Provide specific information.
Provide specific information about the applicant — information that committee members can use to determine the applicant's strengths and that will help frame an interview.
Provide some context of how you know the applicant — class, research, work, civic engagement, or other endeavor — and for what period of time.
Show that you know the applicant personally. For example, incidents or actions that are unique to this relationship are more credible than information that could be gathered from the resume. Point to specific examples of what the applicant has done. For example, if the student wrote a brilliant paper, mention its topic and why it stood out. If the student did outstanding work in another regard, explain the nature of this work and its particular strengths, especially as they relate to the goals of the fellowship.
Indicate why they are a strong candidate.
Discuss why the applicant would be a strong candidate for the specific fellowship. How does this candidate exemplify the personal qualities or selection criteria specified by the fellowship? Specific examples are crucial.
Indicate what particularly qualifies the student for the course of study or project that is being proposed. Such letters provide the link between past performance and what is proposed.
Place the applicant in a larger context.
For example, a letter could compare the present applicant to others who have applied for similar honors in the past, or others who have succeeded in such competitions.
Letters that are too short and that fail to provide specific examples or instances of points mentioned do not help the candidate.
Generic letters, or letters written for another purpose and sent without regard to the specific fellowship, course of study, or project proposed may hurt the applicant more than help.
Letters should help the applicant stand out as unique and not merely summarize information available elsewhere in the application or only present the student’s grade or rank in class.
Letters that focus too much on the context of how the writer knows the applicant (descriptions of the course or its approaches) and not sufficiently on the student and his or her accomplishments would detract. The student is applying — not the recommender.
Letters should not consist largely of unsupported praise. Kind words that do not give committees a strong sense of how applicants have distinguished themselves are not helpful. Provide examples to show praise is genuine.
Letters should also not seem to equivocate with faint praise. It is not helpful to say that a student did what might be expected (completed all the reading assignments) or that point to qualities (punctuality, enthusiasm, presentability) not germane to the fellowship. Explain what makes the student an exceptional candidate for this opportunity in particular.
Letters that may be read as implying criticism (beware of left-handed compliments) or whose criticisms might be taken to indicate stronger reservations than stated. are not helpful to the student. Letters should be honest — and honest criticism, if generously presented, can enhance the force of a letter — but committees take critical comments very seriously. It is best to be cautious when making critical remarks and to avoid any sense of indirection.