There are a 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 a "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 | Open PDF
- Advice for Rhodes Scholarship Letters | Open PDF
- Advice for Marshall Scholarship Letters | Open PDF
- Advice for Mitchell Scholarship Letters | Open PDF
- Advice for Truman Scholarship Letters | Link to full article (from the Truman Foundation)
Additional advice can be found below! These are external resources intended to support those asked to provide letters of recommendation for nationally competitive scholarships and fellowships.
More scholarship specific guidelines
- STEM & Biomedical
- Goldwater Scholarship
- NSF Graduate Research Fellowships
- NIH OxCam
- United Kingdom Scholarships
- Gates Cambridge
- United States Scholarships
- Gaither Fellowship
- Knight Hennessy Scholars Program
- PD Soros Fellowship for New Americans
- Yenching Academy
For further suggestions on writing successful letters of recommendation, please read this article from Inside Higher Ed.
Additional Resources for Recommenders
"Tips for Writing Recommendation Letters" by Manya Whitaker
- Inside Higher Ed Article (for faculty letter writers) "Here are some general guidelines that I have compiled from my experiences as an anxious applicant reading my many letters of recommendation, as someone on admissions and hiring committees, and now as a full-time professor writing at least a dozen of these letters each year."
Link to full article
"Ten simple rules for writing compelling recommendation letters"
- "Recommendation letters are necessary for advancement at all levels of academics, as they are widely required for grants and applications ranging from graduate school to tenured academic positions. As the name suggests, a recommendation letter is a written referral. However, writing an impactful recommendation that both stands out and voices genuine support for an applicant is a time-consuming task."
Link to full article