevitable for the reader."
Read the entire article here.
Specific Letter Guidelines
Advice for Goldwater Scholarship Letters | PDF
Advice for Rhodes and Marshall Scholarship Letters | PDF
Advice for Truman Scholarship Letters | LINK
Inside Higher Ed Article (for faculty letter writers)
"Tips for Writing Recommendation Letters" by Manya Whitaker