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