Student Academic Grants and Awards

Writing Letters of Recommendation for the Goldwater Scholarship

The Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship is a very prestigious national awards competition.  Its purpose is to recognize and encourage future scientists, mathematicians, and engineers who have the potential to make significant contributions to research.  About 300 scholarships are awarded each year; virtually every candidate will have a GPA of 3.9 and higher, have demonstrated significant interest in the sciences, math, or engineering, and have engaged in sustained, ongoing research.

The selection committee will look for evidence of academic excellence, intellectual independence, and sincere motivation to pursue scientific research in the application, and your letter should emphasize the ways in which the candidate displays such qualities. Goldwater Scholarships recognize students who intend to make significant contributions to research through their graduate and professional activities. You may find it helpful to sit down with the candidate and discuss his or her academic work, extracurricular activities, and future education and career goals.  Applicants should also provide you with drafts-as they revise-of their applications. 

The most effective letters will be more than a page long, and will:

  • State how long, and in what capacity, you've known the candidate.
  • Describe the candidate's personality and work habits.  The committee will look for evidence that in addition to having the intellectual firepower to contribute meaningfully to their discipline, the candidate has the discipline and organizational skills necessary for planning and implementing important projects.  Ideally you will be able to discuss the candidate's ability to work both independently and as part of a team.
  • Be vivid and specific, including personal memories of the candidate, suggestive anecdotes, something to indicate that you know this candidate very well and think highly of him or her.  Letters that matter to selection committees bring the candidate to life on the page.
  • Describe and evaluate in detail the candidate's scholarly work, especially a major research project.  The letter should help the selection committee understand the significance of this research, and the contribution it has made.  Past research experience and future research goals are the heart of the Goldwater application, and the most essential part of your letter.
  • Reflect, refer to, and elaborate on themes in the candidate's application. 
  • Rank the candidate in relation to other students you have taught, and if possible, compare the candidate to Goldwater Scholars you have known.
  • Comment on the prospects for the candidate to play an influential role in future scientific endeavors.
If you are not able to write knowledgeably and favorably about the candidate, you should decline to write at all.  A lukewarm letter will hurt in this competition