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Writing Effective Recommendation Letters for National Scholarships

University of Maryland undergraduates and recent grads regularly excel in national scholarship competitions, winning highly selective Truman, Goldwater, Pickering and Fulbright awards. These successes are due in no small part to the generous support of faculty and other mentors like you. We thank you in advance for your willingness to devote time and care to writing letters of recommendation for our candidates.

Competition for national scholarships is intense. A strong letter of recommendation can make a very significant contribution to a candidate's chances for success. To assist you in preparing effective letters of recommendation, we have sketched out below "9 Simple Rules" for effective letter writing.

We are always happy to respond to any questions you may have about preparing your letter. Please feel free to contact me at or at (301) 314-9458. 

9 Simple Rules for Writing an Effective Scholarship Recommendation

1. If you feel you can't write a strongly enthusiastic letter, gently decline. Competition for national scholarships is stiff, so if for any reason you feel unable to write a strongly supportive letter, it is best for the candidate if you decline.

2. Review the selection criteria for the scholarship. Knowing what the scholarship is looking for will help you understand how to present your candidate. For example, Fulbright looks for candidates with 'ambassadorial' as well as scholarly skills; Truman looks for candidates deeply devoted to public service; Goldwater looks for candidates committed to scientific research; Rhodes looks for all-around excellence at the highest levels. The National Scholarships Office can provide you with criteria for most programs. Contact us at for this information

3. Aim to make the candidate come alive. Most top scholarship competitions interview finalists. Your letter should make the selection committee want to meet the candidate in person. Try to express what it was/is about the candidate that makes him or her a special person to have in class, in the lab, or at an internship or volunteer setting.

4. Use specific examples or illustrations. Praise in broad terms, however striking, will not make a vivid impression without specific and substantive illustrations. Discuss specific papers, conversations, projects, deeds that will help distinguish the candidate in the reader's mind. The quality of your examples or illustrations is more important than the quantity.

5. Highlight any unusual or truly outstanding quality or ability you believe makes the candidate especially well-qualified for the scholarship. At the highest levels of competition all candidates have outstanding records and accomplishments. What makes your candidate different?

6. Convey a clear sense of the candidate's intellectual and/or personal qualities. How has the candidate demonstrated superior critical abilities, originality or intellectual curiosity? What personal qualities make the candidate particularly memorable or impressive? How, in your experience, has the candidate’s character or ability to lead or bring about change been manifest? How do the candidate's personal qualities complement or enhance his or her aims and ambitions?

7. Provide a useful and relevant context for evaluating the candidate's promise. Consider the candidate in light of his or her ambitions for graduate study, public service, or professional achievement, and in light of your own relevant experience and background. How does the candidate compare to grad students you've known (for faculty letter writers) or to younger colleagues or subordinates (for internship or volunteer supervisors). Would you be excited to have this student as an applicant for graduate study or employment at your institution? Why? Be specific.

8. Avoid recapitulating highlights from the candidate's resume. Your letter is most valuable when it shares information, experiences, anecdotes that reveal qualities not evident through paper credentials alone. Spending more time on these personal perspectives, and less on rehearsing information presented elsewhere, will make for a much more effective letter.

9. Write at least three full paragraphs. Letters that are just too brief – one or two paragraphs – convey disinterest or lack of acquaintance and can be harmful to the candidate’s prospects, however positive your language might be. Aim for one complete page, and possibly more for the most competitive scholarships.

National Scholarships Office
2403 Marie Mount Hall, University of Maryland
College Park, MD
email: | phone: 301-314-1289 | fax: 301.314.0085
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