CHAPTER 6: Writing Recommendation Letters for Students Seeking National Scholarships
The Gates Cambridge Scholarship
The Gates Cambridge Scholarship program, created by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, offers numerous types of scholarships funding between one and four years of graduate study at Cambridge University in England. The areas of study funded by the scholarship are graduate, affiliated (a second undergraduate degree), clinical, and MBA. About 80 to 100 scholarships are awarded each year, with 44 percent of Gates scholars coming from the U.S (10).
The ideal Gates Cambridge scholars will become leaders who will address such global concerns as social equity, health, and the role of technology. Students are not nominated by their host university, but apply directly to Cambridge themselves through the usual procedures, with the scholarship award decision being heavily driven by the Cambridge department to which they apply (56). There are over 200 Gates Cambridge Scholars studying at the university at one time.
Writing the Gates Cambridge Scholarship Recommendation
The criteria you should address in a Gates Cambridge Scholarship recommendation letter include:
- the student’s aptitude for advanced research, analysis, and creativity at defining and solving relevant problems;
- the ability of the student to use his or her education for the benefit of others;
- your opinion of the student’s language proficiency if the applicant’s native tongue is not English.
On the last point, if you don’t feel qualified to comment on the language ability of a non-native speaker of English, trust that these applicants will be required to achieve a minimum score on the TOEFL test to gain admission to Cambridge. Regarding the other criteria, comment specifically in such areas as a student’s intellectual ability, leadership, work ethic, and altruism. To give a student maximum advantage, describe also your opinion of the student’s maturity and character in relation to completing a degree internationally and potentially following up on this degree by doing influential and international work.
Considering the two sample Gates Cambridge Scholarship recommendation letters in the pdf link below, note how the author of the first letter uses examples to demonstrate how well she knows the student: the student was home-schooled; she completed summer research funded by the NSF and the NIH; she wrote creative papers addressing such original topics as “the physics of the pendulum in a William Morris poem.” Such exact examples can apply only to this student, ultimately uplifted as “a sterling ambassador for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship.” The second letter, written for a student in the physical sciences, is equally detailed and presents the student as a research scholar, but is relaxed enough in tone that the author even uses an exclamation and refers to the student’s pivotal four-year role in the annual chemistry “magic show” for youth. In both letters, we come away with a strong sense that the students are genuinely admired by the recommenders.
The Role of Critique in a Gates Cambridge Scholarship Recommendation
As with other national scholarship competitions—particularly those that include British evaluators, who often look on the tradition of American hyperbole in letters with suspicion—recommenders are encouraged to offer honest criticism where appropriate as well as praise. In a 2004 listserv on the subject of candor in recommendation letters, a fellowships advisor who has served on several national scholarship selection committees comments thus:
“ . . . the Gates program is quite explicit in asking for weak areas in relation to their program mission—something I have found to be a great relief when writing final endorsements of wonderful but ultimately young and human individuals. Ultimately the program mission must be kept in view. Scholarships belong to larger missions and programs, and are not generic rewards for predictable superstars” (8).
For a discussion of ways to offer effective criticism in letters, see “The Role of Criticism” in Chapter 1 of this manual.
One final potential concern for recommenders offering critique is access rights. Unlike other national scholarships, the Gates Cambridge asks the recommender rather than the student to make a choice about access rights. On the recommendation letter form, you are asked to agree/not to agree “to the release of this reference if the person concerned seeks disclosure.” Thus, you must decide how comfortable you would be in the rare circumstance where the student might later seek access to your letter. For advice on this issue, you might consult the section “The Ethics of Authorship” in Chapter 1 of this manual, or e-mail the Gates Cambridge representatives directly via the website below.