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Tips for Faculty

By writing strong letters for highly capable and deserving students, you are not only helping your student achieve her or his goals; you are helping to raise the profile of the College of Charleston on the regional, national, and international stage. Given the stiff competitiion for these awards, here are some things you might keep in mind when a student requests a letter from you. 

What to Include

  • Note up front how well, how long, and in what context you known the student
  • Whether you are discussing a student’s academic ability, research experience, extracurricular activities, or international exposure, be as specific as possible, using detailed, concrete examples rather than abstractions to illustrate your impressions of the student
  • Where possible and beneficial, provide specific information about the candidate relative to others, e.g., the student ranks X among X students that I have taught/supervised in the past 10 years
  • If you have any experience regarding the programs to which the student will apply, you should mention that in your letter. Even if you don’t have direct experience, knowledge of the values that a specific awarding institution subscribes to will help you address this audience more strategically
  • Give a strong sense of the student’s potential and promise, referring, when possible, to the feasibility of her future goals and plans
  • Include details that will help the committee see the applicant as more than a set of accomplishments; they want to see someone who is richly human, motivated, and curious

What to Avoid

  • Generic and brief letters (anything half a page or less of printed text)
  • Generalizations and platitudes not supported by evidence
  • Excessive information about your course or research; only include what will help frame a given student’s experience
  • Letters that read as a cursory overview of a student’s resume
  • References to a student’s physical appearance
  • Framing a student’s strong work in the context of the weaker work of her peers. Suggesting a weaker classroom or institutional context creates an artificial and unflattering sense of the applicant’s real strengths

Formatting and Address

  • Address your letter to the individual who chairs the fellowship committee if known, or, more likely, to the committee as a whole (e.g. “Dear Goldwater Selection Committee)
  • Strong letters for major fellowships are usually 1-2 pages, single-spaced

Additional pointers

  • Have a conversation with the student about who else is writing letters for them. They should be thinking strategically already about whom they are requesting letters from and on what aspect of their experience they want each writer to focus, but bringing this conversation to the surface never hurts
  • If you are writing letters for multiple candidates applying for the same award, be careful about recycling material
  • Feel comfortable saying “no” when asked for a letter. A weak letter will likely sink a candidate in competitive competitions. If your experience with a given candidate is too insubstantial, if the student approaches you in an unprofessional manner, or if you simply don’t have the time to write a strong letter, simply decline the request

Additional Resources for Letter Writers: