Writing Letters of Recommendation

While it’s widely known that letters of recommendation are commonplace in higher education, strong letters are especially crucial for success in national scholarships and fellowships competitions. If a student has asked you for a letter of recommendation for an award, they are doing so because they respect you, feel that you have had a significant impact on their lives, and believe you can speak to their skills and personal and professional goals.

We believe there is value in having all applicants personally ask you if you will write a letter for them. We advise them to have a conversation with you about the award they are applying to and to be willing to provide you with supplemental information that will help you in the letter writing process - such as a resume, information about the award, and an overview of their application responses. 

For many of our competitions, the foundations are seeking specific information from the letters of recommentation. To help with this, one of our fellowship advisors will send faculty/letter writers a detailed email providing guidance for the particular award your student is applying to. If you have further questions, the Office of Competitive Fellowships is always happy to provide advice and guidance to faculty writing letters of recommendation.

Broadly, the following advice holds true for most national scholarships and fellowships:

What helps

  • Strong letters of recommendation make claims for the student’s fit for the scholarship or fellowship and provide concrete supporting evidence.
  • Providing context is important - consider what the audience doesn’t know about CSB/SJU, your course, your research, or your and your student’s backgrounds.
  • When providing examples, use narrative techniques to show the student in action and illustrate your superlative descriptions.
  • Consider (briefly) discussing the student’s areas in need of improvement, and try to turn his or her shortcomings into virtues.

What hurts

  • Errors - be sure that you have correctly addressed the audience and identified the name of the award.  If you are adapting portions of previous letters, be sure that you’ve used the correct proper names and pronouns.
  • Writing overlong about yourself or your research - while it is important to provide context, do remember that the primary focus of the letter should be the student. 
  • Discriminatory language - avoid any language that unnecessarily attentions the student’s age, race or ethnicity, gender, physical appearance, or disabilities. An exception would be, of course, when an aspect of the student’s identity presented significant challenges that he or she overcame (e.g. a woman in a male-dominated field, an ethnic minority who confronted prejudice, a student who overcame a significant physical disability).

When to say no

In some cases, declining to write a letter might be the best thing to do. Saying ’no’ to a student for a valid reason is preferable to writing a less-than-helpful letter of recommendation.  Feel free to decline...

  • If the students ask too close to the deadline (we advise students to request letters at least 4-6 weeks in advance)
  • If a student asks you in an unprofessional manner (again, we provide guidance for students on how to professionally request LORs)
  • If you cannot recall anything specific about the student, aside from the records in your grade book;
  • If you feel that you cannot provide an overall positive evaluation 
  • If you feel that you are not an appropriate match for this particular award, or that your observations will not be relevant to the selectors
  • If you have personal or professional obligations that need to take priority at this time; be honest with the student that it is just not a good time of the semester. 
College of Saint Benedict
Saint John’s University

Elianna Knutson
Temporary Director
Office of Undergraduate Research & Scholars
Experience Hub
CSB Clemens A116