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