It's tempting to think that exceptional grades, exemplary participation in campus and extracurricular activities, and a strong scholarship application will speak for themselves. However, given the level of competition for Rhodes, Truman, NSF, Mellon, and other national fellowships, this is simply not true.
Each year, more than 600 candidates are nominated for approximately 75 Truman Scholarships; 1,200 to 1,400 candidates apply for Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships. Thirty-two are chosen as Rhodes Scholars; forty become Marshall Scholars. Selection of finalists is based on a candidate's personal statement, academic record, and letters of recommendation. Quite simply, the committees aim to select the very best scholar-leaders from across the United States.
Virtually every candidate who is nominated by his or her university has a 3.7+ GPA, a fairly extensive record of leadership and community service, and has demonstrated the potential for future success through research, creative accomplishments, involvement in government or professional activities, and more. Often, little separates the very good candidates from the outstanding candidates. Letters of recommendation can be the decisive factor in a committee's decision to advance a candidate to the interview. The letters, therefore, are critical to the candidate's chances for success in the competition.