Tips for Letter Writers
Letters should be 1-2 pages in length, signed, and on letterhead.
What to include:
- How do you know the student and for how long?
- Compare student to others you have instructed. Provide an informal ranking (i.e. “top 15%”) without repeating redundant information such as their GPA. Specific quantified or qualitative evidence of their performance is encouraged.
- Include other examples of your impressions of the student outside of the classroom including conversations in office hours, campus activities, etc.
- Provide a distinctive candidate description including their unique characteristics. For example, if you state the student is innovative, how have you seen them demonstrate innovation?
- Explain why you believe the student is a good fit for the opportunity.
- Personalize the letter as much as possible. Make connections to what they are applying for.
- Emphasize what sets this student apart from others in the class and overall in your years of teaching.
What may hurt the applicant:
- Too much information about USC in general without focusing on the individual student.
- Including letter grades. If relevant, substantial information should be provided about classroom experiences.
- Highlighting what could be considered expected behaviors such as completing all classroom readings or maintaining good attendance.
- Abundant criticism. Be honest but cautious about criticism.
- Avoid general platitudes.
It is okay to reject a request for a letter if you do not believe you can include enough specifics about that particular student, especially if the letter is asking for evidence of non-academic characteristics that you have not directly observed. You should be able to provide a holistic view of the student in the letter.
Tips for Fellowship Applicants
- Request letters of recommendation well in advance of the deadline. The exact timeline may vary but 2 months prior is a good window to allow for any updates needed before submission and to provide a referee with enough time to produce a well thought out letter.
- Provide referee with draft copies of relevant essays or a copy of your resume. Also, be very clear in your reasons for pursuing the opportunity and suggestions for what they should highlight in the letter based on the criteria. The more information you provide, the easier it will be for the recommender to provide a specific, unique letter. Consider drafting a cover letter that includes specific information about the fellowship, your interests in applying, an activity you hope they will highlight, and – most importantly – instructions as to how to submit and by what deadline.
- Choose the best approach based on the relationship you have with the referee.
- Do not simply email all of these materials to request a letter. Set an in-person meeting to discuss the application and request the letter from the referee.
- Generic letters from people with recognizable names do not make an impact. Request letters from those who can provide a well-written letter with specifics.
- Letters may not always need to come from faculty members. Some may welcome non-university personnel or other staff members such as employers, career counselors, academic advisors, internship supervisors/mentors, etc. to discuss leadership, service, etc. Make note of the requirements of each individual fellowship.
- Choose referees who have had recent contact with you and, if you are a transfer student, select most or all faculty from USC depending on the criteria of the fellowship.
- In general, letters should be at least one full page and no more than two pages long to ensure they are read thoroughly by a selection committee.