CHAPTER 6: Writing Recommendation Letters for Students Seeking National Scholarships
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.