Writing Recommendation Letters by Joe Schall
If an applicant for the Truman Scholarship becomes a national finalist, he or she is interviewed by a regional review panel composed of senior government officials, former Truman Scholars, and college and university presidents. The stakes are $3,000 towards the student's senior year and $27,000 towards graduate study. Students applying for the Truman Scholarship must be outstanding and presented as such. Truman Scholars are those headed for careers in government, education, the military, and non-profit public-service organizations and advocacy groups. Applicants must write an analysis of a public policy issue and be headed to a grad school program in preparation for a career as a public servant.
Writing the Truman Scholarship Recommendation
The applicant need to submit three letters of recommendation. One letter of recommendation defines the student's leadership abilities and potential; another letter discusses the student's commitment to a career in public service; a third discusses the student's intellect and prospects for continuing academic success. Be certain that your comments are on-point in relation to the letter's category.
Among the Truman recommendation letters from previous years--coming from individuals as varied as program directors, a Red Cross volunteer, and a local political candidate--the best writers often used narrative technique to highlight students in action as citizens, volunteers, initiators, innovators, activists. We hear of a student organizing volunteers to help coordinate a trip to the Washington display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, or rallying poll workers on the day of an election, or challenging classmates to shake off their apathy in the classroom, or working to help victims of domestic violence. Such concrete examples, linked with evidence in support of a student's character, go a long way in helping a Truman applicant become a finalist. Some Truman letter writers are genuine enough to present students even at their most publicly abrasive--i.e., calling a student a "gadfly" in a Truman letter would not be considered a red flag. The Truman is for students who are movers and shakers, out to change the world. Be honest, good-willed, reflective, sincere, and detailed.
The least successful Truman letters in previous years were those that provided a mere listing of a student's accomplishments with no evidence of the letter writer's personal contact with the student, or a flimsy character reference that included no detail about the student's service to others. To rehearse a student's resume or assert that a student is a good person is not nearly enough.
The first sample Truman Scholarship letter that follows ably demonstrates how the recommender views the student as a potential Truman Scholar. We find characterizations including "... likeable and assertive ..."; "She pushes issues to other students may be reluctant to discuss ..."; "As a White student double-majoring in African and African-American studies, and a straight woman leading a campus gay and lesbian activism group ...." Here is a student who is a bold leader, and a faculty member who understands the needs of the selection panel. The second sample letter, written for a different student, also affirms the student's maturity and leadership, by samples including her study tour in Cuba, her organizing a trip to a New York film festival, and her solving problems during a field trip to Madrid with her skills in Spanish. As we read these letters, we clearly sense that these students have strong potential as public servants.
Tips From the Truman Selection Panel Members
For both the student and recommender, the website for the Truman Scholarship is one of the most informative you will find on scholarships. From the Truman homepage, click on the link "For Faculty Reps," then on the link "From the Foundation," and you'll find specific examples of what selection panel members like to see in recommendation letters. For instance, writers are warned against writing "three boilerplate paragraphs about a school or university' and are invited to be detailed and specific: "If the student wrote a brilliant paper on quarks, mention the title and why it stood out."
Truman candidates are also advised to choose a faculty member or community member who knows them well over a dean or politician who does not know them well. Ask students who else is recommending them, and try to give your letter a slant different from the others.