The Harry S. Truman Scholarship is a very prestigious national awards competition. Its purpose is to recognize and encourage future leaders and policy makers. Only 75-80 scholarships are awarded each year, and virtually every candidate will be in the top ten percent of their class, demonstrate evidence of leadership, and engage in sustained community service. Therefore, an effective letter of recommendation must go far beyond the standard, boilerplate letter to a graduate or professional school admissions committee.
Your letter must be a very specific one, written especially for this student and for this competition. The selection committee will look for evidence of leadership, moral integrity, and intellectual independence in the application, and your letter should emphasize the ways in which the candidate displays such qualities. Successful candidates will be those who "walk the talk" and can demonstrate ongoing pursuit of their stated ideals and goals both in the classroom and in their activities on- and off- campus. You may find it helpful to sit down with the candidate and discuss his or her academic work, extracurricular activities, and future
Applicants should give you a cover sheet indicating which aspect of their applications you are being asked to write to: academic potential, capacity for leadership, or motivation for public service. They should also provide you with drafts-as they revise-of their applications.
The most effective letters run to between one and two pages
- State how long, and in what capacity, you've known the candidate.
- Describe the candidate's personality and work habits. Evaluate the candidate's ability to express ideas, motivate people, and organize to effect change.
- 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.
- If you're writing the "academic success" letter, 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.
- 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 Truman Scholars you have known.
- Comment on the prospects for the candidate to play an influential part in the betterment of society.
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.