Writing Letters of Recommendation for Applicants for Nationally Competitive Scholarships and Fellowships

Also see fellowship-specific letter writing tips:

By Interim Dean Lisa Schnell

Thank you for agreeing to write a recommendation on behalf of a UVM student who is applying for a nationally prestigious fellowship. Every year, several UVM students apply for, and some are awarded, fellowships for which they compete nationally. We are tremendously grateful to the UVM faculty who serve as those students' mentors, not only writing letters of recommendation for them, but providing them with inspiring role models and valuable advice as they share with them their disciplinary knowledge and experience.

The importance of recommendation letters for national competitions like the Fulbright, Truman, Rhodes, Boren, or Udall (and others) cannot be overstated; they are the most important items in the application outside of the applicant essays written by the candidates. Referees are therefore advised to provide as much relevant detail as possible and, especially in the case of fellowships like the Fulbright, specifically to address the candidate's statement of grant purpose. In any case, it is important that you have access both to information about the specific fellowship and to the candidate's personal statement when preparing your letter. Candidates have been advised by our office to provide you with relevant materials, but if you have any questions about that material or further questions about the fellowship, do not hesitate to get in touch with us (or with the candidate).

We include below some guidelines for writing fellowships letters that we hope might be helpful to you:


Guidelines for Strong Fellowship Letters

  • Letters should be 1-2 paged single-spaced in length. All the fellowships selection committees appreciate letters that are a little longer than the standard undergraduate recommendation.
  • Provide the context for your relationship with the candidate and the length of time you have known him/her.
  • Situate the candidate's performance in the larger context of your experience.
  • Address the student's academic (or job-related) performance or extracurricular engagements in detail and with specific examples if possible. A recommendation that demonstrates a personal knowledge of the candidate beyond the grade they may have received in your class delivers a strong and lasting impression. Try, therefore, not to rely solely on a summary of a candidate's performance in a class or a cursory review of their transcript and/or resume.
  • Some scholarships (like the Truman) will ask you to address a very specific quality in a candidate (like leadership, for example). The candidate should be clear about what you are being asked to address and your letter should clearly and specifically address that quality.
  • Be specific about why the student is a strong candidate for a specific fellowship.
  • Avoid hyperbole as well as overly negative language. The foundations that grant these awards are looking for realistic, substantive evaluations of candidates rather than overly positive, unsupported hyperbole.


Characteristics of Weak Fellowship Letters

  • Too short, vague, unsupported points.
  • Generic letter or letters that were obviously written for other purposes (grad school admission, for example).
  • Letters that merely summarize a candidate's resume or transcript.
  • Letters that merely describe classes taken or activities rather than the work the candidate did within those contexts.
  • Letters that evaluate the candidate negatively, or even as merely average.


Do NOT Agree to Write a Recommendation Letter if:

  • You are not strongly and positively supportive of the candidate.
  • You do not feel that you know the candidate well enough or cannot remember enough about him/her to provide a substantive, detailed letter.
  • You do not feel that you are the right person to recommend him/her for the fellowship.
  • You do not have the time to write it (recommendation letters that come in after the deadline for national fellowships will simply not ever be considered as a part of the candidate's application by the foundation and will therefore greatly disadvantage the candidate).

In addition to these rather general guidelines, you'll want to keep in mind the specific criteria the individual foundations use to define their fellowships. You don't need to address all the criteria-ideally, the student has chosen her/his recommenders with the criteria in mind and has appropriate people to address the different categories. Again, the rule of thumb with these letters is specifics, but specifics that speak to your own experience of the student and her/his work or other accomplishments. Here are the criteria for some of the fellowships we regularly advise on. If you are writing for a student who is applying to a fellowship that is not on this list, please do not hesitate to contact our office for information specific to that fellowship.


  • A proposed project that is feasible and has merit (for the Full Grants)
  • Ability to carry out research and think and write analytically (Full Grants)
  • Strong level of knowledge and potential for future growth in the chosen field evidenced by a strong academic record and curriculum
  • Maturity, motivation, and seriousness of purpose
  • Appropriate linguistic preparation
  • Ability to adapt to a different cultural environment
  • Likelihood of making a favorable impression as a US citizen abroad


  • Truly distinguished academic achievement and intellectual promise
  • Strength of character as demonstrated through community/campus service
  • Demonstrated leadership ability and potential for leadership
  • Physical vigor, i.e. sports or other related activity

Marshall, Mitchell

  • Identical criteria to Rhodes, but without the athletics background


  • A desire to work as a "change agent" in government, education, the nonprofit sector, or the public interest/advocacy sector
  • Demonstrated leadership potential
  • Extensive participation in political and/or community-service related activities
  • A strong academic record


  • Commitment to improving or preserving the environment (or to health care or tribal public policy in the case of Native American applicants)
  • Personal characteristics - the criteria include leadership, community service, well roundedness
  • A solid academic record and particular academic achievements


  • Commitment to long term linguistic and cultural immersion
  • An interest in less commonly taught languages (even languages in which the student has no previous experience)
  • Interest in public service (in exchange for Boren Award funding, students commit to seek work in the federal government for a specified period of time)
  • A solid academic record


  • Distinguished academic record in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences, or engineering
  • The potential for significant career contribution in the above fields