Provide specific information about the applicant based on your first-hand knowledge, such as:
Place the student in a larger context: e.g., a letter could compare the present applicant to past applicants/winners. If possible, the student can be compared to graduate students or professionals. Quantitative remarks and percentages may be useful: "among the three best students I have taught." The strongest comparisons have the widest reach: "top 5% of students in my 20 years of teaching" is stronger than "the best in his section."
Draw on the remarks of colleagues for supporting evidence or the acknowledgement of specific strengths. Letters from professors may also draw on the comments from teaching assistants who may have worked more closely with the applicants.
Tip: Think about how your letter of recommendation might help shape an interview with the fellowship committee.
According to feedback from your colleagues on fellowship committees, the following are not helpful:
There may be times when declining to write a letter might be the best thing to do, such as:
Tip: You can help the student to consider alternative letter writers, but agreeing to write for a student whom you cannot strongly support does not help.
You may want to ask your student who else is writing for him/her and what they are likely to say. You can then focus on complementing what other writers are saying, so that together the letters will provide a more comprehensive picture.
If you are called upon to write letters for two or more applicants for the same fellowship, beware of using too much of the same language in each, especially if they will be read by the same committee. If you have questions about whether your students are applying through the same region for external fellowships, please contact Fellowship Programs (email@example.com or 203-432-8685).
Although we encourage students to provide their recommenders with helpful, detailed information, it is not ethical to request that students provide drafts of their own letters. Faculty should also beware of leaning too heavily on material provided by students, since students give much the same information to each recommender and following this too closely can lead to letters that sound too similar.
If you have written a letter in collaboration with another faculty member, be mindful about how you and your colleague use subsequent versions of that letter. We want to avoid situations in which a student is represented by different letters with largely identical language from two different faculty members.
(Some of the items above are responses to an informal survey of Truman Scholarship selection panel members. With thanks to Mary Tolar, former Deputy Secretary of the Truman Scholarship Foundation.)
Note: Lost your copy of a letter you wrote? If it was submitted through our office and we still have it on file, we'll gladly send it to you upon your request.