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Writing Letters of Recommendation

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What Helps

  1. Provide specific information about the applicant based on your first-hand knowledge, such as:
    • Examples of what the applicant has done (e.g., if the student wrote a brilliant paper, mention its topic and why it stood out).
    • Merits of the proposed research project, course of study, internship, etc.
    • Positive impact the fellowship would have on the student's short- or long-term goals and overall educational trajectory.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."
  2. 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.
  3. Ask a student to send you a current resume and relevant application materials and have a conversation with the student about what to highlight. These can be helpful guides as you craft your recommendation. 
  4. Be aware of bias in letter writing (avoid gendered language, racial stereotypes) 
  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 left-handed 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 recall little more about a student than the recorded grades.
  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.

If you are writing for an external award like the Truman, Rhodes, Marshall, or Fulbright, the applicant should provide you with specific guidelines pertaining to that competition.