Thank you for your interest in writing recommendations for Carleton students as they compete for national and international fellowships. Some faculty members and other potential recommenders are very familiar with the processes associated with fellowship competitions, as well as with what makes letters for fellowships distinctive, but many are not.  This document and others in the faculty/recommenders section of the Office of Student Fellowships website are intended to serve as resources and provide answers to common questions.

What does a ‘recommendation’ mean for fellowships?

A recommendation should serve as an endorsement of a student’s fellowship application.  Depending on the criteria of the award, you may be expected to comment favorably on everything from the student’s ability to complete a particular project to the student’s moral character. 

Please consider declining the student’s request for a recommendation if any of the following statements apply:

  • You feel that you cannot be emphatically positive in support of the student.
  • You recall little more about the student than the recorded grades.
  • You think that you are not the best person to write a letter.
  • The student approaches you in a highly unprofessional manner.
  • You simply do not have the time or material to write a good letter for the student.

Instead, provide the student with guidance on finding a more appropriate reference (or send them to the Office of Student Fellowships and we will talk them through their list of potential recommenders).

Please note that you may refuse to write a recommendation if the student/applicant does not waive the right to view the recommendation, and Marynel is happy to discuss waivers with you at any time.

What can I expect of the student?

Students applying for fellowships are given detailed instructions about how and when to ask for a recommendation, as well as what to provide to their potential recommenders. Information that would otherwise be considered private (see below) may be expected in a fellowship recommendation, and students are encouraged to discuss their individual preferences and permission to refer to private information with recommenders.

Although it is the student’s responsibility to select a good variety of recommenders, you might ask the student who else is writing and what the other writers are likely to discuss. This will ensure that you avoid repetition and provide a comprehensive picture of the student.   You should also always feel free to consult with the Office of Student Fellowships if you would like additional information about a particular fellowship or what is expected in a recommendation.

What is expected of me?

Many selection processes are based on paper applications only with no opportunity for applicants to meet with representatives of the foundation/institution in a personal interview.  It is also the case that most applicants will be well-qualified and quite impressive.  Your letter will provide much of the context that selection committees use to compare your student with other applicants.

Recommenders are typically asked to evaluate the candidate based on the selection criteria for the fellowship; these are listed at the fellowship site for which the student should have given you the web address.  Some fellowships also offer specific guidance for recommenders.  Beyond those specifics, there are a few suggestions that apply to any recommendation:

  • Use detail and examples to provide evidence of the qualities or capacities you discuss;
  • Identify the criteria on which you base your judgments;
  • Describe how the student meets your criteria; and
  • Provide (very) brief information about you and your work as context for your comments.

If you are called upon to write letters for two or more applicants for the same fellowship, please try to make your letters for each as distinctive as possible. Two letters that are too alike will not help either student.  If you are writing for two students in a competition that relies on districts or regions (such as Rhodes or Marshall), the Director of Student Fellowships can tell you whether the students will actually be in direct competition with one another.

What about student privacy and equity considerations?

Letters of recommendation for fellowships can be quite different from letters of recommendation for graduate study or other opportunities, in terms of what it is considered appropriate to include. For example, the following may be expected or requested in fellowships recommendations:

  • Direct reference to adversity/obstacles overcome or familial situations (without undue detail)
  • Direct reference to criteria such as coming from an underrepresented background or identity
  • Direct reference to effort, as well as achievement
  • Direct reference to activities and experiences beyond the classroom or academic field that are relevant to the student’s candidacy for the fellowship
  • Direct reference to financial need or struggles

If you have any concerns about what it is appropriate to include or reference in a letter of recommendation, the Office of Student Fellowships is happy to provide guidance.

How long should my letter of recommendation be?

Recommendations that are requested in letter form can be anywhere from 1.5 to 3 pages in length. If you find it difficult to go beyond a single page in a letter of recommendation but you really do want to provide one, please ask the Director of Student Fellowships for guidance and suggestions or request further information from the student that will help you add more content.

To whom should I submit my recommendation?

The student should provide instructions on how, when, and to whom your recommendation should be submitted. 

For some of the ultracompetitive awards requiring institutional nomination or endorsement (for example, Rhodes, Marshall, Mitchell, Churchill, and Truman), the Office of Student Fellowships will request a drafted letter from you by a certain date (in advance of the final deadline) and the recommendations will be evaluated as a group by the Director of Student Fellowships and faculty on the Student Fellowships Committee.  Our goal is to provide a group of letters that can best support the application and we may request greater emphasis or elaboration of certain points before the final letter is submitted. 

Because most electronic submission systems do not allow revision after a recommendation has been submitted, you may wish to provide a drafted version of your recommendation to the Director of Student Fellowships for review.  Every year, recommendations are submitted with incorrect names or pronouns, significant misspellings, and inappropriate ‘cut and pasted’ material.  An attentive reading by another set of eyes can help us avoid errors that may harm our students’ applications.

Recommendations are one of the most important elements of students’ applications, and we are deeply grateful to you for providing them.  Please feel free to contact the Office of Student Fellowships, x4300, at any time if we can assist or support you in any way.