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Writing Winning Recommendation Letters

Harsh though this may seem, the first task is to weigh carefully whether or not you are willing and able to give the candidate's letter the time and attention needed for competition at this level because a form letter used on other occasions will be of no help at all.  If you accept, that gesture on your part is alone a significant vote of confidence in the student.

Next, the student needs to provide you a copy of his or her personal statement, resume,  transcript, and other documents that he or she may have produced in courses under you so that you may be fully informed about the student's background before you write. In the case of the Marshall, the student will be submitting a paper on a "Proposed Academic Programme."  You will need a copy of that statement in order to support the student's preparation for this course of action.   The student should schedule a meeting with you as well, for an interview allows you to refresh your memory of the student.   Since these are outstanding individuals, the interview may also remind you why you became an educator.

Then the task of writing begins.  The Truman and Marshall and Rhodes committees want us to establish the ground for our letters, explaining our relationships to this student and telling them in what ways this student has contributed to the relationship. Also, although you do not, of course, want to spend too many words on your own areas of expertise or on the uniqueness of the program you run, it is important that you provide a context within which the committee can assess your areas of expertise and Baylor's.

For example, the committee needs to know your full title.  It could be placed under your name at the conclusion of the letter, but if you have several areas of responsibility, they should be clearly named within the letter. [1]    Since the programs  you direct and/or teach in are unique and remarkable programs, please explain some of the aspects of their excellence as you discuss the candidate's achievements.

The Selection Committee does not need for you to reiterate the information on the student's resume because it will be included with the application.  What the committee will find helpful is your assessment of the student in these areas:

The applicant's level of scholarship and preparation for advanced work.

  • Part of the task of the committee is to decide if this student could smoothly adjust to the level of academic work required in the finest British universities.  Examples and anecdotes about the student's intellectual and research skills are valued.
  • The student must have proven intellectual and academic quality of the highest standard. If you do not have first-hand knowledge of this aspect, you should speak primarily to the aspect of your relationship that you do have.
The applicant's character and industriousness.
  • What are distinguishing marks of this student's maturity and motivation? Is the student one who has acted successfully as an independent agent in any important situation you have known about? Is he or she disciplined? Again, examples are helpful.
  • Are there any sports that the student has engaged in? If so and if it seems appropriate, consider mentioning them.  Both the Marshall and the Rhodes committees like to know the candidates  have a great deal of energy and some delight in recreational activity.
Altruism and Community Service.
  • What do you know about this student's demonstrated interest in and respect for fellow human beings?  Is he or she altruistic? When have you seen this student do something that shows his/her sense of public service? [2]
  • What are his or her commitments to community members, to peer relationships? Is he or she a responsible person? Examples will be valued.
Leadership (realized and potential) and Goals.
  • What do you think the likelihood is that this young man or woman will make a major contribution in some important arena in the future?
  • What distinctions does he or she bring to the competition that lift him or her above the crowd?  In what ways have you seen him or her be a leader, initiate a program? [3] The committee is seeking to choose the student who is going to influence a significant number of people, perhaps through public service as a diplomat or through  research that will make a major contribution to analysis of a world institution or issue.
  • The competition is intense.  Here are a few ways others have shown their candidates to be above the competition or enriched the content of their own letters to add emphasis:
  • Have you known the student for several years? Could you explain how you have seen that student grow?
  • If you have a fabulous insight or statements from another faculty member about this student, quote it with attribution. For example, have you heard a language professor describe her skills in Russian? If you are the Russian professor, what has someone in political science said that supports your description of this student's intellectual power?
  • Other assessments you can add, from people outside academe can be very helpful. If you have a letter sent to you by someone else who has evaluated the student, feel free to attach it or quote from it.
  • Place the candidate within your larger experience as a professor. Is her grasp of Chinese history so extensive that you would rate her as one of the best five students you have had in that area? Is he destined to become a diplomat? Why?
  • If the candidate is applying for the Marshall, his or her "Academic Programme" should be addressed if possible. For example, if the student's project will be in  Russian history and culture, you would want to relate that student's passion (if in truth you noted it) in the unit you presented on iconography in your art history course.  For the Marshall or Rhodes candidate, it is important that you say why the opportunity to study in the United Kingdom is so valuable for this particular student. What will he or she gain from a chance to study in Britain that is distinct?
The overall goal of these letters is to give a full and balanced view of the student to the Selection Committee.  Two additional issues are important here:
  • Even though you are being asked to make mention of numerous aspects of this student's excellence, you are at the same time being asked to emphasize one or two key areas of this student's achievements. Therefore, the student should give you an overview of who else is writing for him or her so that you may see the plan for the completed portrait, as it were.
  • Also, the committee will appreciate your frank, not overblown, assessment. All students, even great ones, have some flaws. The weaknesses(or areas for growth) you have seen may be addressed. The committees are made up of savvy folk. They know these students will have some limitations and they say they appreciate our showing this dimension of a human being, too. The committees do not appreciate high-flown language or hyperbole.
Most of the effective recommendation letters I have seen were at least five or six paragraphs long, single-spaced, and flawless in grammar and spelling. They used straight-forward language, but they were full of energy and focus regarding the superior attributes of the student. Our letters must be as outstanding as the candidates are. Concrete and candid, intelligent and sincere--your letter will be borne of a great devotion to the student, to the life of the mind, and to the belief that this student is indeed one of the young people on whom to build our hopes for the next generation. 

[1] The Marshall representative, for example, told Dr. Tom Hanks and me that a student from North Texas had a wonderful proposal for study of music in Britain, but the letters of recommendation did not mention that North Texas had a national reputation in certain areas of music.  That context would have made the student's  letters of recommendation more powerful to the Selection Committee.

[2] The Marshall representative told us about an aside added in the last paragraph of a rec letter wherein the professor said when he thought of this student, he always remembered her as the one who left a party last because she was so concerned that no student who had been drinking drive a car home.  She would call taxis or take them home herself.  The committee wanted to meet such an individual.

[3] The Marshall conference made it very clear that the Selection Committee is not looking for "someone who hopes to become a professor in a respectable college where he or she may live out life doing research, noble though that work be."