Suggestions for Recommendation Writers

How important are recommendation letters?

Recommendation letters are critical to fellowship applications. Most applicants have outstanding grades and many accomplishments. Their transcripts and resumes are almost always highly impressive. In order to distinguish these applicants from one another, selection committees rely on the detailed testimony of those who know the candidates. Through these letters, they seek to find out whether a candidate is capable of thriving in a rigorous academic program; has the maturity and flexibility to adapt to a new culture; possesses the interpersonal skills and experience to lead or inspire others; or is truly committed to a particular goal. Faculty and research advisors have particular insight into how a candidate thinks. Staff and other supervisors observe how a candidate interacts with others or works. Everyone can speak to how a student stands out among peers.

Can I recycle a letter I’ve already written?

The best letters speak directly to the concerns of the fellowship foundation and describe how the student is a good fit for it. A letter originally drafted for a summer internship, research assignment, job, or even graduate school application may have some useful source material, but to be effective, a fellowship recommendation must be tailored to the foundation’s aims. Every foundation provides guidance about what they want to know.. Applicants should include this information with other materials they provide you when they request a letter. You can also find it on the Office of Fellowship pages of the Amherst website. For most fellowships, we offer two pages, the first of which is an Overview page (where we explain the history and purpose of the fellowship, the award details, how to apply, and a section called For Recommenders). This section describes desired content, required format, the submission process, and the deadline. On the Application page you can find the applicant’s essay prompts and other details about application components. The Office of Fellowships staff is also very happy to answer questions about what the fellowship is looking for or to offer feedback on your letter. 

Should I include negative as well as positive attributes?

Some foundations specifically ask recommenders to note where a student has room to grow. In fact, acknowledging that a candidate isn’t perfect can lend credibility to the praises you offer. But it is usually advisable to agree to write the letter only if, in your mind, the student’s positive qualities and suitability for the fellowship overshadow any growth areas they may have. A student who cannot find enthusiastic recommenders may be pursuing a fellowship that is not a good fit. Coming to this realization before they engage in a demanding application process will be to their benefit. This may mean a hard conversation in which you say, “I don’t think you’re quite ready for this,” or “I don’t see how you meet these qualifications. Is there more I don’t know about you?” It is better, in the end, to tell a student you can’t write them an enthusiastic letter for a particular fellowship than to agree to write, but in the end, be able to offer only tepid affirmation.

What should I say, specifically?

Here are some ways you can substantiate the enthusiasm you profess about the applicant:

  • Put the student’s performance in context. If you have been teaching for decades and this student stands out as in the top 5% of students you have taught, say so.
  • Discuss their insight into a particular academic or practical problem as shown by a question they have addressed in a paper or by their insightful questioning and contribution to class discussion.
  • Give an example of how they responded well to criticism about their work and improved as a result.
  • Talk about how you have observed them interacting with their peers in a classroom or elsewhere.
  • Write about conversations you have had with them during office hours or other settings in which they have impressed you with a clear articulation of goals.
  • Describe their ability to hold the attention of the room when giving a classroom presentation.
  • Tell how you watched them garner enthusiasm for a particular project or initiative, and organize the work of others toward achieving a common goal.
  • Show how they have exceeded your expectations. It is not worth noting if they have merely  met the expectations of a course or team.

What shouldn’t I say?

You needn’t recite the candidate’s activities from their resume or transcript if you only know about these pursuits from those sources. It is most helpful if your letter supplements, rather than summarizes, those documents. Think of your letter as offering a detailed perspective from one important vantage point. Avoid commenting on physical attractiveness unless there is a specific reason to mention it. Do not disclose anything about the student of a personal nature that they have not given you permission to disclose.

What’s the required format?

Some fellowships ask you to complete a form with specific questions to address, but most ask for a traditional letter. Letters can usually be addressed as follows: Dear [Name of Foundation] Selection Committee. Currently, most fellowship foundations still prefer that letters be typed on institutional letterhead (may be electronic) and signed by hand (may also be electronic). The letters can be converted to or scanned as pdfs, then uploaded to the application portal. Some foundations ask you to copy and paste into a text box. Academic Department Coordinators can help with format challenges; the Fellowships Office is also happy to support you with this.

What about length?

Major fellowships are highly competitive and ask for evidence of many outstanding qualities. For this reason, some foundations expect that the recommendation writer will need at least one full and often two full (single or 1.5 spaced) pages to convey all that they have to say about the candidate (up to 800 or 1,000 words). Some have word or page limits. Take the time to say all that you want to say on the page. It is highly unusual for selection committees to try to track down a letter writer to find out more, so offering your contact information for further conversation, while generous, is not as effective as saying as much as possible in the letter they will read.

Are deadlines “real”?

There are usually two deadlines for competitive fellowship applications – an internal deadline, and a foundation deadline. The internal deadline allows the Committee on Student Fellowships, which evaluates and selects candidates, to make a decision about a candidate with all the information the foundation will see. The Committee needs time to receive and review the materials before meeting with the candidate. Please note that all foundation deadlines for fellowships are “real.” Unlike many graduate school applications, there is no grace period for submission. Submitting the letter at least a few days before the foundation deadline is highly advised to avoid computer and other glitches. Our website has a timeline for all fellowship deadlines.

Anything else I should watch out for?

As you proofread your letter before submitting it, look not only for typos or grammatical errors, but also for implicit bias. Review the adjectives and qualifiers you’ve used. Make sure you are depicting the student fairly.

Thank you for taking the time to write in support of your students’ fellowship applications! We know how much time and effort it takes. While we never divulge the content of letters to candidates, we often remind them of how fortunate they are to have you in their corner. Your letters really do matter.

Have questions? Please contact us.

Christine Overstreet, Director of Fellowships
212 Converse Hall


Mailing address: Office of Fellowships, Amherst College, Amherst, MA 01002

On-Campus Mailing Address: AC # 2214