What hurts:

  • Letters that are too short and/or fail to provide specific examples or instances of points mentioned.
  • Generic letters or letters for another purpose sent without regard to the specific scholarship, course of study, or project proposed.
  • Letters merely summarizing information available elsewhere in the application or only presenting the student’s grade or rank in a class.
  • Letters focusing too much on the context of how the writer knows the applicant (descriptions of the course or its approaches) and not sufficiently on the student and his or her accomplishments.
  • Letters consisting largely of unsupported praise. Kind words that do not give committees a strong sense of how applicants have distinguished themselves are not helpful.
  • Letters damning with faint praise. It is not helpful to say that a student did what might be expected (completed all the reading assignments) or that point to qualities (punctuality, enthusiasm, presentability) not germane to the scholarship.
  • Letters focusing on experiences that happened quite a few years ago. Even letters from writers with long-standing relationships with the applicant need to be as current and forward-looking as possible.
  • Letters that may be read as implying criticism (beware of back-handed compliments) or whose criticisms might be taken to indicate stronger reservations than stated. Letters should be honest—and honest criticism, if generously presented, can enhance the force of a letter—but committees take critical comments very seriously. It is best to be cautious when making critical remarks and to avoid any sense of indirection.

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