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Letters of Recommendation

With increasing numbers of students competing for major scholarships, letters of recommendation are extremely important and factor heavily in the selection process. Therefore, your letters should reflect the high standards of the programs themselves. Generic, two-paragraph letters laden with vague superlatives are of little value. Letters that have a fill-in-the-name appearance or simply rehash items in your resumé can be fatal. On the other hand, letters that supply concrete evidence of your talents and back up superlatives with specifics can provide the key to a successful application.

Well in advance of the application deadline, you should make appointments with the people you wish to write letters of recommendation. It is important that they understand what you're applying for and the challenge you are facing. Be sure to provide your referees with copies of your resumé, the scholarship application form or information bulletin and anything you have prepared for the competition (personal statement, study proposal, etc.).

Ask for letters from people who know you well. It may be natural to seek recommendations from professors in whose courses you made your best grades, but the writers should be able to comment on more than what's in the grade book. You may be better off with letters from faculty who gave you B's if they can speak more knowledgeably and favorably about your work habits and personal qualities.

Some applicants, apparently believing what counts is not what you know but whom you know, seek out references from public officeholders, celebrities, high campus officials and the like. Unless these VIP letters give specific examples of your abilities and accomplishments, scholarship screening and selection committees are likely to mentally, if not literally, trash them. Keep in mind that most application forms contain an item that asks the recommender: "How long have you known the applicant?" Think about how your recommender would respond. If he or she is likely to say "about 30 minutes," your application probably is in deep trouble.

Think twice about seeking letters from "friends of the family." Because they know you well and like you, they can generally be counted on to say wonderful things about you. On the other hand, their personal closeness to you could result in the letter lacking in objectivity. If you decide to ask family friends to write for you, be sure to advise them to comment on qualities that are relevant to the scholarship for which you are applying.

Strive for balance in your recommenders. Ideally, you should have a mix of professors and non-academicians so that the collective image they give of you is multifaceted. If all of your writers are professors whose course you have taken, try to get them from different fields of study.

Choose letters from persons who write well. Poorly crafted letters of recommendation may reflect unfavorably on the rest of your application.

Selection committees tend to be suspicious of letters overflowing with extravagant but unsubstantiated praise. Even the most gifted applicants have shortcomings or areas in which they could stand improvement. Your references should not hesitate to speak to them. If letters of recommendation portray you as flawless, needing no improvement whatsoever, you will come across as too good to be true.

A helpful letter of recommendation reveals qualities that don't show up on transcripts or resumés. To give references further insight into your intellectual and personal character, you might want to provide them with written responses to the following questions:

  • Why do you want to ....? (study at Oxford, win a Fulbright Grant, etc.)
  • What in your background prepares and qualifies you for the scholarship or fellowship you are seeking?
  • What are your goals five, ten or twenty years from now?
  • What experiences have you had that reveal your leadership, creativity, motivation, etc.?
  • What do you like to do in your spare time?

Finally, give the people who write for you plenty of advance notice, and if necessary give them timely reminders. Be sure to thank them for their efforts, and keep them posted on the status of your application.