Writing Letters of Recommendation

Strong letters of recommendation discuss a student's suitability for a particular fellowship and emphasize referee's involvement with and knowledge of a student. In your letter, explain how the student exemplifies the specific criteria of the fellowship at hand. Comment on how the student will contribute to the particular fellowship program or to the school or academic program the fellowship would support. Also, explain how the fellowship and/or what it enables will make a difference in the candidates' intellectual and personal growth.

Before writing the letter

Before writing a letter to support a student's application, review the information about the award that is on our website and that the student has provided to you about the fellowship and their proposed project or course of study. The student's statement about his or her interests and goals is important, but following this material too closely can lead to letters that sound the same.

Ask the candidate who else is writing a letter of support and what the other writers will most likely emphasize. Having this information will help you write a letter that will complement the other letters. Ideally, an applicant's letters will provide a comprehensive picture of his or her qualities and achievements rather than repeating the same points over and over.

Suggestions for the letter

  • Discuss how long you have know the student and in what context.
  • Evaluate the student in relation to other students who are in the field or who have applied for this particular fellowship.
  • Comment on the student's application for this particular fellowship and support the main claims the student makes in his or her application.
  • Cast the student in a unique light, discussing one or two qualities or experiences that make this student especially appropriate for the fellowship. 
  • Provide detailed descriptions and evaluations of the student's scholarly work, especially a major piece of research or special accomplishment. If a paper or project was particularly excellent, discuss it and why it stood out. If the student did outstanding work in another area, discuss the work and its strengths, especially as they relate to the goals of the fellowship.
  • If you have supervised the applicant in research or other activities, explain the significance of the work and the nature of the student's contributions.


  • Address letters to the person who chairs the fellowship committee if you have that information; otherwise, address the committee as a whole. For example, "Dear Fulbright Committee." The student should provide you with the address to which to send the recommendation.
  • Letters of recommendation for major fellowships are typically one-and-a-half to two pages single-spaced.
  • If you are writing multiple letters for the same candidates, check your final copies to make sure the letter references correspond to the fellowship. A wonderful Luce recommendation that reads "John is a most deserving candidate for a Starr" does not go over well.
  • Close with your signature and your full title or titles (e.g., "Assistant Professor of Chemistry" rather than "Assistant Professor.")
  • Please be sure to keep copies of your letters.
  • If you are submitting letters of recommendation electronically, you will be prompted by the foundation with login and password information. Please hold on to this information until the competition cycle has ended. You may need to access the system at various points in the process. 
  • If you are writing a letter for more than one applicant for the same fellowships, be aware that committees will look to see which student appears to be favored.

When to say "No."

For almost all fellowship applications, generic letters of recommendation harm the applicant. Unlike general purpose letters of recommendation filed with dossier services, letters for fellowship applications need to be tailored to the fellowships for which the student is applying. If you do not have time to prepare a special letter of recommendation for a student, you should decline to write the letter.

Say "no" to a request for a letter supporting a fellowship application if any of the following is true:

  • You cannot be emphatically positive in support of a student.
  • You can't recall much about a student beyond his or her presence in your class and his or her recorded grade.
  • You think you are not the best person to write the letter.
  • The student approaches you in a highly unprofessional manner.
  • You do not have the time or the material to write a good letter.