CHAPTER 6: Writing Recommendation Letters for Students Seeking National Scholarships
The Mitchell Scholarship
The Mitchell Scholarship, named to honor the former U.S. Senator George J. Mitchell’s contributions to the peace process in Northern Ireland, funds one year of graduate study at an Irish university to twelve students per year. The scholarship provides airfare, tuition, fees, housing, and a stipend for living expenses. The Mitchell Scholarship Selection Committee interviews 20 finalists for the 12 scholarships in Washington, DC.
Students applying for the Mitchell must have no fewer and no more than five references. With at least three of these references required to be from persons with whom the student has done academic work, it’s important that you detail the student’s academic success in your subject area. Recommenders must be registered by the applicant and their letters must be submitted online, with the deadline for letter submission an absolute that will not be waived for any reason. Because the application package for the Mitchell Scholarship is due early in the academic year (October), students may—and probably should—request a letter of recommendation from you during the spring.
Writing the Mitchell Scholarship Recommendation
The criteria you should address in a Mitchell Scholarship recommendation letter include:
- documented evidence of a student’s achievements in academics, leadership, and service;
- ability and maturity to pursue advanced study at an Irish university of the student’s choosing;
- if appropriate, commentary on how the student’s proposed plan of study could contribute to US-Ireland relations.
Recommendation letter writers are urged to provide candid commentary in the above areas, without ignoring the equally important areas of leadership and service. Some recommenders fail to address leadership and service directly in their letters, or fail to define the categories broadly enough in their examples. Although there is no minimum GPA necessary for the Mitchell Scholarship applicant, an excellent undergraduate record and preparation for the proposed field of graduate study are vital to an applicant’s success.
In the two sample Mitchell Scholarship recommendation letters provided in the pdf link below, note how the first letter amplifies on the student as a leader enrolled in a graduate-level seminar, and how two full paragraphs are devoted to context for the student’s interest in Peace and Conflict Studies directly connected to “issues of gender and politics in Northern Ireland.” The letter does not skimp on detail about either the student or the political circumstances in Northern Ireland where the student aims to study. The second letter, even more detailed than the first, gives abundant examples of the student’s personality and character, linking these directly to her leadership skills. Most interesting, perhaps, is how the student is characterized as a “forceful advocate” particularly interested in contemporary politics and “issues important to youth.” As with other national scholarship contenders, this student is unafraid of conflict and challenge, and thus the recommender can present her as a person engaged in the struggle to solve real-world problems.
A Call for Candor in Mitchell Scholarship Recommendation Letters
On the Mitchell Website page, “Mitchell Scholars Program Application Procedures” (9), this advice is offered the recommendation letter writers:
Letters of reference should comment on a candidate’s general fitness for the proposed course of study. Confidential observations, negative as well as positive, on the candidate's character, integrity, generosity of spirit, intellectual distinction, leadership and commitment to service will be of great value to the selection committee in deciding which candidates should be Mitchell Scholars. By requesting these letters through the online application system, applicants are waiving their rights of access to these letters.
As with other national scholarships that are reviewed by readers abroad, there exists an open concern about the tendency that American reviewers have to exaggerate a student’s accomplishments and offer no criticism. Mitchell Scholarship letters should be rich in ethos, established in part by a forthright tone and your willingness to critique an applicant’s limitations and potential for growth where appropriate. 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 Mitchell Scholarship applicant.