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Advice for Writing Letters of Recommendation

This advice is based on the experience of faculty nominating committees at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities for several national and international national scholarships. It is intended for faculty as well as non-faculty recommenders. If you have questions or desire additional information, please contact Sally Lieberman, Associate Director for National and International Scholarships, liebe001@umn.edu.

Most national and international scholarship programs provide guidelines for recommenders which explain the sorts of information of interest to the selection committee. Please review the scholarship-specific guidelines carefully. If you need more information about the scholarship, ask the candidate or Sally Lieberman (see above). You may also wish to access our scholarship list.

In general, scholarship selection committees are most interested in what you can say about the candidate based on your personal knowledge and observation. No recommender is expected to cover all aspects of a candidate’s experience. Briefly explain the context in which you know the candidate, and your relationship. It is not necessary to go into detail about your own credentials or scholarly interests.

If the candidate has been a student in your classes, it is useful to comment on the particular quality of the candidate’s written work, class participation, and intellect, giving one or two well-chosen examples if possible. If you have first-hand knowledge of the candidate’s work for a nonprofit organization, campus group, or government agency, describe and offer your insights into the candidate’s particular contribution. If the student has conducted research under your direction, describe the research and the candidate’s contribution in some detail.

Most scholarship programs want to know something about the candidate’s character. Highlighting a few personal qualities, perhaps illustrated by an interaction you have had with the candidate or a behavior that you have observed, can help selection committees to form an impression of the candidate as a “whole person.”

When the candidate’s future plans include graduate study, faculty recommenders should comment on the student’s prospects for success in graduate school.  A recommender who is familiar with the specific academic program in which the candidate hopes to enroll may wish to comment on the fit.

If you are able to make a strong comparative statement about how the candidate’s performance compares to other students (or volunteers, interns, etc.) that you have known, this can be very helpful. Obviously such assessments must be honest, but recommenders should be aware that, because national scholarship foundations are looking for extraordinary individuals, they are not impressed to learn that “Student X is in the top 20% of undergraduates in our department.”

As far as length is concerned, one full page, or two at the most, is nearly always sufficient; a very long letter imposes a burden on selection committee members who must read many applications. Recommendations that are submitted electronically usually have a strict word limit.

Please proofread your letter carefully. We know you always do this, but we need to stress it.

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