Writing Letters of Recommendation

Faculty letters of recommendation are enormously important components of any application for a nationally competitive scholarship.  Candidates for these awards face very long odds; for many scholarships, fewer than 5% of endorsed applicants will be selected for the award. Given this level of competition, scholarship applicants must have truly exceptional letters of recommendation in order to stand out.

Strong letters of recommendation should provide:

  • Concrete, specific detail about the student’s academic performance. Specific examples of the student’s skills and accomplishments will make it clear that you know the student well and will also serve to give substance to your claims.
  • Examples or stories that will help reviewers get a clear sense of the student’s personality and character.
  • Rankings or comparisons of the student to peers and/or to previous students you have taught.
  • A clear account of the ways the student fits the qualifications of the scholarship to which they are applying. Consult the list on the CFSA webpage (see below) for detailed information on specific nationally competitive scholarships.  When possible, consider using or adopting the language the scholarship program itself employs.  For example, an applicant to Gates Cambridge, a scholarship which values applicants’ dedication to “improving the lives of others,” would benefit from a recommendation that explicitly uses this phrase in a discussion of the candidate’s commitment to helping other people.
  • Substantive, specific, and judicious praise of the candidate.  Avoid hyperbole and overly-general statements about the student's greatness that are not backed up with concrete examples. Non-US reviewers, in particular, appreciate candid assessments of applicants and sometimes express frustration at what they perceive to be an American trend toward inflated rhetoric. If the student is in fact extraordinary and the best student you've ever taught, say that in your letter--but substantiate your point with concrete examples of what makes the student so extraordinary.

In order to write a strong letter, you might:

  • Ask the student to provide you with copies of their personal statement or other application materials (even if these are in draft form).
  • Ask the student for a current CV or resume and academic transcript.
  • Schedule a meeting with the student to discuss their academic experiences, campus involvement, future career plans, and motivations for applying for the scholarship.

Remember, CFSA staff are always happy to read drafts of letters of recommendation or answer any questions.

Recommendation Guidelines for Major Awards

The information below provides writers of recommendation letters with specific content suggestions for some of the major scholarships and fellowships that CFSA students may pursue.

For each of these scholarships, applicants must produce at least one personal essay. Students should provide a draft of their essays to their recommenders. Reading a student’s essay can help recommenders assess a student’s talents and ambitions within the context of a particular scholarship.  Effective recommendation letters often amplify or expand on the points that applicants highlight in their personal essays.

Faculty recommenders may serve as excellent advisors throughout the application process; feedback on personal essays from a faculty member who is familiar with the student can significantly improve the application.

If you have any questions regarding your letter of recommendation or the application process, please contact Jolynn Parker at jmpark02@syr.edu or by phone at 315-443-2759.