|LETTERS OF ENDORSEMENT|
|JULIA A. GOLDBERG|
The letter of institutional endorsement is often the first item that committees will read beyond the applicant’s particulars (e.g., resume and basic information). As such, it “opens the door” for the applicant by making the complete, most persuasive case for the candidate. But unlike letters of recommendation, which are intended to offer valuable, individualized and detailed perspectives of the candidate, the letter of endorsement is intended to offer committees a more comprehensive overview of the candidate.
The endorsement letter “packages” and contextualizes the candidate, enticing the committee to “read on” and to “look favorably upon” the candidate, warts and all. The letter is the PR, the blurbs on the “dust jacket” that announce and guide the way to the hidden gems (not the costume jewelry) within. As such, the letter of institutional endorsement plays a very important role in the scholarship selection committee’s deliberations.
The endorsement should highlight various aspects that may be overlooked or otherwise deemed insignificant by committee readers when not explained and/or placed within the context of the candidate and/or institution.
Similarly, as committees scrutinize the depth and breadth of the courses on the student’s transcript, it is important to let the committee know if students at your institution are limited to the number of courses (hours/credits) they may take each term. This is particularly important where the college considers a full course load to be four courses/semester and the student was able to successfully petition to take a course overload while engaged in varsity athletics or working part-time.
The endorsement letter should also address anomalies in the candidate’s record.
It should pay attention to the scholarship’s criteria and priorities. If the ideal scholar is a leader, change agent, or consummate scholar, than the letter should highlight, demonstrate, or otherwise explain why and how the candidate fits the program’s ideal without reiterating what is already evident in the application packet.
It should tell the scholarship committee about the candidate’s strengths, extraordinary circumstances, and weaknesses, and why, despite those weaknesses, he/she should be awarded that particular scholarship.
Additionally, the endorsement letter should, when necessary, mention the strengths or weaknesses of those writing the letters of recommendation, informing the committee how to read those letters, particularly in those cases where the referee is not amenable to elaborating upon or modifying the content of his/her letter².
Letters of endorsement should also be up front and frank regarding how a candidate might perform during a committee interview. Let the scholarship committee know that the candidate may become excessively nervous, may come across as too self-assured, or may be mistakenly perceived as being aggressive or strident when passionately defending her position. Likewise, inform them about the candidate’s speech or language impediment, his need for special accommodation (e.g., is hearing impaired), or if he has a disturbing tic or lazy eye. Sharing this information will not (or should not) damage the individual’s candidacy in any way; but it will allow the interviewing committee to take the appropriate extra steps to make the candidate feel more at ease during his/her interview.
As you can see, the letter of endorsement’s impact is significantly enhanced when the letter indicates genuine, personal familiarity with the candidate. Letters that contain concrete examples of unique or interesting aspects of the candidate’s personality, or that display initiative and true leadership are much more helpful than general laudatory prose. This type of information is especially important when the candidate is either shy about or unable, due to space constraints, to share such information in his/her application. Use the endorsement letter to tell the committee that as well as being a top-flight physicist, Sally is also the lead guitarist in an all-girl band that has recently released an album, or that Robert had started up a very successful used text book business, selling to other students.
So, what should you do if you do not know the candidate well enough to write such an endorsement letter?
In the final analysis, however, it is vitally important that you do not oversell (or undersell) the candidate. According to Gerson (Rhodes), the propensity to oversell candidates “is more serious than grade inflation.” When you oversell a candidate, you are doing a disservice to both the candidate and your institution. The candidate may be embarrassed and/or fail to live up to expectations. In the latter case, the institution looses credibility. National and regional scholarship selection committees have long memories!
A Word of Caution: Although many scholarship programs do not limit the number of candidates an institution may endorse, foundations do caution against putting applicants forward who meet the minimum qualifications but who are not realistically competitive. Putting forward non-viable candidates neither benefits the candidate nor the institution. According to Pendergrast (Mitchell), “It becomes very obvious that the [campus] process is deficient when endorsements are made for weak, uncompetitive candidates.” Cracraft (Marshall, Chicago Region) heartily concurs, adding that, these competitions are “for the shooting stars, which is why is it better to send in a superlative candidate once every five years than five good, but not stellar, candidates every year.”
So what should you do if you are “obligated” to endorse candidates who are not particularly strong or viable? Signal that ambivalence in your endorsement. This is where the boilerplate, perfunctory endorsement letter comes into play.
In Summary: Use the letter of institutional endorsement as an opportunity to give scholarship committees a deeper insight into the candidate’s qualities and potential. Provide perspective—placing the candidate, the letters of recommendation, and the application in context. Let the committee know how the candidate performed throughout the college or university selection process, and why the institution chose to endorse that candidate. Such information is essential for scholarship committees to determine why and how the candidate best fits the criteria sought.
The endorsement letter should NOT repeat what is covered elsewhere in the application and letters of recommendation. Scholarship committees do read the application! What they want is for the endorsement letter to tell them what they cannot know from the application, the résumé, and recommendation letters.
In the final analysis, the letter of endorsement should resonate with, and complement, the entire application packet. When taken as a whole, the application becomes a seamless, coherent argument for why and how the candidate should be taken seriously.
In general, those institutions with the most success have been those that took the endorsement letter seriously and submitted well-crafted, comprehensive statements of institutional support.
SCHOLARSHIP SPECIFIC INFORMATION
MARSHALL, MITCHELL, RHODES
¹ This article would not have been possible without the tremendous assistance rendered by the following individuals: Gillian Cooper (Programme Officer, Marshall Scholarships, Atlanta Region); Caroline Cracraft (Vice Consul Politics Press & Public Affairs, Marshall Scholarships, Chicago Region); Elliot F. Gerson (American Secretary, Rhodes Scholarship Trust); Thomas L. Parkinson (Program Director, The Beinecke Scholarship Program); Dell F. Pendergrast (former Director, George J. Mitchell Scholarships); Ray Raymond (Selection Committee Chair, Marshall Scholarships, New York Region); and Tara Yglesias (Deputy Executive Secretary, Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation). Any errors or misrepresentations are solely those of the author.² Scholarship foundations expect fellowship advisors to help their applicants choose their referees appropriately. The letters should not replicate each other but provide a balanced, comprehensive perspective on the applicant vis-à-vis the scholarship. These letters should be as specific and detailed as possible, replete with examples garnered from written papers, classroom discussion, and observed performance outside the classroom and the student’s comfort zone.