Guidelines for Writing Fellowship Recommendation Letters

Recommendation letters are a key component of a fellowship application. Selection committees rely on recommenders’ words as they evaluate and rank candidates. A “fellowship recommendation” is neither a graduate school recommendation nor a job reference, although either can be adapted to serve the purpose. To be most effective, a fellowship letter should be tailored to the aims of the sponsoring foundation. Candidates should provide recommenders with information about the fellowship requirements and about their own goals and aspirations, usually in the form of the application essays. The best recommendation letter will speak directly to these questions, and will provide compelling evidence of the applicant’s suitability for a particular fellowship.

It can be helpful to emphasize strong performance in especially difficult or higher level courses. Likewise, comparing the student to others you have taught can provide useful context.  It may be advisable to avoid comments like “he never missed a class” or “she always did the reading,”  implying that this is not the norm at Trinity. Offering examples of exceptional performance beyond the merely expected will serve the candidate better.  In general, letters rich in detail and specifics about the applicant’s intellectual interests, accomplishments and potential are most helpful.

For tips that can be applied to most fellowship letters, see the Truman Foundation and Marshall Scholarship sites:
The Truman Foundation
The Marshall Scholarship

Guidelines adapted from National Association of Fellowship Advisors

Writing a Recommendation for the Marshall Scholarship

Approximately 40 Marshall Scholarships are awarded each year to “…intellectually distinguished young Americans who will one day become leaders, opinion formers and decision makers in their own country…”  Applicants must demonstrate exceptional academic ability, mature character, and the capacity to play an active part in the life of a UK university.  In addition to a 1000 word personal essay and a shorter but important proposed program of study, applications require recommendation letters from four persons, at least two of whom must be academics.  Three must be in the U.S.  If you do not know the students well enough to write a detailed letter that emphasizes his or her achievements while also reflecting warm regard, or if you cannot write in strong support, please encourage him or her to seek another reference.

Applicants should provide copies of their draft personal essays and proposed academic program to each prospective recommender, and must work particularly closely with the individual designated as the Preferred Reference, whose letter carries greatest weight and is expected to be a detailed discussion of academic performance and potential.

Criteria for the Scholarship:

•Distinction of intellect and character as evidenced by both academic attainments and other activities and achievements
• Demonstrated strength in the major field, and adequate preparation for the proposed course of study
•Ability to participate actively in the UK university, and potential to make a significant contribution in the US

Your letter should:
•Corroborate the applicant’s own assessment of readiness to undertake the proposed course of study
•Explain why the student stands out above others, and why you have confidence in the student’s personal and professional promise
•Include detail about your personal connection with the student, and his or her contribution to the relationship
•Present your assessment of the student’s character, and what you know about the esteem in which others hold this student
•Be warm, concrete, frank, and truthful

Other considerations:
It is helpful if the recommender can say something specific about the appropriateness of the chosen U.K. academic programs, and why the applicant should study in the U.K.

Information drawn from Marshall Aid Commemoration Commission and Joe Schall, “Writing Recommendation Letters”  (Penn State University 1997)