curf - Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships



Letters of Recommendation for Fellowships

One of the most important aspects of a student’s application for fellowship programs is the quality of the recommendations that accompany it. The information on this sheet provides information about what makes an effective recommendation for the fellowship programs in the UK and Ireland but may be relevant to recommendations for other programs. The information here is based on the experience of advisors at Penn and elsewhere and is intended to help our candidates succeed in their applications for fellowship programs.

What committees look for in letters of reference

  • Specific information about the candidate and his/her achievements
  • Information on how you know the candidate and for how long.
  • Evidence that you know the candidate personally
  • Examples of how this candidate is exceptional or has demonstrated great potential.
  • Examples of when you have observed the candidate demonstrate traits and abilities rather than simple assertions of those traits or abilities

What does not impress readers of letters of reference

  • Generic short letters that do not indicate a close relationship with the candidate
  • Letters that summarize what is found elsewhere in the application; no need to refer to things you have not observed
  • General platitudes about the candidate
  • Standard descriptions of how challenging your course is
  • Comments that focus on activities that are in the far past
  • Letters written by someone who clearly has no knowledge of the candidate’s accomplishments

Tips on Formatting the Letters of Recommendation

  • Address letter to the individual who chairs the fellowship committee if known, or to the committee as a whole (students asking for a recommendation should have provided a form with this information)
  • Letters for major fellowships are usually 1-2 pages single spaced.

Other considerations

  • Ask the candidate who else is writing for them, so you can consider what else is being written
  • Be aware of other candidates you are writing letters for, especially if they are from the same region, so that you won’t repeat the same language for all candidates

When to decline a request

  • If you feel you cannot be emphatically positive about candidate
  • If you recall little more about the candidate than the grade
  • If you think you are not the best person to write the letter
  • If the candidate approaches you in an unprofessional manner
  • If you simply do not have the time to do the recommendation that justice it deserves

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