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Some tips from campus colleagues and others who serve on selection boards

Every year, faculty across campus write scores of recommendation letters to get good students into graduate school. But some find that writing recommendation letters for very competitive scholarships and fellowships is a different kind of challenge. Writing recommendation letters for such competitive scholarships as the Rhodes, Marshall and Fulbright requires extra thought and more detail than the typical graduate school recommendation letter.

Here, several Carnegie Mellon colleagues and others who sit on the selection committees for some of these prestigious awards offer tips on writing recommendation letters.
When a student asks you to write a recommendation letter, make sure that you understand what the student expects from you. Do you share the student's perception of his or her achievements? Could you wholeheartedly recommend the student for this particular award or program? If not, tell the student you may not be the best person for the task.

Ask the student for his or her resume and statement of purpose. You may also ask the student for a more detailed list of accomplishments. These items will spark your memory if it's been awhile since you've worked with the student.

Know what the selection committee is looking for. Read over the application materials that the student will provide you. If the committee is looking for scholarship qualities, it is fine to discuss the student's other qualities, but target your letter and your examples on scholarship.

Take some time to really think about the student and what he or she has accomplished. What makes a student's application packet stand out from the others is not only grades and accomplishments, but the specifics of what the student did and how he or she went about it. Tell a story; compare this student to all the others you've had throughout the last five years. But, remember, if the student does not stand out significantly from those other students, you may not be the best person to write a recommendation letter for the student.

Selection committees normally weed out mediocre application packets before focusing on the excellent ones. This means that a brief letter with phrases like "good student" and "hard worker" that aren't substantiated with examples will get tossed aside in favor of the detailed letter that doesn't just tell but shows how qualified the student is.

Most committees look not only for what the student has already done but what he or she has the potential to accomplish. Addressing potential may take a little more time than discussing past deeds, but it may give the student the edge over other applicants.

Unlike recommendation letters written for entrance to graduate school, letters for scholarships and fellowships should not bring up a student's weakness and then dispel that weakness with a parallel strength. While this technique seems to show objectivity, it is not a technique that works with these very competitive awards. Judges have many letters to read and are looking for any reason to take a candidate out of the running so that they can concentrate on a smaller core. If a judge sees a negative phrase such as "Although at first Jane appeared to be a dreamer in class," he or she may never get to "I soon realized that she was actually thinking one step ahead of my lecture."

Write at least a page and don't be afraid to go into detail in a longer letter. Committee members have commented that less than a page shows a lack of enthusiasm. Some have commented that over two pages is a bit long, but others have said that a letter filled with example after example of the student's accomplishments and outstanding capabilities is a joy to read.

However long the letter, be sure to print out each page on one side of the paper only. The back sides of double-sided letters may get lost if they are photocopied for the committee.

NOTE: Though these tips are especially useful for scholarship and fellowship recommendation letters, many of them are also useful for graduate school and employment recommendation letters.