University of Vermont

The Honors College

The Truman Scholarship: Tips for Letter of Recommendation Writers

The Truman Scholarship exists to support the next generation of public servants and public policy experts. Up to 65 Truman Scholarships are awarded nationally each year to juniors who are planning to pursue a career as a leader in the public service sector including (but not limited to) the government, non-profit organizations, public policy think tanks, education, and public health agencies. If awarded a Truman Scholarship, a student will receive a $30,000 scholarship for graduate or professional school. In exchange for that scholarship, the student commits to working in the public sector for at least three years before or after completing their graduate education. In addition to the money, the award opens doors to incredible academic opportunities, other fellowships, scholarships, graduate school acceptance and job opportunities. The University of Vermont can nominate up to four students for a Truman Scholarship.

The national Truman committee closely examines three aspects of each applicant: 1) The applicant's academic background and how it is preparing them to pursue their professional goals, 2) The applicant's leadership background, and how their leadership experience demonstrates that they have the motivation and the know-how to bring people together and get things done, and 3) The applicant's overall academic and career goals, and how those show a demonstrated interest in working in the public service sector.

As a letter of recommendation writer, you may feel that you're in a good position to write on any or all of those points when it comes to your experience with your applicant. But the Truman Foundation tells students to ask for three letters of recommendation for this scholarship, and requests that each letter focus specifically on one of those aspects. Once the student tells you which area he/she would like you to focus on, there are a couple other things you can keep in mind:

Commitment to a Career in Public Service: When talking about public service, it's important to articulate specifically how you see this student making an impact at the local/state/national level. You may have a good sense of this from your academic, extra-curricular or community service experience with the student, and you may have an even better sense of where he/she can make an impact and how they can make an impact from your discussions with him/her.

Leadership Abilities and Potential: If your letter focuses on how you've seen this student act as a leader among his/her peers and if you can bring in anecdotes of events where you've seen this student rise above and beyond when they are challenged with a task, then you'll be in good shape. The student will be contacting you (if s/he hasn't already!) to talk a little more about this letter. That's because events the applicant describes in an application essay need to be reinforced in your letter.

Academic accomplishments (what Truman calls, "Intellect and Prospects for Continuing Academic Success"): If your letter focuses mostly on specific experiences with the student in your classroom, if you discuss specific events where the student stood out to you either in a class discussion or assignment, and if you can talk briefly about how the student demonstrated prowess as an academically and intellectually driven individual then you'll be good to go. Also, as this is technically a graduate school fellowship, it helps to articulate your impressions of how well the student seems academically and intellectually seems prepared for graduate work.

For more general letter tips, see the short (and humorous) anecdote below from Scott Henderson, a 1982 Truman Scholar who participates in the Truman Scholarship Finalist Selection Committee. Mr. Henderson has provided some general advice for Truman letters of recommendation.

Finally, a few administrative details:

1. All letters need to be printed on letterhead, signed and submitted as a hardcopy. Students are responsible for collecting letters and making sure they get to the Fellowships Office. If students are collecting their letters from you in person please give it to them in a signed and sealed envelope.

2. Letters can be addressed to: Truman Scholarship Selection Committee.

3. The deadline for students to submit their Truman applications is November 19, 2014 but students may need their references before then to complete their applications. Touch base with the student if you're confused about any deadlines.

From the Desk of Scott Henderson: Helpful components in a letter of recommendation:

When I read a letter, I want specific, even quantified data. For example: "Steve is among the three best spellers I've taught in 27 years at Bee University." Or, even if qualitative, I look for specific instances cited in support of a general point: "Susy's leadership was also demonstrated last March when she organized a campus-wide demonstration against Dr. Henderson's dress code."

Related to above: I find quotations from other professors/individuals helpful. "Dr. Drone also notes that 'Steve is among the top five students I've ever taught...clearly headed for academic success in grad school.'"

I also look for some sort of assessment of the student's personality and/or disposition. For instance: "Even though he has the highest GPA of any chemistry major at Test Tube University, Charlie's outgoing, friendly, and a lot of fun to be around. And the practical jokes involving litmus paper are a hoot."

Characteristics that undermine a letter of recommendation:

A letter that is nothing but a summary of the application is utterly useless. I feel like the writer is assuming that I can't read (sorta like sitting next to someone who reads movie subtitles out loud to you). Certainly, there can be SOME overlap between a letter and an application, but it should be kept to a minimum. Otherwise, one can get the sense that the writer really doesn't know the applicant.

The writer should know the student well. If not, then another writer should be chosen. If this, for some reason, isn't an option, then the writer should at least have a couple of meaningful/informative conversations with the student prior to writing the letter.

I'm really turned off by letters in which the writer talks about how well the student did in his/her class. Even in a letter attesting to academic potential, this is weak evidence to adduce; it's like saying, "Bill is one of the smartest people I've seen in the last 20 minutes." And, invariably, the professor throws in a line about how tough HIS/HER classes are; this makes it sound like it's the professor who's applying for the scholarship.

A letter shouldn't be written by an "important person" unless the person really knows the student. In other words, I would not be impressed by a letter from Bill Clinton if it were obvious that Clinton didn't know "that woman." At the other extreme, I'm generally not impressed by letters written by family members. I assume that a letter written by an applicant's mother will be positive regardless of the child's mediocrity (or prison record). Since I've actually read a Truman letter of rec from an applicant's mother, there's more truth than poetry (or humor) in my observation.

Letters should avoid vague platitudes that, in fact, are really evasions in disguise: "Betty is not a traditional leader, but instead leads by example" (translation: Betty hasn't demonstrated any leadership). Or: "Shelly's GPA should be evaluated in light of the tough standards we set here at Pleasantville Community College (translation: Shelly isn't a particularly good student). Or, finally: "Don completed his assignments on time." (translation: next application, please).

Letter writers should not feel compelled to substantiate or agree with every assertion an applicant makes. In 1997, for example, an applicant wrote this for number 7 (leadership example): "One part of leadership is the ability to inspire others. As a fashion model, I presented clothing in a way to inspire others to buy." Regrettably, the professor who wrote the leadership letter tried to justify why this was a good example of leadership. The applicant was not selected for an interview, and our tracking satellites have lost contact with the professor.

Last modified July 16 2014 02:56 PM