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Faculty Guide to Writing Scholarship Recommendations

Every year we are asked by faculty for advice on how best to support Vanderbilt’s candidates for nationally competitive scholarships, fellowships and internships. The following list of suggestions and comments is compiled from information provided by fellowship sponsors, as well as colleagues in the field, that reference writers may find helpful.

Because competition for these programs is so intense, recommendation letters are crucially important in the screening and selection processes. Letters often tip the balance. If, upon receiving a request from a student to serve as a reference, you believe that you do not know the student well enough to write a detailed letter (even after reviewing the file students will provide), or if you genuinely prefer not to take the time to write a detailed letter, please decline the request but feel free to help the student think about alternative referees. We appreciate the challenge of composing a credible, helpful recommendation letter. Because much is at stake for the student, we encourage your acceptance of the invitation if, as we believe, you’re a qualified referee.

Some foundations, most notably the Fulbright ETA program, ask you to respond to certain questions in a online form they provide. Others, such as Truman, will ask you to focus your remarks on a specific quality of characteristic. Most have word/character guidelines to which you will need to adhere. It is very important that you take advantage of the space provided, as they are a primary indicator as to the depth and breadth of the reference the Foundation would like to see. Letters that are significantly shorter than requested can hurt a student’s chance for success in the competition. Letters that are significantly longer may not be read.

Ask the candidate to provide you with information on the scholarship and identify the qualities sought in its candidates. This provides an excellent blueprint for the focus of your letter.

The essential question you should answer is not whether this is an outstanding student, but what stands out about this student. What most clearly and sharply distinguishes this person from other outstanding students? How is this student distinctive? What in your experience individualizes her/him? What can you write that will make interview team want to meet the candidate?

Review the applicant’s application essay drafts, transcript, cv and other info she/he has been asked to provide to you. Meet with her at least once, soliciting additional information and interrogating her academic and career plans. She will be prepared to identify strengths that you might emphasize in your letter. Ask to be reminded of your previous academic and social interactions with her.

Consider why you like or admire this student. What makes him special and memorable? When and how did you discover his admirable qualities?

Reflect on the general characteristics desired in scholarship winners and decide which you are best qualified to address (intellectual curiosity; rigorous application; leadership; risk-taking; collegiality; written and oral communication skills; integrity, maturity, sensitivity, energy, warmth; potential for making major contributions to the discipline and to society).

Based on your experience of the candidate, is there an episode or anecdote complimentary to her out of which you could develop a narrative for the selection committee?

Address letters to the chair of the scholarship committee, if the name is available; otherwise, to the committee (“Dear Marshall Scholarship Committee”). Be sure to date and sign the letter, and print it on institutional letterhead stationery. Use your full title (“Assistant Professor of Classical Languages” rather than “Assistant Professor”).

Stories about the candidate are usually compelling, unique, and memorable, often as an introduction to him. A litany of vague superlatives (bright, conscientious, hardworking) is of no value. The letter must bring the student to life with specific examples of her notable qualities. Interesting anecdotes showcase your knowledge of the candidate and give her a pulse. But stick to brief narratives (five sentences max). One or two are usually enough.

Contextualize your professional and personal familiarity with the applicant: where have you known him, for how long, in what capacity and relationship: class, lab, research, extra-curricular or civic activity? Establish your personal knowledge of him, if possible: incidents unique to your relationship are more credible and helpful than information also appearing on the cv. Avoid duplicating what’s available elsewhere in the application packet.

Provide only specific information about the applicant of a sort that will help reviewers define his strengths and discover his personality. Good letters can sometimes define the shape of the interview. Offer detailed, colorful, sharply etched evidence to support your claims for brilliance and distinction. Possible sources forsuch evidence:

  • Papers and exams (an excerpt or two may be quoted)
  • Research data and how they were collected and processed
  • Conversations with the applicant
  • Contributions to classroom discussion or dynamics
  • First and most recent observations of student (re: growth)
  • Effect of the candidate on you
  • Effect of the candidate on peers
  • Scholarship website to match candidate with desired criteria

Point to specific examples of the applicant’s accomplishments: name the topic of a brilliant paper and state why it was star quality, not merely that it is publishable. If the student performed well in some other capacity, explain the nature of the work, its outstanding features, and how they relate to the goals of the fellowship at hand.

State why the applicant is a strong candidate for the specific scholarship. How does she incarnate the personal qualities or selection criteria sought by the scholarship foundation? Specific examples are critical.

What especially qualifies the candidate for success in the proposed project or course of study? A paragraph on this subject links past performance with promise.

Contextualize the student: if the student does well by the juxtaposition, compare him/her to applicants for the same or similar honors, or to graduate students or professionals. Quantitative comparisons and percentages may be useful if not overdone: “in the top 5% of my undergraduates in twenty years of teaching.” The strongest comparisons are those with the widest reach: “among the best in my X years is preferable to “the best in her section.” If the student isn’t quite the overall best in X years, perhaps she was the best in some particular way. Unless she is first in a class, don’t provide the class ranking.

Spotlight the candidate. Committees don’t care about institutional rankings or your own credentials and achievements.

Rely on your own observations of and experiences with the applicant. “My colleague, Dr Doctor informs me that Kevin was his finest student” is hearsay and will be duly dismissed.

Express reservations advisedly. Selection committees are appropriately skeptical of gushing, effusive letters damp with unqualified praise but they also take critical comments seriously. Damning with faint praise is still damning. Left-handed compliments imply unstated reservations and raise flags. Letters should of course be honest — and honest criticism, generously expressed, can strengthen a recommendation — but caution is advised: you want to avoid any sense of indirection. You may point to areas where an applicant is expected to improve but it’s probably better not to suggest defective performance in that line.

What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity? How important is the proposed activity to advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields? What qualifications does the student have that will enable her/him to conduct the project? (It is important here to comment on the quality of prior work. To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts? How well conceived and organized is the proposed activity? Is there sufficient access to resources and mentors?

What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity? How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning? How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)? To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships? Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding? What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?


  • Advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning, for example, by training graduate students, mentoring postdoctoral researchers and junior faculty, involving undergraduates in research experiences, and participating in the recruitment, training, and professional development of K-12 mathematics and science teachers.
  • Broaden participation of under-represented groups, for example, by establishing collaborations with students and faculty from institutions and organizations serving women, minorities, and other groups under-represented in the mathematical sciences.
  • Enhance infrastructure for research and education, for example, by establishing collaborations with researchers in industry and government laboratories, developing partnerships with international academic institutions and organizations, and building networks of U.S. colleges and universities.
  • Broaden dissemination to enhance scientific and technological understanding, for example, by presenting results of research and education projects in formats useful to students, scientists and engineers, members of Congress, teachers, and the general public.
  • Benefits to society may occur, for example, when results of research and education projects are applied to other fields of science and technology to create startup companies, to improve commercial technology, to inform public policy, and to enhance national security.

Most of the Scholarship/Fellowship Foundations now require all materials – including letters of recommendation – to be submitted online. Others have forms that ask specific questions they would like you to respond to in the format they have provided. The student will let you know which methods/forms are required and provide you with necessary passwords and links to enable you to complete your recommendation. Though it takes extra time to complete a variety of different forms, Foundations will not review letters that are not submitted as according to their guidelines.

While a letter of recommendation is a written reflection on another person, how the letter is written is also a reflection of the author. As you write, keep in mind that your letter will be read by colleagues across the country – and occasionally abroad – some of whom will be in your professional field. All letters submitted for competitions that require a Vanderbilt endorsement will also be reviewed by your peers and colleagues at Vanderbilt. If you have any question about the content of your letter or the manner in which it may be perceived, please contact the Office of Honor Scholarships for assistance.

If you have any questions about how your letter can best support the candidate, please let us know. Websites for all of the scholarships supported by OHS are accessible on this website.