Writing Recommendations for Nationally Competitive Opportunities

Collect Crucial Content

Composing a compelling letter of recommendation begins with access to key information. In addition to the student’s academic performance, this includes their motivation for applying, their qualifications for the desired opportunity, and how it fits into their future trajectory. It is the applicant’s responsibility to furnish recommenders with relevant information at least 3 weeks in advance of the deadline. To streamline this process, when you receive a letter of recommendation request, consider giving the student a checklist of materials that they must provide to you. Here are some items for the checklist:

  • CV and transcript
  • Description of classwork/research projects they’ve completed under your supervision and what they’ve learned
  • Deadline for letters of recommendation
  • The fellowship’s instructions for recommenders
  • The fellowship’s selection criteria
  • Self-reflection questions:
    • Why do you want this fellowship?
    • How do your academic background, coursework, research, and other experiences qualify you for this opportunity?
    • What are your future academic, personal, and professional goals? How will this fellowship help you come closer to realizing them?
    • What will this opportunity enable you to do for others?

Prioritize the Fellowship’s Criteria

Letters of recommendation that miss the mark often have a common pitfall: they simply report what the instructor has observed about the student. Therefore, what is missed, or is only briefly mentioned, is how this information maps onto the fellowship’s concerns. Effective letters of recommendation, by contrast, invert this approach, using the fellowship’s priorities as a blueprint. Most fellowships have specific selection criteria that letters of recommendation must address. Others, such as the Truman Scholarship, solicit a different kind of letter from each recommender, each of which must speak to a very specific criterion (e.g. Public Service, Leadership, etc.). Regardless of the fellowship, using their priorities as a guide—and fitting your knowledge of the student into paragraphs that address these—ensures your letter will be relevant to the selection committee and advocate effectively on the student’s behalf.

Lead with the Big Picture

Introductory paragraphs have two main tasks: 1) establishing the recommender’s credibility as a reference; 2) foregrounding the “big picture,” that is, how this fellowship fits into the student’s academic and professional plans, as well as their other commitments. State how you know the student, in what capacity, and for how long. Explain why you have chosen to write for them and what excites you about their candidacy. Identify the motivations that drive your student’s work, connecting them to the fellowship’s mission and to the student’s future trajectory. Above all, do not bury the lede: don’t make the selection committee piece together the case for your student.

Offer Concrete Anecdotes and Specific Details

A letter of recommendation’s most powerful tools are the concrete anecdotes it offers about the applicant. Nuanced first-hand accounts not only make your student memorable to the selection committee, differentiating them from other applicants; they are also the most effective way of demonstrating your student’s unique achievements, their character, and what otherwise sets them apart. They also indicate the depth of your relationship with them. Eschew emphasizing generic qualities (all applicants for competitive national fellowships are likely “diligent” or “talented”) and instead interweave stories about your student, especially ones that address the fellowship’s mission or criteria.

Contextualize their Academic Excellence

Academic excellence can take many different forms—for instance, "breaking the curve” on a rigorous examination, inventing a novel approach to a problem, developing an ingenious research question, or synthesizing knowledge across disciplinary boundaries. Use specific examples to define what makes your student’s work outstanding or exceptional. In addition, fellowships view academic achievement as relative, not absolute: if your student has overcome significant barriers or disadvantages, clearly explaining these factors is crucial to contextualizing their success.

Make Explicit Comparisons to other Students

Comparing your student to others allows the selection committee to better evaluate their level of achievement. For instance, are they the most talented student in your seminar this year, or the most outstanding student in your last 15 years of teaching? Comparing them to similar students—and what they have gone on to achieve—can also offer a subtle way of suggesting a possible future trajectory. If a comparison to others isn’t possible, due to the uniqueness of their talents, their achievements, or the specific challenges they have faced, then this, too, is important to state and explain.

Explain How their Work Will Benefit Others

Many nationally competitive fellowships, such as the Truman, Marshall, Mitchell, and Rhodes, select grantees who they believe will improve the lives of others. Make the case for your student’s future leadership potential and evidence their commitment to serving others by referencing their past accomplishments. Define the problem that motivates their work, describe their proximity to it, and relate the challenges they’ve encountered, the solutions they’ve developed, or incremental gains they’ve made. Be specific about the kind of leadership they’ve shown: have they initiated change by applying pressure, spoken truth to power, advocated on behalf of others, or forged consensus to address an issue? Be clear about how you envision them contributing to a cause, to a community, or to their field—and why this matters.