What helps:

  • Provide specific information about the applicant—information that committee members can use to determine the applicant’s strengths and that will help shape an interview.
  • Provide some context of how the writer knows the applicant—class, research, work, civic, or other context—and for what period of time the writer has known the applicant.
  • Show that the writer knows the applicant personally. For example, incidents or actions that are unique to this relationship are more credible than information that could be gathered from the resume.
  • Point to specific examples of what the applicant has done. For example, if the student wrote a brilliant paper, mention its topic and why it stood out. If the student did outstanding work in another regard, explain the nature of this work and its particular strengths, especially as they relate to the goals of the scholarship.
  • Discuss why the applicant would be a strong candidate for the specific scholarship. How does this candidate exemplify the personal qualities or selection criteria specified by the scholarship? Specific examples are crucial.
  • Indicate what particularly qualifies the student for the course of study or project the applicant is proposing. Such letters provide the links between past performance and what is proposed.
  • Place the student in a larger context. For example, a letter could compare the present applicant to others who have applied for similar honors in the past or who have succeeded in such competitions. If possible, the student can be compared to graduate students or professionals. Quantitative remarks and percentages may be useful: “among the three best students I have taught,” “top 5% of students in my 20 years of teaching.” The strongest comparisons have the widest reach: “among the best in my x years of teaching” is stronger than “the best in his/her section.”
  • Draw on the remarks of colleagues for supporting evidence or the acknowledgement of specific strengths. Letters from professors may also draw on the comments from teaching assistants who may have worked more closely with the applicants.

With thanks to Mary Tolar, Truman Scholarship Foundation, and Mark Bauer, Yale University.