Thank you for taking the time to advise your student and to perhaps write a letter. Letters of reference are incredibly important for scholarships like the Fulbright, Rhodes, Marshall, Goldwater, and Truman (among others). To win nationally competitive scholarships like these, the candidate must be among the nation's best, and the letter writer's comments must provide highly concrete evidence of the student's superior intellect, integrity, and leadership (with some variations based on the scholarship).
Elements of strong letters of recommendation
Make clear the context in which you know the candidate
How long have you known him or her? How often do/did the two of you communicate? Have you had any particularly meaningful interactions about which you can write?
Comparisons to peers
Particularly helpful to reviewers are comparisons to other students you have known and worked with. Top 1% among all the undergraduates you have taught in X years? Top student in the department right now? Do not exaggerate. If the student is not one of the best students you have ever taught, it's best not to mention this (being in the top 20%, or having the 10th best final exam grade in a class of 50 is not going to help the student).
Detailed letters are most persuasive
The strongest letters are at least about a page (and no longer than two), single-spaced. In working to provide detail, recommenders should try to provide a perspective on the candidate that is not already available in the candidate's resume or personal essay. Numbers alone (top 1%, best in class of 100, etc) are not enough.
Be specific to stand out
When making qualitative statements such as "Joe is a student of excellent intelligence and motivation," remember that all students applying for very competitive scholarship opportunities will be these things. This point relates again to details: try to say very particular things about the candidate you are recommending, things that will make him or her stand out among other very good or even exceptional students. Point to specific things the student has done. Did she write a brilliant paper? Why was it brilliant? Did he lead a successful campaign to change X or Y on campus? If so, why do you think he succeeded? Have you had interactions with the student outside of class that would help reviewers to understand what makes the student tick?
Look carefully at the information about the scholarship that the student gives you
Look at the selection criteria and try to think concretely about things you can say about the candidate that demonstrate how she fulfills these criteria. If the student is applying to conduct independent research on a Fulbright, for example, explain why you think the student will be able to carry out the project and why the project is meaningful. If the student is applying to study in the UK, explain why the specific master's program at X university is a good fit for the student's academic and/or career trajectory.
A few things to avoid
- Do not reference "accomplishments" like coming to class every day, doing the reading, or doing homework regularly. This will not help the student in any way.
- Avoid relying on a grade to speak to the achievements of a student. Show us why the student is outstanding.
- Avoid simply describing the responsibilities of a student in a class, internship, project, etc. Paint a picture for us of how the student went above and beyond normal expectations.
Guidance on letters for specific scholarships
- Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship
- Fulbright study/research/arts
- NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program
When to say no
If you feel that you cannot write a strongly supportive and detailed recommendation for the student, you may wish to decline to write the letter. See above to assess whether you know the student well enough to write such a letter. Please give the student as much notice as possible so he/she can ask someone else.
Note that the student *should* have requested the letter from you in a timely fashion. Competitive candidates should also provide information about the scholarship, a draft of their application essay(s), and anything else you would find helpful (like a c.v. or resume). Candidates should discuss with you why they are interested in this opportunity and how it fits in with their academic and career trajectory. If you have not been given sufficient time or information, you may wish to decline to write a letter.