The Center for Life Beyond Reed

Letters of Recommendation: Marshall & Rhodes

Approximately 32 Rhodes (for the US) and up to 50 Marshall Scholarships and are awarded each year for outstanding students to pursue graduate study in the UK (for the Rhodes, at Oxford specifically). These awards are searching for intellectually distinguished young Americans who will one day become leaders, opinion formers and decision makers in their own country. Applicants must demonstrate exceptional academic ability, mature character, potential to become a change agent, and the capacity to play an active part in the life of a UK university.

Criteria for the Rhodes Scholarship:

  • Academic excellence
  • Energy to use their talents to the full (as demonstrated by mastery in areas such as sports, music, debate, dance, theatre, and artistic pursuits, including where teamwork is involved).
  • Truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship.
  • Moral force of character and instincts to lead, and to take an interest in their fellow human beings.

Final Rhodes letters should not exceed two A4 pages (minimum 10 point type). Letters will be requested by email from the Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee, and must be on headed paper, signed, and uploaded in pdf format.

Criteria for the Marshall Scholarship:

  • Academic Merit: evidence of academic background that is strong and relevant, quality of proposed program of study, knowledge of proposed courses and supervisors, quality and breadth of recommendations.
  • Leadership Potential: ability to deliver results, strength of purpose, creativity, and self-awareness.
  • Ambassadorial Potential: interpersonal skills and ability to engage with others, self-confidence and ability to seize opportunities, evidence of extra-curricular activities transferrable to UK, knowledge of US/UK relations.

Final Marshall letters should be 1,000 words or fewer and will be submitted in an online form.

Your letter should:

Address the Rhodes and Marshall criteria. Selection committees do not like letters that appear to be generic or “canned” -- written for graduate school applications with only the names of the applicant and institution changed. Letters should speak to the unique qualities envisioned in the scholarship. 

Assess the proposed degree program.  Corroborate the applicant’s own assessment of readiness to undertake the proposed course of study, and comment on the appropriateness of the proposed UK degree program.  Students should provide you these details so the correct program may be reflected.

Confirm and validate. Applicants must show solid evidence of academic and research achievements, explain their career goals, and discuss plans to make a difference in the world. It is important for recommenders to comment on the seriousness of the student’s interests and career goals, to attest to the student’s research activities, and to assess the student’s potential to make a significant impact in their field and/or communities.

Make the case for excellence.  Every student who advances in the competition is assumed to hold great promise.  Explain why the student stands out above others, and why you have confidence in his/her personal and professional promise

Be about the applicant. Selection committees don’t particularly care about an institution’s ranking or other bragging points. Nor do they want to spend time reading about your accomplishments or “how tough” your course is.” Your spotlight should be on the student.

Tell a good story.  Vague superlatives (“John is bright, conscientious, hard-working…”) are of little value. The letter must bring the student to life with specific examples of his or her exemplary qualities. Interesting anecdotes show that you know the applicant well.

Compare. It is helpful to selection committees if you can favorably compare the applicant to other undergraduates -- and graduate students -- you have taught who have gone on to graduate programs and have been successful in their careers. How does the nominee stack up against these students at a comparable stage of educational development?

Be frank. Selection committees – particularly British ones – are skeptical of letters so effusive and unqualified in their praise that the applicant comes across as too good to be true. If there are areas where the applicant could stand improvement, say so.  A year or two studying in the UK might prove beneficial in developing these challenge areas.  

Assess character. Present your evaluation of the student’s character and what you know about the esteem in which others hold this student. Include detail about your personal connection with the student, and his or her contribution to this relationship.

Additional Advice from Ken Brashier here.

Guidance for referees (recommenders) from the Rhodes Trust

Information for Recommenders from the Marshall Commission

All letters need to be submitted online Students are responsible for registering you as their reference writer in their online application; once they do this you will receive instructions for how to submit your letter.

Questions? Please contact