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Information for Referees

A crucial part of each applicant’s application for fellowship programs is the quality of the supporting recommendation letters.  While each referee has their own style and approach to recommendation letters, the suggestions below synthesize guidance provided by fellowship foundations and faculty advisors who have successfully supported past fellowship recipients. 

What Fellowship Foundations look for in recommendation letters

Fellowship foundations have repeatedly emphasized that fellowship recommendation letters should be more than just general recommendation letters.  Individuals who write recommendation letters should pay close attention to the applicant criteria and recommender guidelines found on each fellowship's website

Broadly speaking, fellowship letters should focus on:

  • The applicant’s intellectual and academic strengths (If a referee knows an applicant well, it is also appropriate to comment on any personal knowledge you may have of an applicant’s character)
  • Specific examples of when the referee has witnessed the applicant actively demonstrating their abilities (this is much more important than the applicant’s score in a referee's class exams, although this is worth noting if the applicant was at the very top of their class)
  • Academic recommenders are asked to comment on why the applicant is a good fit for the specific academic program they have chosen to pursue (e.g., the MPhil in Biological Science in Pathology at Cambridge to study with Professor Montoya and Professor Johnson) 
  • How the applicant meets the specific criteria for the fellowship for which they are applying (recommendation writers are asked to pay particular attention to the Applicant Criteria and Recommender Guidelines found on specific fellowship websites, such as any evidence of the student's commitment to their academic field, engagement with others, or aspirations to make a positive social impact)

Recommendation letter writers should mention how the referee knows the applicant (and for how long) and make certain to write a letter that adheres to a specific fellowship’s word or character count limits, since some fellowships reject letters that do not adhere to their regulations.

What does not typically impress Fellowship Foundations in recommendation letters

  • Generic short letters that do not indicate significant familiarity with the applicant
  • Letters that summarize or repeat – without elaboration – information found elsewhere in the application, such as the applicant’s resume
  • General praise of the applicant without specific examples
  • Comments that focus on activities that are in the distant past
  • Letters written by someone who lacks knowledge of the applicant’s accomplishments and goals

Avoiding biases in recommendation letters

  • A large body of social science research indicates that even individuals with egalitarian beliefs can unintentionally discriminate in recommendation letters
  • Common patterns of bias include describing women primarily as helpful (e.g., hardworking, warm, kind) while focusing on competencies displayed by men (e.g., brilliant, stellar, exceptional)
  • Common bias patterns include writing shorter letters for women than men, and unintentionally communicating reservations about candidates in underrepresented groups with faint praise (e.g., smart, qualified, articulate)

Tips on formatting recommendation letters

  • Letters should be addressed to the individual who chairs the fellowship committee (if known), or to the committee as a whole (students should provide referees with this information)
  • Letters for major fellowships are typically on letterhead, and 1.5 - 2 pages, single spaced

Other considerations

  • Referees are encouraged to ask the applicant who else is writing for them, so they can consider what else is being written (students should provide referees with this information)
  • Referees are asked to consider other applicants for whom they are writing letters, so referees won’t repeat the same language for all applicants

Potential referees might wish to decline a request

  • If the referee does not feel they can be emphatically positive about applicant
  • If the referee recalls little more about an applicant than grade the applicant earned in a class
  • If the referee does not believe s/he is an appropriate person to write a letter
  • If the applicant approaches the referee in an unprofessional manner
  • If the applicant does not provide ample time for the referee to craft a substantial letter