Writing Recommendation Letters Online



When the student is ready . . . the lesson appears.
—Gene Oliver

A lot is at stake for students applying for national scholarships, which is why each recommendation letter for a scholarship candidate must be exceptionally strong, be written from an informed perspective, and exude a sincere tone. Simply put, to become a contender, a candidate needs every letter of reference to be excellent. It may be tempting to think that the academic records of top-shelf students speak for themselves and that their letters make little difference, but given the level of competition, exceptional students with ordinary letters of reference look unexceptional. As you review the sample letters in this chapter, note how often the writers invite us to imagine ourselves in the presence of the student—the narratives aim to help us know the candidate well, to in fact admire the student. The writers of these letters made it a point to sing their students' praises, both proudly and professionally.

At the same time, you’ll find cautions here about the need for a credible letter not given to hyperbole. In particular, evaluators from outside the US have long been clamoring for honest evaluations that aid selectors in the winnowing process, even asking writers specifically to comment on a student’s weaknesses as testimony that the writer is indeed painting a complete picture. Thorough discussions of how to go about this are in Chapter 1, with specific calls for criticism in this chapter from the Marshall, Rhodes, and Gates Cambridge scholarships.

The samples in this chapter come from my review of hundreds of recommendation letters for nine national scholarships, with the letters selected reflecting skill and variety. The brief summary included here about each scholarship will help you to write a letter of maximum efficacy. Also, if you wish to learn more about the scholarship the student is applying for, you can go to the website provided for each scholarship as well as turn to the student’s application materials.

Further Study

A number of schools have published excellent advice on the web about writing recommendation letters for scholarship candidates. Here is one such site:

“Writing Strong Letters of Recommendation” page from the Office of Merit Scholarships, Fellowships & Awards at the University of Washington