Recommendation Letters

Suggestions for Writers of Recommendation Letters

Recommendation letters provide critical information to readers of fellowship applications. These readers pay careful attention to what referees say about an applicant’s academic, personal, and professional qualities. They rely on the testimony that such letters provide to determine whether the student is a good match for the fellowship, not only in her own eyes but in the eyes of others. They may seek to know whether a student is capable of thriving in a rigorous academic program; whether she has the maturity and flexibility to adapt to a new culture; whether she has the interpersonal skills and experience to lead or inspire others; or whether she is truly committed to a particular goal. Often, they want to know how she stands out among her peers. They rely on you to explain things about a student that are not easily gleaned from her other application materials (transcript; resume; and her personal statement). A letter originally drafted for a summer internship, research assignment, a job, or even graduate school application may be have some useful source material, but to be effective, a fellowship recommendation must be tailored to the aims of the foundation.

The student requesting a letter should provide a summary of the fellowship’s aims, and a link to a webpage that describes the criteria or “ideal candidate.” It is wise to read this information before agreeing to write the letter. You can find summarized information about certain major fellowships’ criteria on Mount Holyoke College webpages: Beinecke Scholarship; Boren (NSEP) Scholarship; Carnegie Junior Fellows; Churchill Scholarship; Critical Language Scholarship; DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service); Fulbright U.S. Student Program; Fulbright UK Commission Summer Institutes; Gates Cambridge Scholarship; Goldwater Scholarship; Luce Scholarship; Marshall Scholarship; Mitchell Scholarship; Rhodes Scholarship; St. Andrew’s Society of New York Scholarship; Truman Scholarship; Udall Scholarship.

Recommendation letter writers sometimes wonder whether or not to include negative as well as positive observations about a student. While some foundations specifically ask recommenders to note where a student has room to grow, it is usually advisable to agree to write the letter only if, in your mind, the student’s positive qualities and suitability for the fellowship overshadow any growth areas she may have. If you feel enthusiastic about her candidacy, you will certainly be able to write an effective recommendation. A student who cannot find enthusiastic recommenders may be pursuing a fellowship that is not a good fit for her. Coming to this realization before she engages in a demanding application process will be to her benefit.

Of course, enthusiasm and praise must be substantiated. How can you show that your praise is warranted?

  • Put the student’s performance in context. If you have been teaching for decades and this student stands out as in the top 5% of students you have taught, say so.
  • Discuss her insight into a particular academic or practical problem as shown by a question she has addressed in a paper or by her insightful questioning and contribution to class discussion
  • Give an example about how she responded well to criticism about her work, and improved as a result
  • Talk about how you have observed her interacting with her peers in a classroom or organizational setting
  • Write about conversations you have had with her during office hours or other settings in which she has impressed you with her clear articulation of goals
  • Describe her ability to hold the attention of the room when giving a classroom presentation
  • Tell how you watched her garner enthusiasm for a particular project or initiative, and organize the work of others toward achieving a common goal
  • Show how she has exceeded your expectations. If she has merely met the expectations of a course, this is not worth noting.

Avoid summarizing what you have seen on her transcript or resume. It is most helpful if your letter supplements, rather than summarizes, those sources of information.

Content is the key, but form matters, too. Some fellowships ask you to complete a form with specific questions to address, but most ask for a traditional letter. Letters can usually be addressed as follows: Dear [Name of Foundation] Selection Committee. With the exception of one or two, most fellowship foundations prefer that letters be typed on institutional letterhead and signed by hand. The letters can sometimes be scanned and sent as pdfs, but are often required in printed form. In this electronic age when recommenders are often working remotely, this can be frustrating. Department Administrative Assistants are very helpful with such challenges, and the National Fellowships Office is happy to support your efforts to produce a letter in the desired format. Major fellowships are highly competitive and ask for evidence of many outstanding qualities. For this reason, foundations expect that the recommendation writer will need at least one full and often two full (single or 1.5 spaced) pages to convey all that he or she has to say about the candidate. Some have word or page limits. Please check with the MHC Fellowships Advisor if you are uncertain about length.

Fellowship recommendation letters must arrive on time. There are usually two deadlines for major fellowship applications – an internal (MHC) deadline, and a foundation deadline. The internal deadline is necessary so that the MHC Committee on Fellowships, which evaluates and selects candidates, can make a decision about a candidate with all the information the foundation will see. The Committee needs time to receive and review the materials before meeting with the candidate. For this internal deadline, it is often acceptable to send the letter to Christine Overstreet as a word document. Please note that all foundation deadlines for fellowships are “real.” Unlike many graduate school applications, there is no “grace period” for submission.

The Office of National Fellowships is eager to assist you in any way regarding recommendation letters for fellowships candidates. If you would like to see samples of strong recommendation letters, or if you have any questions, please contact Christine Overstreet, National Fellowships Advisor, at, or at 413-538-3344.