What makes a good recommendation?
What should the recommender do?
- Provide specific information about the applicant—information that committee members can use to determine the applicant’s strengths and that will help shape any interview that the applicant might be offered.
- Provide some context of how you know the applicant and for what period of time you have known the applicant.
- Show that you know the applicant personally. Examples unique to this relationship are more valuable than information that could be gathered from the resume.
- Point to specific examples of what the applicant has done. If the applicant did outstanding work in some regard, explain the nature of this work and its particular strengths, especially as they relate to the goals of the fellowship.
- Discuss why the applicant would be a strong candidate for the specific fellowship. How does the applicant exemplify the personal qualities or selection criteria specified by the fellowship? Specific examples are crucial.
- Indicate what particularly qualifies the applicant for any course of study or project being proposed. Provide the links between past performance and what is proposed.
- Place the student in a larger context. For example, compare the present applicant to others who have applied for similar honors or succeeded in such competitions. Undergraduate students can be compared to graduate students or professionals. Quantitative remarks/percentages may be useful and the strongest comparisons have the widest reach: “among the best in my x years of teaching” is stronger than “the best in this class.”
- If possible, draw on the remarks of others (including TAs, when necessary) for supporting evidence or the acknowledgement of specific strengths.
What should the recommender avoid?
- Letters that are too short and/or fail to provide specific examples or instances of points mentioned.
- Generic letters or letters for another purpose sent without regard to the specific fellowship, course of study, or project proposed.
- Letters merely summarizing information available elsewhere in the application or only presenting the student’s grade or rank in a class.
- Letters focusing too much on the context of how the writer knows the applicant (descriptions of the course or its approaches, exhaustive description of assignments) and not sufficiently on the student and his or her accomplishments.
- Letters consisting largely of unsupported praise. Kind words that do not give committees a strong sense of how applicants have distinguished themselves are not helpful.
- Letters that damn the candidate with faint praise. It is not helpful to say that a student did what might be expected (met all requirements) or to point to qualities (e.g., punctuality, enthusiasm) not germane to the fellowship.
- Letters focusing on experiences that happened quite a few years ago. Even letters from writers with long-standing relationships with the applicant should be as current and forward-looking as possible.
- Letters that may be read as implying criticism (beware of back-handed compliments) or criticisms that suggest stronger reservations than stated. Honest criticism, presented generously, can enhance the force of a letter. Committees take critical comments very seriously, however, so be cautious when making critical remarks and try to avoid any sense of indirection.