Letter of Recommendation Guidance

Thank you for your interest in writing a letter of recommendation for an NC State student or alum who is pursuing a nationally competitive award. We are grateful that you are considering if you have the time and information needed to write a strong and compelling letter of recommendation for your applicant, especially since a lukewarm or generic letter can be quite damaging to an applicant’s chances. Letters for prestigious awards are often much more specific and detailed than those written for internships or graduate school programs.

General Guidelines for Strong Fellowship Letters

  • Letters should be one and a half to two pages single-spaced in length. These scholarships appreciate longer letters of recommendation that give the sense of the student as an individual.
  • Familiarize yourself with the criteria of the fellowship to which the student is applying (the student should supply this information to you). You are not expected to speak to all of the criteria, but should be able to address some of it and why the student would be a strong candidate for a specific scholarship.
  • Be sure you have information about the project or course of study the student will be undertaking through the fellowship (the student should supply this information to you) and make specific mention of it in your letter.
  • Address the student’s academic performance or extracurricular engagements in detail and with examples. This gives a stronger impression and demonstrates personal knowledge of the student beyond their grade (the student should indicate what your letter should address, i.e., will your letter be an academic recommendation, leadership skills recommendation, etc.).
  • Provide a context in which you know the applicant and for what length of time.
  • Situate the applicant’s performance in a larger context of your experience.
  • Be candid but not negative. These grant foundations are looking for realistic evaluations of students rather than overly positive hyperbole which may be unfounded or unsupported.

Weak Fellowship Letters (not helpful to the candidate)

  • Too short, too vague, no specific examples for points made
  • Generic letters or letters for other purposes (grad school admission, for example)
  • Letters that merely summarize information from the application
  • Letters that focus on courses taken or descriptions of activities/organizations rather than the work that the applicant did within those contexts
  • Letters that evaluate the student as mediocre or average or too many negative evaluations

Letter Details

Please be sure that your letter:

  1. Is on official letterhead from your institution (college, school, organization).
  2. Has a handwritten signature. You do not need to have access to a scanner in order to include a handwritten signature, as there are a number of different ways to add one electronically.  Find out how to add an electronic signature to a pdf document:
  3. Is addressed to the specific award committee, e.g. “To the Rhodes Selection Committee,” “To the Marshall Selection Committee,” “To the Mitchell Selection Committee.”
  4. Makes clear that you are recommending the student for a specific award (the Rhodes, Marshall, or Mitchell—please submit separate letters for each award).
  5. If your student or alum is applying for one of the endorsed awards listed here, you will need to submit your letter by the posted campus deadline with FAO’s online submission form (your applicants should give you the link). If there are specific guidelines for letters for an award, we will post that information on the award’s web page.


Adapted from “Faculty & Other Recommender Guidelines,” Fellowship Advising, Dartmouth. https://students.dartmouth.edu/fellowship-advising/application-process/letters-recommendation/faculty-other-recommender-guidelines