Has a student recently asked you to write a recommendation letter? The following list of comments and suggestions may be helpful to reference writers.

The Candidate

Ask the candidate to provide you with information on the scholarship or fellowship. Identify the qualities sought in its candidates. These qualities provide a blueprint for the focus of your letter. Note that the essential question you should answer is not whether the candidate is an outstanding student but rather, what stands out about this student. What qualities most clearly and sharply distinguishes this candidate from other outstanding students?




Review all the materials the candidate provided to you, including the applicant’s essay drafts, transcripts, resume, and other information.

Meet with the candidate at least once. During your meeting with the candidate, ask for additional information, talk about the candidates academic and career plans. Ask the candidate to identify strengths you might emphasize in your letter or previous academic and social interactions you had with the candidates.


Why do you like or admire this student? What makes this candidate special and memorable? When and how did you discover this candidate’s admirable qualities?

Reflect on the general characteristics desired in the fellowship. Such characteristics may include, intellectual curiosity, rigorous application, leadership, risk-taking, collegiality, written and oral communication skills, teamwork, integrity, maturity, sensitivity, energy, warmth, and potential for making major contributions to the discipline and to society. Which ones are you most qualified to address?

Based on your experience of the candidate, is there a complimentary episode or anecdote out of which you could develop a narrative for the selection committee?


Guidelines for Specific Scholarships or Fellowships

Below are external links to the various scholarships/fellowships and their guidelines for the recommendation letter or the criteria for selection. If you have any questions about how your letter can best support the candidate, please contact the Career Center.

Boren Scholarship

Churchill Scholarship

Fulbright English Teaching Assistants

Fulbright Open Study/Research

Goldwater Scholarship

Luce Scholarship

Marshall Scholarship

Mitchell Scholarship

Rhodes Scholarship

Schwarzman Scholars

Truman Scholarship

Udall Scholarship

Address and Titles

Address letters to the chair of the scholarship committee, if the name is available; otherwise, to the committee (“Dear Marshall Scholarship Committee”). Be sure to date and sign the letter, and print it on institutional letterhead stationery. Use your full title (“Assistant Professor of Classical Languages” rather than “Assistant Professor”).

Personal Knowledge

Stories about the candidate are usually compelling, unique, and memorable, often as an introduction to the student. A litany of vague superlatives (bright, conscientious, and hardworking) is of less value. The letter must bring the candidate to life with specific examples of the student’s notable qualities. Interesting anecdotes showcase your knowledge of the candidate and gives the student a pulse. But stick to brief narratives (five sentences max). One or two are usually enough.

Contextualize your professional and personal familiarity with the applicant: where have you known student, for how long, in what capacity and relationship: class, lab, research, or extra-curricular or civic activity? Establish your personal knowledge of the student, if possible: incidents unique to your relationship are more credible and helpful than information also appearing on the resume. Avoid duplicating what’s available elsewhere in the application packet.

Provide Evidence

Provide only specific information about the applicant of a sort that will help reviewers define the student’s strengths and discover the student’s personality. Good letters can sometimes define the shape of the interview. Offer detailed, colorful, sharply etched evidence to support your claims for brilliance and distinction.

Possible sources for such evidence include, papers and exams (an excerpt or two may be quoted), research data and how they were collected and processed, conversations with the applicant, contributions to classroom discussion or dynamics, first and most recent observations of student (re: growth), effect of the candidate on you or on peers, scholarship website to match candidate with desired criteria.

Point to specific examples of the applicant’s accomplishments: name the topic of a brilliant paper and state why it was star quality, not merely that it is publishable. If the student performed well in some other capacity, explain the nature of the work, its outstanding features, and how they relate to the goals of the fellowship at hand.

Candidate's Strengths

State why the applicant is a strong candidate for the specific scholarship. How does the student incarnate the personal qualities or selection criteria sought by the scholarship foundation? Specific examples are critical.

What especially qualifies the candidate for success in the proposed project or course of study? A paragraph on this subject links past performance with promise.

Spotlight the candidate. Committees don’t care about institutional rankings or your own credentials and achievements.

Rely on your own observations of and experiences with the applicant. “My colleague, Dr. Doctor informs me that Kevin was his finest student” is hearsay and will be duly dismissed.

Addressing merit or impacts of the proposed activity

How important is the proposed activity to advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields? What qualifications does the candidate have that will enable this student to conduct the project? (It is important here to comment on the quality of prior work.) To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts? How well conceived and organized is the proposed activity? Is there sufficient access to resources and mentors?

How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning? How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)? To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships? Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding? What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?

Examples include:

Advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning, for example, by training graduate students, mentoring postdoctoral researchers and junior faculty, involving undergraduates in research experiences, and participating in the recruitment, training, and professional development of K-12 mathematics and science teachers.

Broaden participation of under-represented groups, for example, by establishing collaborations with students and faculty from institutions and organizations serving women, minorities, and other groups under-represented in the mathematical sciences.

Enhance infrastructure for research and education, for example, by establishing collaborations with researchers in industry and government laboratories, developing partnerships with international academic institutions and organizations, and building networks of U.S. colleges and universities.

Broaden dissemination to enhance scientific and technological understanding, for example, by presenting results of research and education projects in formats useful to students, scientists and engineers, members of Congress, teachers, and the general public.

Benefits to society may occur, for example, when results of research and education projects are applied to other fields of science and technology to create startup companies, to improve commercial technology, to inform public policy, and to enhance national security.

Recommendation Forms

Most of the Scholarship/Fellowship Foundations now require all materials – including letters of recommendation – to be submitted online. Others have forms that ask specific questions they would like you to respond to in the format they have provided. The student will let you know which methods/forms are required and provide you with necessary passwords and links to enable you to complete your recommendation. Foundations will not review letters that are not submitted as according to their guidelines.


If you have reservations or criticism about the student, decline to write the letter of recommendation. Selection committees take critical comments seriously. Damning with faint praise is still damning. Left-handed compliments imply unstated reservations and raise flags. Letters should of course be honest — and honest criticism, generously expressed, can strengthen a recommendation — but caution is advised: you want to avoid any sense of indirection. It is better not to suggest defective performance or areas where candidates are expected to improve.

Who Will See Your Letter?

While a letter of recommendation is a written reflection on another person, how the letter is written is also a reflection of the author. As you write, keep in mind that your letter may be read by colleagues across the country – and occasionally abroad – some of whom will be in your professional field. All letters submitted for competitions that require a Vanderbilt endorsement will also be reviewed by your peers and colleagues at Vanderbilt. If you have any question about the content of your letter or the manner in which it may be perceived, please contact the Career Center for assistance.