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