Advice For Writing Letters of Recommendation

GW undergraduates and recent grads regularly excel in national fellowship competitions, winning highly selective Truman, Goldwater, Pickering and Fulbright awards. These successes are due in no small part to the generous support of GW faculty and other mentors like you. We thank you in advance for your willingness to devote time and care to writing letters of recommendation for our candidates.

Competition for prestigious national fellowships is keen, and letters of recommendation play a crucial role in separating the winners from the "merely" exceptional applicants. To assist you in preparing effective letters of recommendation, we have sketched out below "9 Simple Rules" for effective letter writing. In addition, we have prepared fellowship-specific memoranda for all fellowship competitions requiring formal GW nomination or evaluation. In these dedicated memos you will find a brief description of each fellowship and the specific criteria used in its selection process.

We are always happy to respond to any questions you may have about preparing your letter. Please feel free to contact us at fellcent@gwu.edu or at (202) 994-0536.

9 Simple Rules for Writing an Effective Fellowship Recommendation

  1. If you feel you can't write a strongly enthusiastic letter, gently decline. Competition for national fellowships is stiff, so if for any reason you feel unable to write a strongly supportive letter, it is best for the candidate if you decline.
  2. Review the selection criteria for the fellowship. Knowing what the fellowship is looking for will help you understand how to present your candidate. For example, Fulbright looks for candidates with 'ambassadorial' as well as scholarly skills; Truman looks for candidates deeply devoted to public service; Goldwater looks for candidates committed to scientific research. Selection criteria for all national fellowships requiring GW nomination or evaluation are linked below.
  3. Aim to make the candidate come alive. Most top fellowship competitions interview finalists. Your letter should make the selection committee want to meet the candidate in person and learn more about them. Try to express what it was/is about the candidate that makes him or her a special person to have in class, in the lab, or at an internship or volunteer setting.
  4. Use specific examples or illustrations. Praise in broad terms, however striking, will not make a vivid impression without specific and substantive illustrations. Discuss specific papers, conversations, projects, deeds that will help distinguish the candidate in the reader's mind. The quality of your examples or illustrations is more important than the quantity.
  5. Highlight any unusual or truly outstanding quality or ability you believe makes the candidate especially well-qualified for the fellowship. At the highest levels of competition all candidates have outstanding records and accomplishments. What makes your candidate different?
  6. Convey a clear sense of the candidate's intellectual and/or personal qualities. How has the candidate demonstrated superior critical abilities, originality or intellectual curiosity? What personal qualities make the candidate particularly memorable or impressive? How, in your experience, has the candidate's character or ability to lead or bring about change been manifest? How do the candidate's personal qualities complement or enhance his or her aims and ambitions?
  7. Provide a useful and relevant context for evaluating the candidate's promise. Consider the candidate in light of his or her ambitions for graduate study, public service, or professional achievement, and in light of your own relevant experience and background. How does the candidate compare to grad students you've known (for faculty letter writers) or to younger colleagues or subordinates (for internship or volunteer supervisors). Would you be excited to have this student as an applicant for graduate study or employment at your institution? Why? Be specific.
  8. Avoid recapitulating highlights from the candidate's resume. Your letter is most valuable when it shares information, experiences, anecdotes that reveal qualities not evident through paper credentials alone. Spending more time on these personal perspectives, and less on rehearsing information presented elsewhere, will make for a much more effective letter.
  9. Write at least three full paragraphs. Letters that are just too brief - one or two scant paragraphs - convey disinterest or lack of acquaintance, however positive your language might be. Aim for one complete page, and possibly more for the most competitive scholarships.

Further Reading:

Joe Schall, Writing Recommendation Letters

Manya Whitaker, Tips for Writing Letters of Recommendation