Letters of recommendation (five to eight for the Rhodes and four for
the Marshall) are a tricky matter and need to be handled with great diplomacy.
The candidate wants the recommender to cover certain aspects of character
so each is unique, yet the candidate doesn't want to dictate those letters
or program them in such a way to determine who covers what. The candidate
wants them to be frank, honest and credible, yet the candidate needs positive,
incredibly strong supportive statements. The candidate wants them
to write their letters in such a way as to appeal to what the selectors
have in mind, and yet the candidate has no wish to imply that the recommenders
don't know how to write such letters. A tricky matter indeed.
What follows is offered to both recommendee and recommender, to both
inexperienced and experienced writers alike in a spirit of "genericism."
Different scholarships are looking for different things, and the following
list are bits of advice derived from regional and national conferences
on the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, from specific guides such as Penn
State's "Writing Recommendation Letters" which gives specific advice and
samples of both Rhodes and Marshall letters of recommendation, from Rhodes
and Marshall web sites and from personal experience. Some comments
below are clearly addressed to the candidate, others to the recommender,
but I am consciously mixing the two.
I am asking students to make available relevant materials (such as the
relevant sections of the Penn State guide) to any professors who might
be writing letters of recommendation. If you feel such materials
are unnecessary, feel free to dispense with them, but I personally found
them useful. (One always worries about causing offense in such matters
which is why I am offering the materials to everyone.)
Who should write the letter
- At a recent national conference, one of the Marshall selectors boldly stated
that, if at all possible, a full professor should be given priority in
the letter writing process because that professor most likely carries a
great deal of weight and may be known to the selectors. This ended
up to be the most contentious issue of the conference.
- The conference participants -- almost two hundred of them -- were horrified,
and concerned questions ensued. Often assistant and associate professors
are closer to the students and much more familiar with their work.
- Other Marshall selectors then put forward the opposing view, that closeness
to the student is more important than the notoriety of a full professor.
- I include both views here to point out that there is no single, winning
formula to getting a scholarship. It is a human process, fraught
with uncertainty but leaving plenty of room for creativity.
- As if in anticipation of the question, the Rhodes American Secretary has
written, "Letters from people who know you are far more valuable than letters
from well known people who know you less and who might write, at best,
a form like letter."
- Most students balk at the request for up to eight letters of recommendation.
You need not have that many, and six may be enough. More than five
letters is preferable, not only because you don't want to give an image
of meeting the minimum requirements but also because one of your letters
might not get submitted to the Rhodes website in time which might disqualify your
- So-so letters of merely warm support may dilute rather than support your
efforts. Furthermore, when candidates approach a potential recommender
with a request, the answer "No" must be a serious option. If a potential
recommender cannot write an honest, strongly positive letter, it is more
helpful all around not to write one. (And it is often simply the
case that a recommender may not know the student well enough or that the
student may be fantastic in other courses but merely adequate in the recommender's
class. There is no shame in that.)
- Letters from beyond Reed can be handled in a variety of ways.
- In the past and particularly for the Rhodes, I have hesitantly suggested
one of the eight letters be from a high school instructor, thus demonstrating
a long-term commitment to quality. (Personally, I used my debate
coach who knew me for four years and who happily summarized my high school
career.) Recently, the Rhodes American Secretary has supported using high
school instructors, and he noted it is a useful means of augmenting that
notorious "athletic" (aka "energetic") qualification, particularly
if you were more active in sports then than now.
- One source often not considered is from people who have received the candidate's
sustained assistance through volunteer service, such as people using shelters,
nursing homes or prisons. (I stress sustained assistance here
-- like the other recommenders, they need to know you.) Such letters
may not be polished, but they may be incredibly compelling. They
tell a story and add a real dimension.
- Letters from family friends and relatives are obviously anathema.
- Letters from U.S. senators or representatives with whom the candidate interned
are not necessarily a great asset. They often tend to be formulaic
and meaningless unless the candidate made a real impact while in that position.
Just because they have a "name" doesn't mean their letter can be below
the standard of the others.
- Emphasize detail. These letters don't merely give the selector a
head count of how many people sincerely liked the candidate; they must
demonstrate why that candidate should be liked by the selector. One
of the biggest complaints the selectors have about letters of recommendation
is the lack of detail, of evidence behind the adjectives. If a student
has become distinguished, there must be a specific, tangible difference
from other students. In the words of one selector, "we want specific
actions, not general qualities." If the recommender can say that "So-and-so is in the top N students I've taught over the past N years," that kind of contextual detail is much appreciated by the judges.
- Tout the course or the department if that added context further enhances
the student's accomplishments.
- If the recommender can say something specific about the appropriateness
of the chosen U.K. program, that might be helpful to the selectors.
Like the candidate's own application essays, the letters can help demonstrate
a consistent story line of where the students have come from, where they
are now and why they ought to be going to the United Kingdom.
- If the recommender graduated from or worked in a U.K. institution, feel
free to give an opinion as to whether this candidate would flourish there.
- Please keep in mind that letters of recommendation are viewed like evidence
at a trial. Students may make certain claims about their persons
within their application essays, but the selectors depend upon the recommenders
to verify those claims. That is one reason why they are so important.
- By all means brag about the student, particularly if he or she tends to
come across as relatively modest otherwise.
- Note any evidence of the candidate's growth over time and how you see potential
for further growth.
- Stress and contextualize any real tensions, any specific things that you
feel might not otherwise be fully appreciated by the selectors.
- Put into full context any achievements of the candidate. For example,
if the candidate performed highly efficient lab work, explain if and why
that particular work was incredibly difficult.
- Make appropriate use of italics. (An odd note, I admit, but I am only relaying the advice of the selectors.)
- For both the Rhodes and Marshall, letters of recommendation are now solicited via e-mail to be submitted to their websites. (The Rhodes uses Embark whereas the Marshall developed its own software.) Those for the Marshall get submitted with the electronic application once it's complete (including the institutional endorsement). If you so choose, you are invited to give us any details
about your letter (which will not be shown to the student) to prepare
better questions for the mock interviews and to prepare better, less redundant
institutional endorsements. You are also invited to suggest any specific
questions for those interviews on issues beyond your own letter.
By all means feel free to ask for any assistance from us or offer any advice
to us. (I can always add the latter to these web pages.) We
have the Penn State guide mentioned above as well as other writing aids.
And we can offer your letter an outsider's perspective. That is,
in terms of your relationship with your student we might be able to suggest
where to expand, when to add more detail.
- Letters of recommendation should not be too short (one page) or too long
(more than three pages).
- Please do not write it out by hand -- a particular plea by one selector!
- Avoid too much self reference -- a particular plea by another selector!
- Avoid the term, "I recommend So-and-so without reservation."
- Never say in the Marshall letter, "This person deserves a Rhodes."
(It happens far too often.)
||Back to Rhodes & Marshall index
||Forward to "Interview preparation"