Since 2014, the Office of Global Awards has sent out requests to faculty to nominate students to apply for awards like the Fulbright, Truman and Goldwater. Though it might seem like a small thing—requiring all of two minutes to send an email—it has a huge effect on the student. They are emboldened by this support. It’s quite extraordinary for us to see the motivation, excitement, and commitment that these nominated students suddenly have when they realize they have someone in their corner.
Beyond our regular calls for nomination (which we generally send out via department email), you can always nominate a student in your class by going into Albert, and selecting the student in your course roster. You’ll see that, in addition alerts about absenteeism etc., there are three categories marked “SCHOLARSHIP.” If you select one of these three categories, our office will reach out o Faculty Support and Advice
Letters of Recommendation
Writing letters of recommendation is a time-consuming process. To make life easier, we’ve compiled some tips as to what helps and what hinders, along with basic presentation information, ethical guidelines and when to say no to a student’s request.
As Nate Kreuter has observed, within the letter of recommendation genre there are a number of sub-genres. There are letters for awards (particularly within NYU), letters for admission to programs within NYU and outside it, letters for admission for graduate programs, jobs, colleagues in your profession and finally, for competitive fellowships and funding opportunities.
The advice that follows is aimed at this last category; that is, writing recommendations for fellowships and funding opportunities. Our thanks to SIU, Mary Tolar and a Truman Scholarships selection panel for creating and publishing this document.
- Give an exact sense of how long you’ve known the student and in what capacity. The context of your own working relationship with the student should be clearly defined.
- 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.
- Show that you know 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. (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 fellowship.)
- Discuss why the applicant would be a strong candidate for the specific fellowship. How does this candidate exemplify the personal qualities or selection criteria specified by the fellowship? Specific examples are crucial.
- Indicate what particularly qualifies the student for the course of study or project that 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.
- Letters that are too short, that fail to provide specific examples or instances of points mentioned.
- Generic letters or letters for another purpose sent without regard to the specific fellowship, course of study, or project proposed.
- Letters that merely summarize information available elsewhere in the application or that only present the student’s grade or rank in a class.
- Letters that focus 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 that consist largely of unsupported praise. Kind words that do not give committees a strong sense of how applicants have distinguished themselves are not helpful.
- Letters that damn 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 fellowship.
- Letters that focus 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 left-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.
Tips on formatting letters of recommendation
- Address letters to the individual who chairs the fellowship committee, if that information is provided, or to the committee as a whole (“Dear Marshall Scholarship Committee”).
- Make sure the letter is dated and printed on department or other appropriate letterhead.
- Letters for major fellowships are usually 1 to 2 pages single-spaced.
- Close with your signature (in a color other than black to distinguish the original from copies) and your full title or titles (e.g., “Assistant Professor of Anthropology” rather than just “Assistant Professor”).
- You may want to ask your students who else is writing for them and what the other writers are likely to say. You can then provide information in your letters that will complement what is being written by others, so that together the letters will provide a more comprehensive picture of each applicant.
- If you are called upon to write letters for two or more applicants for the same fellowship, beware of using too much of the same language in each, especially if they will be read by the same committee (e.g., the same Rhodes State Committee or Marshall Regional Committee). Such repetition weakens the force of your letters.
- Although we encourage students to provide their recommenders with detailed information about themselves, the fellowships, and their proposed projects or courses of study, faculty should beware of leaning too heavily on such material for their letters, since students give much the same information to each recommender and following this material too closely can lead to letters that sound too much the same.
- If you have written a letter in collaboration with another faculty member, be mindful about how you and your colleague use subsequent versions of that letter. We want to avoid situations in which a student is represented by different letters with largely identical language from two different faculty members.
When to say "no"
- If they have not given you enough time or otherwise approach you in an unprofessional manner.
- If you feel that you cannot be emphatically positive in support of a student.
- If you recall little more about a student than the recorded grades.
- If you think that you are not the best person to write a letter.
- If you simply do not have the time or material to write a good letter for a student.
- You can help the student to consider other possible letter writers, but agreeing to write for a student whom you cannot strongly support is good for no one.
Although it may feel awkward to decline their request, telling them the reason will help them re-evaluate and learn from the experience.
Since 2014, the Office of Global Awards has sent out requests to faculty to nominate students to apply for fellowships, particularly the Fulbright, Truman and Goldwater. Though it might seem like a small thing—requiring all of two minutes to send an email—it has a huge effect on the student. They are emboldened by this support. It’s quite extraordinary for us to see the motivation, excitement, and commitment that these nominated students suddenly have when they realize they have someone in their corner.
Beyond our regular calls for nomination (which we generally send out via department email), you can always nominate a student in your class by going into Albert, and selecting the student in your course roster. You’ll see that, in addition alerts about absenteeism etc., there are three categories marked “SCHOLARSHIP.” If you select one of these three categories, our office will receive an alert and reach out to the student, inviting them to an information session.
We are always on the lookout for faculty who are interested in mentoring students or serving on interview and selection committees. If you’d like to be more involved in the Office of Fellowships Advising, please fill out this Google form and we’ll be in touch.
We also partner with departments and schools across the university to run subject-specific fellowship workshops, and writing workshops (for both personal statements and grant proposals). If you’d like to know more, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.