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