Chapter 6: Writing Recommendation Letters for Students Seeking National Scholarships

Chapter 6: Introduction


When the student is ready . . . the lesson appears.
—Gene Oliver

A lot is at stake for students applying for national scholarships, which is why each recommendation letter for a scholarship candidate must be exceptionally strong, be written from an informed perspective, and exude a sincere tone. Simply put, to become a contender, a candidate needs every letter of reference to be excellent. It may be tempting to think that the academic records of top-shelf students speak for themselves and that their letters make little difference, but given the level of competition, exceptional students with ordinary letters of reference look unexceptional. As you review the sample letters in this chapter, note how often the writers invite us to imagine ourselves in the presence of the student—the narratives aim to help us know the candidate well, to in fact admire the student. The writers of these letters made it a point to sing their students' praises, both proudly and professionally.

At the same time, you’ll find cautions here about the need for a credible letter not given to hyperbole. In particular, evaluators from outside the US have long been clamoring for honest evaluations that aid selectors in the winnowing process, even asking writers specifically to comment on a student’s weaknesses as testimony that the writer is indeed painting a complete picture. Thorough discussions of how to go about this are in Chapter 1, with specific calls for criticism in this chapter from the Marshall, Rhodes, and Gates Cambridge scholarships.

The samples in this chapter come from my review of hundreds of recommendation letters for nine national scholarships, with the letters selected reflecting skill and variety. The brief summary included here about each scholarship will help you to write a letter of maximum efficacy. Also, if you wish to learn more about the scholarship the student is applying for, you can go to the website provided for each scholarship as well as turn to the student’s application materials.

Further Study

A number of schools have published excellent advice on the web about writing recommendation letters for scholarship candidates. Here are two recommended academic sites:

"Writing Recommendation Letters" from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville

“Writing Strong Letters of Recommendation” page from the Office of Merit Scholarships, Fellowships & Awards at the University of Washington

Chapter 6: The Udall Scholarship

The Udall Scholarship

The Udall Scholarship honors Morris K. Udall, an Arizona Congressman known for authoring legislation to protect wilderness areas and for his commitment to the Native American population. Sophomores and juniors are eligible for the scholarship money, which covers educational expenses for one year up to a maximum of $5,000.

Candidates for the Udall scholarship supply three letters of reference and prepare extensive application materials, including biographical background, personal narrative, educational plans, and an essay of 800 words applying Congressman Udall’s achievements to their own background. Ideally, references for the student should be highly familiar with the student’s application, particularly the essay question responses.

Writing the Udall Scholarship Recommendation

The criteria you should address in a Udall Scholarship recommendation letter include:

  • evidence of and continued potential for academic success;
  • the student’s level of interest in the environment;
  • the student’s communication skills, especially as they might be exercised in relation to environmental public policy;
  • the student’s potential to have an impact on his or her field.

The best Udall Scholarship letters provide concrete evidence of the student’s abilities and demonstrate a strong personal relationship between the student and the letter writer. The strongest letters emphasize the student’s dedication to his or her field of study and stress the student’s communication skills. In addition, the letter writer’s ability to comment briefly on the student’s 800-word essay or on the student’s potential for making contributions to the field of environmental public policy can have a significant impact on the student’s chances of winning a scholarship. In the second sample Udall letter provided, note how the writer addresses these issues with sentences such as the following: “As I’m sure you will note in her application materials, Janet is—especially for her age—a true stylist, and she will bring her respect and ability for both written and verbal expression to all of her work. She has spoken with me of a goal to become a scientist writer, and I am convinced of her ability to do so.”

When writing a Udall recommendation, beware of shortchanging the student by providing too little detail or by focusing too much on the nature of the scholarship itself. Perhaps because of the scholarship’s link to Udall and the Congressman’s indubitable impact on the nation’s environmental policy, some letter writers in the past have spent considerable time discussing Udall and his work. But such a practice can become digressive, especially because it is the student’s job to evaluate Udall’s accomplishments in the application materials. Any discussion of Udall himself or the scholarship’s goals should be done with efficiency, as in the final paragraph of the first sample letter in the pdf link below, where the writer fluidly comments, “I cannot imagine a better student to meet your goals of ‘educating a new generation of Americans to preserve and protect their national heritage.’”

Advice from a former Udall Selection Committee Member

In 2002, a former Udall selection committee member noted that backgrounds of committee members vary widely: “ . . . from professors of environmental policy and science, EPA officials, directors of scholarships and Honors programs, to representatives of Native American interests” (1). She also noted that evaluators had just 10 or 15 minutes to consider each application package, including the time needed to read the three letters of reference, and that the selection committee read about 450 applications in two and a half days. In a more recent blog from 2009, that same committee member notes that the number of Udall candidates has now grown to over 500 (2). Candidates who stand above the crowd are those who show a commitment to activities, volunteerism, and leadership.

Given these evaluative constraints, letter writers should favor brevity (note how each sample letter in the pdf link below is just one page) and not shy away from offering personal perspective about the student’s activities and character.

A Few Concerns Specific to the Udall Scholarship

There are some special award categories for the Udall Scholarship. Specifically, The Udall Scholarship Foundation Board of Trustees awards scholarships to Native American and Alaska Native students who intend to pursue careers in health care or tribal public policy. In these circumstances, the candidate and the three references must tailor their materials accordingly, giving special attention to the student’s background in ethics, public policy, or community service.

Click here to download a pdf of two recommendation letters written for former Udall applicants.

Further Study

To help you prepare your letter, you can visit the Udall Scholarship website as well as my sister webpage for students applying for the Udall:

Visit the Morris K. Udall Scholarship website

Visit Joe Schall’s website for students applying for the Udall Scholarship

Chapter 6: The National Science Foundation Fellowship

The National Science Foundation Fellowship

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awards fellowships for graduate study in science, mathematics, and engineering. The fellowships can support students for one year or more, and the stipend is generous (in 2009 each fellow received $30,000 for a 12-month tenure), with an additional cost-of-education allowance granted to the fellowship institution ($10,500 in 2009). Therefore, these awards are highly competitive, and the selection panels—made up of professors, scientists, mathematicians, and engineers—are most interested in students who will have a great impact on their fields and bring further reputation to their institutions. The NSF program also allows for a one-time international research travel grant if the student seeks to do research in a foreign country for at least three continuous months. Letters of reference for NSF Fellowships should be written with the above facts in mind.

Writing the National Science Foundation Fellowship Recommendation

The Fastlane website, which NSF candidates and their recommenders must use to process the application, details the criteria that recommenders should address in their letters (3), as follows:

Intellectual Merit: The intellectual merit criterion includes demonstrated intellectual ability and other accepted requisites for scholarly scientific study, such as the ability to: (1) plan and conduct research; (2) work as a member of a team as well as independently; and (3) interpret and communicate research findings. Panelists are instructed to consider: the strength of the academic record, the proposed plan of research, the description of previous research experience, the appropriateness of the choice of references and the extent to which they indicate merit, Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) General and Subject Tests scores, and the appropriateness of the choice of institution for fellowship tenure relative to the proposed plan of research.

Broader Impacts: The broader impacts criterion includes contributions that (1) effectively integrate research and education at all levels, infuse learning with the excitement of discovery, and assure that the findings and methods of research are communicated in a broad context and to a large audience; (2) encourage diversity, broaden opportunities, and enable the participation of all citizens—women and men, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities—in science and research; (3) enhance scientific and technical understanding; and (4) benefit society. Applicants may provide characteristics of their background, including personal, professional, and educational experiences, to indicate their potential to fulfill the broader impacts criterion.

The best NSF recommendation letters include thorough detail about the student as a scientist, mathematician, or engineer, with special attention to the student’s ability to make significant contributions to research that will have broader impacts in the field. Effective letters discuss such quantitative measures as a student’s grades, GPA, GRE scores, and class ranking, but also give special attention to such qualities as a student’s willingness to represent the college at functions, attendance and presentations at meetings or conferences, work as a teaching assistant or lab assistant, quality of the student’s publications, if any, and temperament and vision as a researcher.

Common problems in NSF recommendation letters are a failure to demonstrate the student’s potential in a manner specific to a discipline, and a lack of context or commentary by the letter writer about the student’s research goals. You should not hesitate to obtain more detail from the student if it helps you write a more thorough letter, and you should also feel free to create the proper context by discussing the type of research or teaching that the student has done or will be doing. Students prepare extensive essays as part of their application, including a plan for graduate research, and it is critical that recommenders read and comment on these documents.

Note how the first sample NSF letter in the pdf link below provides abundant detail about the student’s research project so that the selection committee can judge the worth of the student’s work as a researcher and assess the student’s ability to work as part of a team. Some readers might even say that the letter provides excessive detail about the science, but the writer prepares us for the lengthy science discussion with the sentence, “To emphasize the scope and importance of Janet’s work, a summary of the relevant science follows.” The second sample letter focuses more on the student’s temperament as a researcher, using superlatives including “well-organized,” “quick,” “confident,” “cheerful,” and “helping.” These superlatives are effective because they define exactly the qualities the student possesses without overstating them.

Special Categories of NSF Fellowships for Women

In awarding fellowships, the goal of the National Science Foundation is to “ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science, technology, mathematics, and engineering in the United States and to reinforce its diversity” (4). Although awards are first made on the basis of merit, other considerations such as gender are also used as secondary criteria. Thus, some recommenders see the letter as an opportunity to comment briefly about whether or not women are underrepresented in the student’s chosen field (the second sample letter in the pdf linked below provides such a comment in its closing paragraph). Whether such commentary is offered or not, some awards are reserved each year for the categories of Women in Engineering (WENGS) and Women in Computer and Information Science (WICS).

Click here to download a pdf of two recommendation letters written for former NSF Fellowship applicants.

Further Study

To help you prepare your letter, you can browse relevant pages on the website as well as my sister webpage for students applying for the NSF:

Visit the “GRFP FAQs for Reference Writers” website

Visit Joe Schall’s website for students applying for the NSF

Chapter 6: The Fulbright Scholarship

The Fulbright Scholarship

The Fulbright Scholarship gives a student the financial resources to complete a proposed research or study abroad project for one year. Applicants submit written research or study plans in the form of a personal statement and statement of grant purpose, and their work may include a year of graduate study, original dissertation research, a creative or performing arts project, or a teaching assistantship.

It is clear from the reference letter form, where you are asked not only to assess academic ability, but also to judge adaptability and personality, that the Fulbright committee is very interested in the student’s maturity and character, especially given that awarded students will spend a year abroad studying at another school. Students supply letters from just three references, and it is important that each letter illuminates both the student’s academic excellence and the potential and maturity to carry out a project while abroad.

Writing the Fulbright Scholarship Recommendation

The criteria you should address in a Fulbright Scholarship recommendation letter include:

  • strong level of knowledge and potential for future growth in the chosen field;
  • ability to carry out research and think and write analytically;
  • emotional stability, maturity, motivation, and seriousness of purpose;
  • appropriate linguistic preparation and ability to adapt to a different cultural environment;
  • a proposed project that is feasible and has merit;
  • likelihood of making a favorable impression as a United States citizen abroad.

The best Fulbright recommendation letters detail the student’s background in connection with the proposed project, and are written in a tone that is energetic and genuine. Among the recommendation letters from previous years, one successful letter complimented a student’s ability as a designated discussion leader to keep up with current events in the Middle East and to motivate the other students in an 8:00 a.m. class. Another letter offered the relevant aside that the Federal Aviation Administration had shown interest in a student’s research, while another letter took a moment to comment on the kind of vision that a student’s specific study plan had in relation to the agriculture and economy of the host country. Finally, one letter ended with the simple and genuine declaration: “She should become a diplomat.” Such personal, considered, emphatic testimonies reflect familiarity with and abundant confidence in the student.

Weak Fulbright recommendation letters tend to be so generic that they could apply to almost any student’s background. Weak letters from previous years made no attempt to match a student’s abilities and character with the proposed study plan or type of program. Some letter writers were careful to detail the student’s academic excellence, but made no comments beyond what could easily be gleaned from a review of the student’s transcript. It is vital that a letter of support offers some detail that fits only that individual being recommended, and that the recommender comments specifically on the student’s statement of grant purpose.

In this regard, note how the first sample Fulbright letter in the pdf link below comments on the appropriateness of Senegal for the student’s research, while the second sample letter comments on how the student would specifically benefit from a year in France. The first letter emphasizes how the recommended student has already grown through several study abroad tours, while the second stresses the student’s versatility through participation in campus activities. Note also that both letters are only one page long, yet filled with useful detail about the students’ scholarship, leadership, and maturity.

Commenting Only on Your Area of Experience

Despite the application’s request that you comment in such areas as a student’s linguistic ability and the resources available abroad, you should not feel compelled to reach beyond your experience in any of your comments. For instance, you may know nothing about the student’s linguistic ability or the availability of resources in the host country. In this case, trust that the student’s application as a whole will serve the committee’s needs, and that a stumbling, unsure effort by you in an area outside your bailiwick might only do harm. If you appear to be reaching for detail, it will likely show.

Click here to download a pdf of two recommendation letters written for former Fulbright applicants.

Further Study

To help you prepare your letter, you can study the Fulbright website as well as my sister webpage for students applying for the Fulbright:

Visit the Fulbright Program website

Visit Joe Schall’s website for students applying for the Fulbright

Chapter 6: The Goldwater Scholarship

The Goldwater Scholarship

The Goldwater Scholarship awards sophomore and junior students up to a maximum of $7500 annually for tuition, books, fees, and room and board. Because the scholarship assists those pursuing a research career in mathematics, the natural sciences, or engineering, your letter must provide specific examples of the student’s potential and research abilities in these fields. The essay that students write as part of their application is instructive here: They must describe an issue or problem associated with their field or describe an ongoing or intended research project. This shows that the committee is most interested in how a student can excel in a research environment, or work as part of a design team, or contribute to the understanding of a technical problem. Write your letter with these attributes in mind.

Writing the Goldwater Scholarship Recommendation

Goldwater candidates submit the names and e-mail addresses of three recommenders, and once the names are submitted an e-mail is sent to the recommenders with instructions for completing their recommendation online.

The criteria you should address in a Goldwater Scholarship recommendation letter include:

  • potential and intent for a career in mathematics, the natural sciences, or those engineering disciplines that contribute significantly to technological advances;
  • the ability and desire to pursue advanced degrees in the sciences and engineering;
  • developed career objectives and involvement in an academic program that fosters the student’s ability to make a significant contribution to the chosen field;
  • demonstrated outstanding academic performance, maturity, initiative, and motivation.

The best Goldwater recommendation letters submitted in previous years detailed both the type of research the student could do and the student’s academic achievements. Some letter writers effectively expounded on some technical detail of a student’s research project, or they smartly noted the fact that the student was already working on a research project funded by, say, an NSF Grant or a Howard Hughes Research Fellowship. Other letter writers focused more on the student’s academic character, pointing out that a sophomore was already looking toward her senior thesis, or that a student was willing to give up his Saturdays to work in the lab without pay. All these examples underscored the letter writer’s faith in the student as a motivated and mature working researcher and specialist.

Among the unsuccessful Goldwater letters submitted in previous years, the least effective were those that lacked detail or betrayed a lack of confidence in the student’s abilities. Other poor letters were far too technical about the nature of the student’s research, while some provided too much quantitative data about the student, relying only on a student’s class ranking or test scores as evidence of potential. You must avoid being too clinical in tone or detail, favoring personal interpretation and analysis of the student’s motivation or actual research.

In the first sample Goldwater letter in the pdf link below, note how the writer thoroughly details the learning and testing procedure the student must go through in order to select an ion permeable membrane that will function in the space shuttle. Thus, we focus on the context of the student working on an important scientific problem, and the nature of the problem itself—adequately but minimally described by the writer—remains in the background. The second letter focuses more on the personal traits of the student—one with a “photographic mind” who produces accurate field notes and observes keenly in the field—with emphasis on the student’s future as a geologist. Both letters are effective because they present the students as genuinely admired contributors and achievers.

A Few Concerns Specific to the Goldwater Scholarship

Students are sophomores and juniors when they apply for a Goldwater Scholarship, and often they are not wired in to their programs well enough to know many faculty. Some students even rely on high school teachers, work supervisors, or military superiors as references, which can produce an unusual mix of letters. Therefore, it’s valuable to know who the students other referees are, and where possible you should comment on both the student’s character and the student’s potential in the sciences or engineering to be sure both areas are covered.

Click here to download a pdf of two recommendation letters written for former Goldwater applicants.

Further Study

To help you prepare your letter, you can visit the Goldwater Scholarship website as well as my sister webpage for students applying for the Goldwater:

Visit the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship website

Visit Joe Schall’s website for students applying for the Goldwater Scholarship

Chapter 6: The Rhodes Scholarship

The Rhodes Scholarship

In the United States, only 32 Rhodes Scholarships are awarded per year, supporting two or three years of graduate study at Oxford University in any field. This, along with the fact that students must supply excellent letters from five to eight references, underscores just how incredibly competitive the award is and how necessary it is for you to write a detailed, emphatic letter in support of the candidate. If you cannot be genuinely positive and substantive in support of a student, you should encourage the student to seek a different reference. Students submit a transcript, a statement of academic and other interests, and a statement detailing why they wish to study at Oxford University. Because the application package for the Rhodes is due early in the academic year, students might even request a letter of recommendation from you during the spring.

Writing the Rhodes Scholarship Recommendation

The criteria you should address in a Rhodes Scholarship recommendation letter include:

  • proven intellectual and academic quality of the highest standard;
  • the student’s integrity of character, and demonstrated interest in and respect for their fellow beings;
  • the ability to lead and the energy to use their talents to the full.

The Rhodes Scholarship “Request for Letter of Appraisal” form is detailed about the kind of letter the selectors are seeking. To win a Rhodes Scholarship, the student must truly be among the nation’s best, and the letter writer’s comments must provide highly concrete evidence of the student’s superior intellect, integrity, and leadership. Go well beyond the student’s transcripts in your comments (many of the applicants will have a 4.0 GPA anyway), helping the committee to discern the distinction of the student’s accomplishments, and present your opinion of the student as a prospect to influence the nation and enhance the scholarship’s reputation. Since the Rhodes Scholarship is grounded in esteemed public service, concrete examples that you give of a student’s public service—altruism, volunteerism, activism—are especially beneficial. Strong athletic ability can give a student a slight edge as well. Write a tightly focused, uplifting, savvy letter.

Considering the two sample Rhodes scholarship letters provided in the pdf link below—written for the same student—the first paints a picture of the student in fairly broad strokes, focusing in particular on the student’s character and commitment. The second letter digs deeper, commenting extensively on the student’s interest in the European economy, and giving appropriate context to the recommender’s 40 years in the United States Foreign Service. Both letters directly tie the student’s background in agriculture to his future research commitment, thus giving us a sense of the student’s motivation and character.

A Call for Candor from the Rhodes Trust

The Rhodes Scholarship “Request for Letter of Appraisal” notes that you are not necessarily expected to speak from firsthand knowledge about all criteria, but to address those most relevant to your relationship with the student. The document also notes that you should not hesitate to speak of a student’s limitations as well as strong points: “Committees tend naturally to be dubious of appraisals that imply a given individual has no limitations whatever” (5).

In recent years, this call for candor has grown to more of a clamor. Excerpting from a 2004 listserv among members of the National Association of Fellowships Advisors, the American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust had this to say: “Let me add [the perspective] of Oxford admissions dons. The comparison between British and Americans letters of recommendation is stark. I am frequently told that many U.S. reference letters are so over-the-top and hyperbolic as to become parodies. The lack of credibility attributed then generally to U.S. references ill-serves all American students, especially those who truly are exceptional in the ways that the merely average American student is often described” (6).

In short, the Committees of Selection for the Rhodes Scholarships require letters that are rich in ethos. If you affirm that the student is exceptional yet you simply provide a scenario of the student’s performance in your class, or if the evidence you provide does not support the assertion that the student is excellent, you have weakened the student’s chances considerably. At the same time, a forthright tone and your willingness to critique a Rhodes applicant’s limitations and potential for growth are also linked to your credibility. For a discussion of ways to offer effective criticism in letters, see “The Role of Criticism” in Chapter 1 of this manual.

Click here to download a pdf of two recommendation letters written for a former Rhodes Scholarship applicant.

Further Study

To help you prepare your letter, you can browse the Rhodes Scholarship website as well as my sister webpage for students applying for the Rhodes:

Visit the Rhodes Scholarship website

Visit Joe Schall’s website for students applying for the Rhodes Scholarship

Chapter 6: The Marshall Scholarship

The Marshall Scholarship

Preference for the Marshall Scholarship is given to those students of high academic ability, mature character, and the capacity to play an active part in the life of their host United Kingdom university. Students must argue as to why their studies and proposed career would be best served by study at a UK University. Only the best students who apply will make it beyond a school’s internal selection committee to the regional review panel interviews, where about 130 students are interviewed out of 800 applicants, for about 40 awarded scholarships. Therefore, it behooves both the student and letter writer to work together closely and be sure that they have a good match. If you cannot be fully positive and detailed in support of a student, encourage the student to seek a different reference.

As instructed by the Marshall application, your college or university uses an internal review committee to designate one of the student’s references (out of four) as the “preferred recommender” and another as the “secondary recommender.” If you are the preferred recommender, it is vital that your letter is detailed, frank, and focused on the student’s academic performance and potential. Also, as the “preferred recommender,” you should make it a point to review the student’s proposal.

Writing the Marshall Scholarship Recommendation

Criteria to address in a Marshall Scholarship recommendation letter include:

  • distinction of intellect and character as evidenced both by a student’s scholastic attainments and by his or her other activities and achievements;
  • adequate preparation for the proposed course of study, particularly in upper-level course work, and demonstrated strength in the major field;
  • the student’s ability to play an active part in the life of a UK university, with potential to make a significant contribution to his or her own society.

The selection committee is helped enormously by letters that are frank, concrete, and informed. Amplify on such matters as the student’s contribution to your relationship, the potential of the student in post-graduate life, and even how the student fares when measured by standards outside the context of university life. Additional detail that will enrich a student’s application includes an assessment of what others think of the student; the student’s self-esteem; your view of the student’s character; your confidence in the student’s professional future; your opinion of how the student would benefit from the Marshall Scholarship.

A common tendency in weak Marshall letters is to rely solely on a summary of the student’s performance in one class or a cursory review of the student’s transcript. Another common problem is dwelling on the student’s intellect and GPA. Keep in mind that about 75 percent of the finalists for the scholarship have GPAs of 4.0 or above (with A+ grades), so academic excellence is assumed (7).

The two sample Marshall Scholarship letters provided in the pdf link below are interesting to compare to each other, in that they are written for the same student but with different approaches. The first letter reaches deeply into detail about the student as a musician, even citing pieces he performs on the piano, and discusses the student’s personality and character at great length. The second letter is more subdued in tone but equally emphatic, referring to the student as “a true Renaissance man.” Both letters end on a note suggesting that the award of a Marshall Scholarship to this candidate would be, as the second letter puts it, a “mutual honor.”

The Role of Critique in a Marshall Scholarship Recommendation

Reading the first sample letter in the pdf link below, which is highly positive overall, you’ll find the phrase “If I have any concerns about John’s future possibilities . . .” followed by commentary about potential limitations of the student’s background. This criticism is in keeping with the desire on the part of scholarship selection committees—particularly those including evaluators from Great Britain—to read a credible evaluation letter mindful of and giving voice to the student’s weaknesses as well as strengths. Though most writers hedge about making even subtle negative comments, Marshall selection committee members rely on your candor.

Commenting on this issue in a 2004 listserv among members of the National Association of Fellowships Advisors, a fellowships advisor and member of the Marshall Scholarship selection committee had this to say: “ . . . unless we attempt to promote a collective effort to avoid hyperbole and address genuine weaknesses honestly, it is going to be difficult to scrape off the patina of perfection that often covers a candidate’s dossier” (8). In plain terms, as an evaluator, you are urged to exude good will, yes, but by all means tell the truth.

Click here to download a pdf of two recommendation letters written for a former Marshall Scholarship applicant.

Further Study

To help you prepare your letter, you can visit the Marshall Scholarships website as well as my sister webpage for students applying for the Marshall:

Visit the “Information for Recommenders” page at the Marshall Scholarships website

Visit Joe Schall’s website for students applying for the Marshall Scholarship

Chapter 6: The Mitchell Scholarship

The Mitchell Scholarship

The Mitchell Scholarship, named to honor the former U.S. Senator George J. Mitchell’s contributions to the peace process in Northern Ireland, funds one year of graduate study at an Irish university to twelve students per year. The scholarship provides airfare, tuition, fees, housing, and a stipend for living expenses. The Mitchell Scholarship Selection Committee interviews 20 finalists for the 12 scholarships in Washington, DC.

Students applying for the Mitchell must have no fewer and no more than five references. With at least three of these references required to be from persons with whom the student has done academic work, it’s important that you detail the student’s academic success in your subject area. Recommenders must be registered by the applicant and their letters must be submitted online, with the deadline for letter submission an absolute that will not be waived for any reason. Because the application package for the Mitchell Scholarship is due early in the academic year (October), students may—and probably should—request a letter of recommendation from you during the spring.

Writing the Mitchell Scholarship Recommendation

The criteria you should address in a Mitchell Scholarship recommendation letter include:

  • documented evidence of a student’s achievements in academics, leadership, and service;
  • ability and maturity to pursue advanced study at an Irish university of the student’s choosing;
  • if appropriate, commentary on how the student’s proposed plan of study could contribute to US-Ireland relations.

Recommendation letter writers are urged to provide candid commentary in the above areas, without ignoring the equally important areas of leadership and service. Some recommenders fail to address leadership and service directly in their letters, or fail to define the categories broadly enough in their examples. Although there is no minimum GPA necessary for the Mitchell Scholarship applicant, an excellent undergraduate record and preparation for the proposed field of graduate study are vital to an applicant’s success.

In the two sample Mitchell Scholarship recommendation letters provided in the pdf link below, note how the first letter amplifies on the student as a leader enrolled in a graduate-level seminar, and how two full paragraphs are devoted to context for the student’s interest in Peace and Conflict Studies directly connected to “issues of gender and politics in Northern Ireland.” The letter does not skimp on detail about either the student or the political circumstances in Northern Ireland where the student aims to study. The second letter, even more detailed than the first, gives abundant examples of the student’s personality and character, linking these directly to her leadership skills. Most interesting, perhaps, is how the student is characterized as a “forceful advocate” particularly interested in contemporary politics and “issues important to youth.” As with other national scholarship contenders, this student is unafraid of conflict and challenge, and thus the recommender can present her as a person engaged in the struggle to solve real-world problems.

A Call for Candor in Mitchell Scholarship Recommendation Letters

On the Mitchell Website page, “Mitchell Scholars Program Application Procedures” (9), this advice is offered the recommendation letter writers:

Letters of reference should comment on a candidate’s general fitness for the proposed course of study. Confidential observations, negative as well as positive, on the candidate's character, integrity, generosity of spirit, intellectual distinction, leadership and commitment to service will be of great value to the selection committee in deciding which candidates should be Mitchell Scholars. By requesting these letters through the online application system, applicants are waiving their rights of access to these letters.

As with other national scholarships that are reviewed by readers abroad, there exists an open concern about the tendency that American reviewers have to exaggerate a student’s accomplishments and offer no criticism. Mitchell Scholarship letters should be rich in ethos, established in part by a forthright tone and your willingness to critique an applicant’s limitations and potential for growth where appropriate. For a discussion of ways to offer effective criticism in letters, see “The Role of Criticism” in Chapter 1 of this manual.

Click here to download a pdf of two recommendation letters written for a former Mitchell Scholarship applicant.

Further Study

To help you prepare your letter, you can browse the Mitchell Scholarship website as well as my sister webpage for students applying for the Mitchell:

Visit the Mitchell Scholarship website

Visit Joe Schall’s website for students applying for the Mitchell Scholarship

Chapter 6: The Truman Scholarship

The Truman Scholarship

If an applicant for the Truman Scholarship becomes a national finalist, he or she is interviewed by a regional review panel composed of senior government officials, former Truman Scholars, and college and university presidents. The stakes are $3,000 towards the student’s senior year and $27,000 towards graduate study. Students applying for the Truman Scholarship must be outstanding and presented as such. Truman Scholars are those headed for careers in government, education, the military, and non-profit public-service organizations and advocacy groups. Applicants must write an analysis of a public policy issue and be headed to a grad school program in preparation for a career as a public servant. Truman Scholars are also required to fulfill a special public service requirement, committing to work in public service for 3-7 years following completion of their graduate degree.

Writing the Truman Scholarship Recommendation

The criteria you should address in your recommendation letter are identified on the nominee’s cover sheet. Carefully note the criteria listed on your cover sheet and be certain to address each of them in your letter. One letter of recommendation defines the student’s leadership abilities and potential; another letter discusses the student’s commitment to a career in public service; a third discusses the student’s intellect and prospects for continuing academic success. Be certain that your comments are on-point in relation to the letter’s category. Truman candidates are also advised to choose a faculty member or community member who knows them well over a dean or politician who does not. Ask students who else is recommending them, and try to give your letter a slant different from the others.

Among the Truman recommendation letters from previous years—coming from individuals as varied as program directors, a Red Cross volunteer, and a local political candidate—the best writers often used narrative technique to highlight students in action as citizens, volunteers, initiators, innovators, activists. We hear of a student organizing volunteers to help coordinate a trip to the Washington display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, or rallying poll workers on the day of an election, or challenging classmates to shake off their apathy in the classroom, or working to help victims of domestic violence. Such concrete examples, linked with evidence in support of a student’s character, go a long way in helping a Truman applicant become a finalist. Some Truman letter writers are genuine enough to present students even at their most publicly abrasive—i.e., calling a student a “gadfly” in a Truman letter would not be considered a red flag. The Truman is for students who are movers and shakers, out to change the world. Be honest, good-willed, reflective, sincere, and detailed.

The least successful Truman letters in previous years were those that provided a mere listing of a student’s accomplishments with no evidence of the letter writer’s personal contact with the student, or a flimsy character reference that included no detail about the student’s service to others. To rehearse a student’s resume or assert that a student is a good person is not nearly enough.

In the pdf link below, the first sample Truman Scholarship letter that follows ably demonstrates how the recommender views the student as a potential Truman Scholar. We find characterizations including “ . . . likeable and assertive . . . ”; “She pushes issues other students may be reluctant to discuss . . .”; “As a White student double-majoring in African and African-American studies, and a straight woman leading a campus gay and lesbian activism group . . . .” Here is a student who is a gutsy, bold leader, recommended by a faculty member who understands well the needs of the selection panel. The second sample letter, written for a different student, also affirms the student’s maturity and leadership, by examples including her study tour in Cuba, her organizing a trip to a New York film festival, and her solving problems during a field trip to Madrid with her skills in Spanish. As we read these letters, we sense that these students clearly have strong potential as public servants.

Click here to download a pdf of two recommendation letters written for former Truman Scholarship applicants.

Further Study

To help you prepare your letter, you can browse the Truman Scholarship website as well as my sister webpage for students applying for the Truman:

Visit the “Letters of Recommendation” page from the Truman Scholarship website for detailed perspective on effective letters from past selection panelists

Visit Joe Schall’s website for students applying for the Truman Scholarship

Chapter 6: The Gates Cambridge Scholarship

The Gates Cambridge Scholarship

The Gates Cambridge Scholarship program, created by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, offers numerous types of scholarships funding between one and four years of graduate study at Cambridge University in England. The areas of study funded by the scholarship are graduate, affiliated (a second undergraduate degree), clinical, and MBA. About 80 to 100 scholarships are awarded each year, with 44 percent of Gates scholars coming from the U.S (10).

The ideal Gates Cambridge scholars will become leaders who will address such global concerns as social equity, health, and the role of technology. Students are not nominated by their host university, but apply directly to Cambridge themselves through the usual procedures, with the scholarship award decision being heavily driven by the Cambridge department to which they apply (56). There are over 200 Gates Cambridge Scholars studying at the university at one time.

Writing the Gates Cambridge Scholarship Recommendation

The criteria you should address in a Gates Cambridge Scholarship recommendation letter include:

  • the student’s aptitude for advanced research, analysis, and creativity at defining and solving relevant problems;
  • the ability of the student to use his or her education for the benefit of others;
  • your opinion of the student’s language proficiency if the applicant’s native tongue is not English.

On the last point, if you don’t feel qualified to comment on the language ability of a non-native speaker of English, trust that these applicants will be required to achieve a minimum score on the TOEFL test to gain admission to Cambridge. Regarding the other criteria, comment specifically in such areas as a student’s intellectual ability, leadership, work ethic, and altruism. To give a student maximum advantage, describe also your opinion of the student’s maturity and character in relation to completing a degree internationally and potentially following up on this degree by doing influential and international work.

Considering the two sample Gates Cambridge Scholarship recommendation letters in the pdf link below, note how the author of the first letter uses examples to demonstrate how well she knows the student: the student was home-schooled; she completed summer research funded by the NSF and the NIH; she wrote creative papers addressing such original topics as “the physics of the pendulum in a William Morris poem.” Such exact examples can apply only to this student, ultimately uplifted as “a sterling ambassador for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship.” The second letter, written for a student in the physical sciences, is equally detailed and presents the student as a research scholar, but is relaxed enough in tone that the author even uses an exclamation and refers to the student’s pivotal four-year role in the annual chemistry “magic show” for youth. In both letters, we come away with a strong sense that the students are genuinely admired by the recommenders.

The Role of Critique in a Gates Cambridge Scholarship Recommendation

As with other national scholarship competitions—particularly those that include British evaluators, who often look on the tradition of American hyperbole in letters with suspicion—recommenders are encouraged to offer honest criticism where appropriate as well as praise. In a 2004 listserv on the subject of candor in recommendation letters, a fellowships advisor who has served on several national scholarship selection committees comments thus:

“ . . . the Gates program is quite explicit in asking for weak areas in relation to their program mission—something I have found to be a great relief when writing final endorsements of wonderful but ultimately young and human individuals. Ultimately the program mission must be kept in view. Scholarships belong to larger missions and programs, and are not generic rewards for predictable superstars” (8).

For a discussion of ways to offer effective criticism in letters, see “The Role of Criticism” in Chapter 1 of this manual.

One final potential concern for recommenders offering critique is access rights. Unlike other national scholarships, the Gates Cambridge asks the recommender rather than the student to make a choice about access rights. On the recommendation letter form, you are asked to agree/not to agree “to the release of this reference if the person concerned seeks disclosure.” Thus, you must decide how comfortable you would be in the rare circumstance where the student might later seek access to your letter. For advice on this issue, you might consult the section “The Ethics of Authorship” in Chapter 1 of this manual, or e-mail the Gates Cambridge representatives directly via the website below.

Click here to download a pdf of two recommendation letters written for former Gates Cambridge Scholarship applicants.

Further Study

To help you prepare your letter, you can visit the Gates Cambridge Scholarship website as well as my sister webpage for students applying for the Gates:

Visit the Gates Cambridge Scholarship website

Visit Joe Schall’s website for students applying for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship

References for Chapter 6

(1) Curlin, Jane. 2002. “Insight from a Former Reader.” <> Accessed May 21, 2010.

(2) “Interview with Jane Curlin, Udall Foundation.” Saturday March 14, 2009. <> Accessed October 17, 2013.

(3) “GRFP FAQs for Reference Writers.” < Accessed May 22, 2010.

(4) “Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP).” <> Accessed May 22, 2010.

(5) Rhodes Scholarship “Request for Letter of Appraisal.” <> Accessed July 24, 2004.

(6) Gerson, Elliot F. Comments in July 20, 2004, listserv among the National Association of Fellowships Advisors. Used with permission.

(7) Raymond, Raymond. Executive Secretary of the Marshall Scholarship Program for New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Personal communication in 2003.

(8) Foster, Cheryl. Comments in July 20, 2004, listserv among the National Association of Fellowships Advisors. Used with permission.

(9) “Mitchell Scholars Program Application Procedures, Class of '12.” <> Accessed May 23, 2010.

(10) “The Scholarships.” <> Accessed May 23, 2010.