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 to stand out.

Before Writing the Letter

Before you begin writing, you should have the student complete a Student Recommendation Request Form. This form will provide you with information about the award itself, what motivates the student to apply for this award, why they think they are a good fit for it, and why they believe you are the best person to write a letter on their behalf. The form also prompts students to send you their current résumé or CV and drafts of their application essay(s). Reading the student’s essay(s) can help you 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 essays.

General Guidelines for Strong Letters of Recommendation

  • Discuss how long you have known the student and in what context.
  • Provide concrete, specific details about the student’s academic performance and scholarly work that show you know the student well and give substance to your claims of the student’s excellence. Be wary of providing hyperbolic praise without examples. 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.
  • Letters praising good attendance, completing all readings/assignments, and receiving A grades are generally not helpful for national scholarships. Many candidates for national scholarships will share these qualities, so reviewers are looking for more substantive information on the student’s potential as an outstanding scholar and future leader in their field.
  • Include rankings or comparisons of the student to peers and/or to previous students you have taught.
  • Present a clear account of the ways the student fits the qualifications of the scholarship to which they are applying. One of the best ways to do this is to draw from the language used by the foundation or organization themselves.
  • Make sure your final letter appears on official letterhead and is signed.
  • Address your letter to the selection committee for the scholarship or fellowship (e.g. “Dear Truman Scholarship Selection Committee,”).
  • Leave out information about yourself and your academic background unless it is directly pertinent to your assessment of the student and their qualifications for the scholarship.
  • Don’t forget to proofread! If you are writing multiple letters for the same student, double check that your letter references the corresponding scholarship.

Saying “No”

At times, it may be appropriate to say “no” when a student requests a letter of recommendation. This may be the best response if:

  • You cannot write a letter that includes positive, specific, substantive information about the student and examples of their scholarly achievements and academic performance. A generic or less than supportive letter can be detrimental to a student’s chances at receiving a competitive award.
  • If you do not have the time to craft a carefully worded, highly detailed, and tailored letter.
  • If the student approaches you in an unprofessional manner.

Specific Guidelines

The information below provides writers of recommendation letters with specific content suggestions for some of the awards that CFSA students may pursue. As we note above, the strongest letters are those that underscore how the student fits with the specific mission or goal of the award. Some seek students with significant leadership experience and a commitment to service. Others are focused solely on supporting students with exceptional research experience. Knowing what the foundation or organization values is pivotal when writing an effective letter.

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 315-443-2091.