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Instructions for Applicants

Selecting appropriate referees is among the most important aspects of any application. Failure to adhere to the guidelines of a specific fellowship will disqualify you from consideration for that fellowship.

When fellowships require faculty referees, at least some of your referees should be Standing Faculty (Professor, Associate Professor, or Assistant Professor).  Lecturers and Adjunct Faculty can be valuable referees, but Standing Faculty can add particular weight and support for your application.  That said, it is inadvisable to solicit letters from Standing Faculty who do not know you well enough to comment in detail on your academic performance and intellectual abilities, so choose wisely.

In any case, the most important question you should ask any potential referee (in person, if possible) is:

"Can you write a strong recommendation letter for me for this fellowship by this deadline?"

If you receive anything less than an affirmative response to each aspect of this important question, then you should probably ask someone else to write on your behalf.

In your initial request it is important for recommenders to understand how studying or working with them has been important to your academic and/or professional development. It is always wise to thank them for their mentorship and to note how their guidance and inspiration has been important in your development. Asking faculty and other mentors with whom you have not studied or worked recently is quite common (and often necessary). In this case, it is particularly important to remind them of a paper or project you completed under their guidance, the project's findings or impacts, and in some cases the other individuals with whom you collaborated (e.g., post-docs, other organizations, etc.).

After your recommenders agree to write for you and you are about to generate an online recommendation request, you should provide your recommenders with a concise email that includes all of the following:

  1. your reason(s) for doing the program(s), with specifics about what you hope to study, and who you wish to study with and why
  2. an explanation of your long-term goals, how the program fits into them, and why the program will be helpful to you
  3. a discussion about how your academic coursework, research, and other relevant activities have qualified you for this program
  4. an up-to-date CV or resume

Keep in mind that faculty and other recommenders are extremely busy, especially during the summer when faculty are focused on their research and all recommenders are trying to squeeze in vacation time. NOTE: Penn online recommendation requests for Rhodes, Marshall, and Mitchell applicants should be submitted to faculty recommenders no later than June 30 (over one year before you intend to commence graduate study).

Applicants are responsible for providing referees with as much information as possible about themselves, their goals, and the fellowship(s) for which they are applying at least six weeks before the date their letter is due to CURF (or to the fellowship, if there is no CURF deadline), including:

  • a resume or CV
  • to whom each letter should be addressed
  • materials (such as academic papers) the applicant previously submitted to the referee
  • Most importantly, the applicant must inform the referee of the submission deadline(s)!

Since each referee will serve a specific purpose in your application, you should help each referee understand the role s/he is being asked to play by emphasizing what aspect of your abilities you hope they can speak to in their letter. While it is extremely helpful for referees to receive a copy of your resume, you need them to write about specific instances in which they saw you working effectively. It can be very helpful to a referee, for example, to know why you are asking them to write on your behalf by reminding them of a project or situation in which you excelled during their class, internship, or workplace, and how your work exemplifies one or more of the qualities the fellowship seeks.

See below for details specific to each fellowship. Please consult CURF advisors for questions on other fellowship recommendations or questions not addressed here.

Multiple applications

It is common for applicants to apply for multiple fellowships simultaneously, and it often makes sense to have the same referee write letters for all applications. For the prestigious fellowships CURF supports, a standard or generic letter – especially handled through a credentials service – makes a poor impression and is often logistically impossible. Instead, the referees can write one basic letter for an applicant applying to similar programs and produce one variant for each application – taking special care to refer correctly in each letter to the specific school and degree program and the specific fellowship. If the applicant is applying for dissimilar programs, the letters might vary slightly – but the essential points of the recommendation will remain much the same.

Applicants register referees with online application sites that will send an automated notice to the referees allowing them to log in and upload their letters. In some cases, these automated notices get caught in spam filters; applicants should remind referees to check their spam or junk mail folders. Many online application forms also include a space to list referees’ information; applicants should not confuse this with the actual referee registration process.

Applicants will need to register referees with each application they are requesting a recommendation for, and referees will need to upload/submit one letter for each application.  There is no mechanism to submit one letter to multiple application sites.

Academic vs non-academic

An “academic” letter of recommendation comes from someone who has supervised the applicant in coursework or research (ideally in a graded setting). All other letters are “personal” and do not need to be academic (but can be). All letters should come from someone who has supervised your work of some sort, whether academic, paid, unpaid, or community service. While mentors and informal advisors can be crucial in helping applicants think through their goals and plan accordingly, letters from these individuals often do not carry as much weight as letters from individuals who have worked closely with or supervised an applicant on a specific project(s).

Applicants must provide the exact number and type of recommendations required. Additional letters are not permitted, except in rare cases in which the number of recommendations is flexible.

See below for details specific to each fellowship. Please consult CURF advisors for questions on other fellowship recommendations or questions not addressed here.

Instructions for Recommenders

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)
  • 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)
  • 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)

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 as warm (hardworking, collaborative, kind) and men as competent (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 (smart, qualified, articulate, etc.)

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

The Fulbright Award requires three letters of recommendation (and often, a foreign language evaluation). In each case, the applicant must register each referee/evaluator within their online Fulbright application.

Research/Study grants and English Teaching Assistant (ETA) grants use different recommendation formats:

Fulbright recommendations are due by Penn’s Internal Fulbright Deadline

The Cambridge application requires two academic letters of recommendation; the Gates supplement requires a third letter that can be (but is not required to be) academic. Applicants will be able to register referees only after they submit the Cambridge online application, and referees then have two weeks in which to submit their letters.

Gates Cambridge Application Deadlines

The Goldwater Scholarship requires three recommendations. All should be directly related to the applicant's math, science, or engineering focus. Applicants register their referees with the Goldwater application site, and the referees upload their letters to that site.

Internal Penn Goldwater Deadline (required for Penn endorsement)

The Knight-Hennessy Scholars program requires that applicants select two individuals who know you well to write recommendation letters that provide specific examples, anecdotes, and evidence of your ability and determination to make a difference. Applicants should refer your Knight-Hennessy referees and to the detailed criteria listed at is external) and to ask your Knight-Hennessy referees to follow the Knight-Hennessy guidelines listed below:

  1. Please explain how you know and interact with the applicant.
  2. We seek visionary thinkers who demonstrate independence of thought. Describe how the applicant demonstrates intellectual curiosity and creativity to address challenges.
  3. We seek courageous leaders who demonstrate purposeful leadership. Describe how the applicant takes initiative to achieve meaningful results and effect positive change.
  4. We seek collaborative community members with a civic mindset. Describe how the applicant acts in service of others to elevate the greater good.
  5. Is there anything else — positive or negative — that we should know about the applicant?

Knight-Hennessy Deadline

The Marshall Scholarship requires three recommendations.  Applicants for the Marshall must first register their referees with CURF via the Penn Marshall Process. Those recommendations are due at the campus deadline, as are all of the applicant's Marshall application materials.

Enter your referees in the following order:

  • The first referee should be the Preferred Recommender, who should have supervised your college or university training (course instructor and/or research supervisor)
  • The second recommendation must be provided by academic who has taught you in a course or supervised your research
  • The third referee should primarily address your leadership and ambassadorial potential, and it may be provided by an academic or a non-academic
  • Ideally, at least one of your academic letters should come from a full Professor, and ideally both academic recommenders will be "standing faculty" (Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, or Professor). See a faculty member's webpage to determine their academic rank. Consult with Dr. Genser if you have questions or are having difficulty securing letters from two standing faculty members
  • At least two of your referees should be based in the United States

These designations are not disclosed to the referees.  Marshall recommendations are limited to 1000 words. 

Applicants who are endorsed by the University of Pennsylvania will receive instructions on how to register their endorser when they are notified of university endorsement.

Internal Penn Marshall Deadline (required for Penn endorsement)

The Mitchell Scholarship requires four recommendations. Applicants for the Mitchell must first register their referees via the Penn Mitchell process.
Those recommendations are due at the campus deadline, as are all of the applicants’ Mitchell application materials.
Once the Penn Faculty Review Committee has met and confirmed endorsements, applicants must then register their referees with the Mitchell application.  Referees and endorsed applicants must then meet the Mitchell final deadline.  Applicants who are endorsed by the University of Pennsylvania will receive instructions on how to register their endorser when they are notified of university endorsement.  

Internal Penn Mitchell Deadline (required for Penn endorsement)

The Rhodes Scholarship (US competition, other country deadlines and recommendation requirements vary) requires at least five recommendations and permits up to eight. At least four of these letters must be academic.
Applicants for the Rhodes must first register their referees via the Penn Rhodes Process.
Those recommendations are due at the campus deadline, as are all of the applicant's Rhodes application materials.
Once the Faculty Review Committee has met and confirmed endorsements, applicants must then register their referees with the Rhodes application.  Referees and endorsed applicants must then meet the Rhodes final deadline.
The referee registration for the official Rhodes Scholarship application is the same process as registering an endorser. Applicants who are endorsed by the University of Pennsylvania will receive instructions on how to register their endorser when they are notified of university endorsement.

Internal Penn Rhodes Deadline (required for Penn endorsement for applicants for the US, Canadian, and new Rhodes Global competitions)

The Schwarzman Scholars program requires three letters of recommendation. Recommendations for the Schwarzman Scholars Program should provide examples of how the applicant meets the program's requirements: academic aptitude and intellectual ability, leadership potential, entrepreneurial spirit, ability to anticipate and act on emerging trends and opportunities, exemplary character, and desire to understand other cultures, perspectives and positions. At least one of these letters must come from a recommender who can comment directly on the applicant's demonstrated leadership and potential for leadership in their chosen field.

The Truman Scholarship requires three recommendations.  Applicants must register their referees using CURF's Fellowship Nomination Request. (link is external) Referees then upload their recommendations to the CURF system, and CURF ultimately submits those recommendations to the Truman Foundation on behalf of endorsed applicants.  

The Truman application requires that each referee emphasize one of the following aspects of the applicant’s candidacy; Leadership, Public Service, and Academic (one recommendation/referee per category so that all three are covered). Applicants must inform CURF of the category for which each referee is writing.

Truman recommendations are due by Penn’s Internal Truman Deadline (required for Penn endorsement)