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Advising and Letters of Recommendation

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The fellowship application process is of great educational value and can provide opportunities for personal and professional growth. Advisors play a key role in helping students through the fellowship journey.

Thank you for supporting your students and the larger
fellowship process within Yale College.


Advising Students on Fellowships

Note: This recorded webinar offers faculty and staff an overview of Office of Fellowships, available fellowship competitions, and the many resources we provide to students seeking funding for research, study, independent projects, internships, and more.

How you can make a difference

A trusted mentor can help a student craft a strong, competative fellowship project by providing guidance with the student's unique interests and goals in mind.

Fellowships for research or graduate school

Students applying for research opportunities and graduate school programs would greatly benefit from the guidance of a menotr with expertise in their field of study. By sharing their experience and insight, mentors are able to help students craft competative applications and plan for their futures.

When advising students pursuing research and graduate school opportunities, consider both the practical and long-term aspects of the experience. Practical considerations include methodology, skills, and the general structure of the proposed project. Long-term considerations relate to the student's academic and professional goals.

The fellowships process at Yale 

The Fellowships and Funding Office supports students applying to Yale fellowships as well as external funding opportunities. Funding is available for a wide range of activities. Each fellowship application has its own requirements and timeline.  

The Yale Student Grants Database is a searcheable database of all internal (Yale) and select external (non-Yale) fellowship opportunities. It is the best place for students to begin their fellowship search.

Certain external competitions require a University nomination and are therefore overseen by the Fellowships and Funding Office. These include prominent programs such as Rhodes, Marshall, Goldwater, and Fulbright. A curated list is available here.

Note: We're here to support the work you do. Fellowship Programs offers information sessions, workshops, individual advising appointments, and other resources for students interested in applying for fellowships.

Writing Letters of Recommendation

What Helps

  1. Provide specific information about the applicant based on first-hand knowledge, such as:
    • Concrete examples of stand-out work.
    • Merits of the proposed project in relation to the opportunity and the field as a whole.
    • Positive impact the fellowship would have on the student's short- or long-term goals and overall educational and professional trajectory.
    • Contextual support for the student's ability. Quantitative remarks and percentages may be useful, such as, "Top 5% of students in my 20 years of teaching."
  2. Draw on the remarks of colleagues for supporting evidence or the acknowledgement of specific strengths. Letters from professors may also draw on comments from teaching assistants who may have worked more closely with the applicant.
  3. Ask the student requesting the letter of recommendation to send you a current resume and relevant application materials. Have a conversation with the student about what to highlight. Understanding of the student's motivation and what they hope to achieve will be helpful as you craft your recommendation. 
  4. Be aware of bias in letter writing.*
  5. Be honest with yourself. Consider whether you can dedicate the time and energy to writing a detailed letter. If not, say no (see below.)

*Avoiding Racial Bias in Letter of Reference Writing

*Avoiding Gender Bias in Letter of Reference Writing

Tip: Think about how your letter of recommendation might help shape an interview with the fellowship committee.

What Hurts

On the whole, the following are not helpful: 

  1. Letters that consist largely of unsupported praise and fail to provide specific examples of points mentioned or generic letters sent without regard to the specific fellowship, course of study, or project proposed.
  2. Letters that may be read as implying criticism (beware of backhanded compliments) or whose criticisms might be taken to indicate stronger reservations than stated. Letters should be honest - and honest criticism, if generously presented, can enhance the force of a letter - but committees take critical comments very seriously.

When to Say "No"

There may be times when declining to write a letter is the best thing to do, such as:

  1. If the student asks too close to the deadline or approaches you in a highly unprofessional manner. We advise students to ask for letters no less than three weeks in advance of a deadline.
  2. If you feel that you cannot be emphatically positive in support of a student.
  3. If you do not have a clear recollection of the student.
  4. If you do not have the time to write a good letter or if you think that you are not the best person to write a letter. 

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.

Other Considerations

  1. 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 ( or 203-432-8685).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.