Adapted from Reed College, The Center for Life Beyond Reed - Best Practices
Characteristics of Strong Recommendation Letters
  • Letters should be 1-2 paged single-spaced in length. 
  • Provide context for your relationship with the candidate and the length of time you have known them. 
  • Situate the candidate's performance in the larger context of your experience. 
  • Address the student's academic performance or extracurricular engagements in detail and with specific examples if possible. A recommendation that demonstrates a personal knowledge of the candidate beyond grades and academics delivers a strong and lasting impression. 
  • Some scholarships will ask you to address a very specific quality in a candidate (ie: leadership). 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 statements. 
Characteristics of Weak Recommendation Letters
  • Short, vague, unsupported points. 
  • Generic letter or letters that were obviously written for other purposes. 
  • Letters that merely summarize a candidate's resume or transcript. 
  • Letters that merely describe classes or activities rather than the work the candidate did within those contexts. 
  • Letters that evaluate the candidate negatively, or even as merely average. 
When to Decline to Write a Recommendation Letter 

You should not write a letter of recommendation for a student or alumni if ... 

  • you are not strongly and positively supportive of the candidate; 
  • you do not feel that you know the candidate well enough to provide a substantive, detailed letter; 
  • you do not feel that you are the right person to recommend them for the fellowship or scholarship; 
  • you do not have time to write one*. 

*Recommendation letters that come in after the deadline for national fellowships will never be considered as a part of the candidate's application by the foundation, and will therefore greatly disadvantage the candidate.