Recommendation letters are one of the most important parts of a fellowship application. Judges pay a lot of attention to what referees say, and substantial weight is thus put on the writer's words in deciding an applicant's rating as selection panels at the fellowship foundations rank the candidates.
Applicants are asked to forward this sheet of Guidelines to their recommenders once they have agreed to provide a letter. This is important because the "fellowship recommendation" is its own letter genre. It is not a graduate school recommendation, although it can be adapted from one, nor is it a job reference. To be effective, it has to be tailored to the aims of the foundation.
In other words, a fellowship recommendation must address those specific issues that a particular foundation wants to learn about the applicant. Thus there is the need for applicants to supply their recommenders with this information. If they don't, please request it. Registering this point is part of their learning and is preparation to succeed in the world.
Although the terms reference (from a referee) and recommendation (from a recommender) are sometimes interchangeable in fellowships, there is a gulf between the definition of these words, and thus the intent of the letter. A reference implies a strictly impartial evaluation that may contain negative comments. Since fellowships are so highly competitive, negative comments virtually guarantee elimination. If applicants cannot find professors and others to write strong recommendations, then the chances of succeeding are considerably dimmed. Equally, though, letters excessive in praise tend to lose their edge, unless every superlative is substantiated by evidence. In other words, it is good to be as glowing as it is genuine.
What to emphasize
- When a student has taken, and especially done well in, a tough course.
- When a student has taken courses usually taken by higher classes or older students.
- Always put a student's performance in context. Rank students if this helps them look good by saying they are the best or one of the best in such and such a way, whom you have taught in so many years of teaching at this college and that university.
What to avoid
Avoid comments such as "he never missed a class" or "she was always on time" or "he always did his reading." This makes Cornell College, and thus the candidate, look bad because it implies that this is special and not the norm. It reflects poorly on the institution if this is the best we can say about one of our top students, that merely doing what they are supposed to do makes them outstanding and worthy of a fellowship.
If you feel you cannot avoid being negative while remaining truthful, please decline the applicant's request for you to write a letter. Even if you cannot be enthusiastic about the candidate, then they are better off seeking another recommender or even not investing the considerable amount of time involved in preparing fellowship application materials.
These guidelines have been adapted from materials from the National Association of Fellowship Advisors and the Office of Fellowships, Amherst College.