Recommendations are a crucial component of a candidate’s application for a fellowship or scholarship. They offer valuable perspectives not found elsewhere in the application and also contextualize a candidate’s accomplishments and potential.  

We encourage candidates to review the program criteria and invite recommenders who can best speak to their strengths and aspirations in the context of the award. We also encourage them to consider recommenders comprehensively and choose individuals that can provide complementary details about their candidacy.

What to Include

  • Write for the award. Review the fellowship’s criteria and offer insights that align the candidate with those expectations. Letters that offer high praise but don’t speak to the specific award aren’t typically compelling.
  • Focus on particulars not platitudes. Provide specific accomplishments, characteristics, examples, and anecdotes to demonstrate how the applicant aligns with an award.
  • Provide some context. What sets the candidate apart from their peers? Assess the candidate’s performance/accomplishments among others with whom you have worked; e.g., best in class, best in 20 years of teaching, among top 5% of all students with whom you’ve worked/taught, etc.

 What to Avoid

  • Being late. Most programs won’t accept late materials under any circumstances, including unexpected illness, unanticipated delays, and technology glitches—even if there’s a problem with their portal.
  • Don’t summarize the candidate’s CV or transcript. Focus on what was formative or outstanding about experiences or accomplishments. What can we learn from you that is not on the CV/transcript?
  • Don’t take the focus from the candidate. Context is important, but don’t spend too much time explaining a project, course content, or experience at the expense of providing insight about the candidate. What are the personal qualities and strengths that helped a candidate excel, approach a challenge, or make a difference?
  • Respect student privacy. Students often have compelling personal stories that we know because we have worked with them. Check with a student before you write about an experience that may still feel private (e.g., navigating grief or a significant loss) in case the student doesn’t want you to share that experience with an award committee. 
  • Be aware of your own potential bias. Discussions of adversity overcome are understandable but can tip over into racist/sexist/ableist/classist bias. For example, you may admire how a disabled student has negotiated higher education, but calling attention to them as “inspirational” feeds ableist tropes. 
  • Proofread. You probably have a few standout stories about an applicant that you want to write about in recommendation letters. Make sure any material you recycle or replicate from another letter is relevant to the new application’s requirements—and proofread to make sure you’ve included the correct school or fellowship name. Check for other errors as well, like misgendering a student, grammar issues, and formatting mistakes. 

Davidson is a member of the National Association of Fellowships Advisors (NAFA) and adheres to its Code of Ethics, which states applicants should “Neither compose their own letters for faculty to sign (even at the request of faculty) nor ask faculty members to show them their own letters of recommendation.”

Resources for Recommendation Writers

Avoiding Bias

Fellowships & Scholarships