Characteristics of Strong Recommendation Letters
- Letters should be 1-2 paged single-spaced in length.
- Provide the context for your relationship with the candidate and the length of time you have known him/her.
- Situate the candidate's performance in the larger context of your experience.
- Address the student's academic performance or extracurricular engagements in detail and with specific examples if possible. A recommendation that demonstrates a personal knowledge of the candidate beyond the grade they may have received in your class delivers a strong and lasting impression. Try, therefore, not to rely solely on a summary of a candidate's performance in a class or a cursory review of their transcript and/or resume.
- Some scholarships (like the Truman) will ask you to address a very specific quality in a candidate (like leadership, for example). The candidate should be clear about what you are being asked to address and your letter should clearly and specifically address that quality.
- Be specific about why the student is a strong candidate for a specific fellowship.
- Avoid hyperbole as well as overly negative language. The foundations that grant these awards are looking for realistic, substantive evaluations of candidates rather than overly positive, unsupported statements.
Download a handout on how to avoid gender bias when writing letters of recommendation.
Characteristics of Weak Recommendation Letters
- Too short, vague, unsupported points.
- Generic letter or letters that were obviously written for other purposes (grad school admission, for example).
- Letters that merely summarize a candidate's resume or transcript.
- Letters that merely describe classes taken or activities rather than the work the candidate did within those contexts.
- Letters that evaluate the candidate negatively, or even as merely average.
When to Decline to Write a Recommendation Letter
You should not write a letter of recommendation for a student or alum if
- you are not strongly and positively supportive of the candidate;
- you do not feel that you know the candidate well enough or cannot remember enough about them to provide a substantive, detailed letter;
- You do not feel that you are the right person to recommend them for the fellowship or job;
- You do not have the time to write one.*
*Recommendation letters that come in after the deadline for national fellowships will never be considered as a part of the candidate's application by the foundation, and will therefore greatly disadvantage the candidate.
- Oxford University Press Blog: How to write a letter of recommendation.
- Writing Letters of Recommendation, A Faculty Handbook. This online book addresses detail, content, style, sample letters, and guidance specifically for nationally competitive awards.