Writing Strong Fellowship Letters of Recommendation

By Vice President and Dean of Undergraduate Education Rob Pangborn

Penn State students are some of the best. As a University we are committed to helping students succeed, so thank you for your willingness to write a letter of recommendation on behalf of an outstanding student who is applying for a prestigious national award, scholarship, or fellowship. The mentor’s letter of recommendation is a significant part of the decision-making process for these awards. Aside from the student’s application essays, the letter of recommendation is the most influential part of the application.

URFM is dedicated to helping mentors to write the strongest recommendations possible. Applicants are advised to provide materials to the letter writer about themselves and the award that will provide the information necessary to write the strongest letter possible. Please also be aware that the National Association of Fellowship Advisors (NAFA) Code of Ethics prohibits students from drafting their own letter of recommendation. Based on the application criteria and recommender guidelines found on fellowship websites, please prepare your letter with the following items in mind.

  • Address the criteria. Each fellowship has its own selection criteria, and these do not necessarily overlap with what you would include in your letter of recommendation for an internship or graduate school. For example, the Fulbright U.S. Student Program seeks to facilitate cultural exchange and promote mutual understanding between countries. If you are writing a recommendation for a student applying to Fulbright, it is important that the letter clearly and specifically address how the student has demonstrated an interest in cultural exchange and/or mutual understanding or where they have shown potential to succeed in these areas. If you do not know the selection criteria for a given opportunity, we encourage you to talk with the student. They might then share ideas for what to include in the recommendation.
  • Provide a detailed assessment. Once you understand what the selection committee is looking for, you will want to offer a detailed assessment of the student’s performance or potential. Here, it helps to include specific examples and anecdotes whenever possible. Giving an example of a student’s individual contributions to an assignment or project is much more compelling than describing the classes they have taken or stating that the student is one to take initiative.
  • Contextualize your assessment. The selection committee is also interested in how the student compares to other individuals you have met in your career. Remember to state how long and in what capacity you have known the student, as well as to describe the significance of the student’s performance or potential in a larger context. To do so, consider including in your letter the number of courses you have taught over the years or the total number of students with whom you have interacted. At the same time, it is worth keeping in mind that for many fellowships, the selection committee will be used to seeing the best students. Saying a student was in the top 10 percent of your class will likely not impress them.
  • Stay on topic. The selection committee is not interested in having you summarize or repeat information that can be found elsewhere. You do not need to write about their extracurriculars (which are listed on their resume), nor do you need to address their GPA (which can be found in their transcript). The committee is also not interested in your course’s grading policy, a personality trait of the student that is unrelated to the selection criteria, or other information that is not connected to the award criteria.

For additional suggestions on how to write a strong letter of recommendation, as well as when to decline a request to write a letter and how to avoid bias, please refer to the following resources: