LETTER WRITING GUIDANCE – RECOMMENDERS
The mission of the Goldwater Foundation is to identify and support the Nation’s next generation of scientific, mathematics, and engineering research leaders. Letters of Recommendation play a critical role in helping the Goldwater Foundation identify this country’s most promising talent. We know that letters that convey meaningful insights into the student and the student’s abilities take time to write. The Foundation thanks all those who will take the time to write meaningful letters.
GUIDANCE FOR ALL RECOMMENDERS:
1. If you don’t know the student well enough to write a strong letter, the student did not give you enough time to write the letter, or you have other reasons that you do not feel comfortable writing the student the kind of letter that’s described below, please explain this to the student and decline to write the student a nomination letter for the Goldwater Scholarship.
2. Prior to writing your letter, engage in an in-depth discussion with the student about the student’s career aspirations.
3. The more detail your letter provides about your relationship to the student, the stronger your letter becomes. Examples that support statements are particularly valuable. Be as specific as possible and provide as many examples as possible. The Foundation has suggested to the student that they provide letter writers with an “information packet” that is tailored to the student’s relationship to you. Such a packet of materials should help you provide specific examples.
4. Don’t hold back! A one or two paragraph generic reference letter could doom a nominee. Again, if you are unable to provide a strong letter, suggest to the student that it would be best for the student seek a letter from another person.
5. Comments on student demeanor (e.g., gentle, kind, sweet, etc.) are less helpful in evaluating a student’s likelihood of success in a research career than are attributes usually needed to become a successful scientist, engineer, or mathematician (e.g., analytical, brilliant, careful, deliberate, persistent, etc., backed up by concrete examples of these qualities). As a guiding principle, use terms to describe the applicant that you would like to have used to describe you and your work. “Sweet,” for example, probably is not one of them. Avoid gender biased terms and descriptions.
6. Information disclosed in the student’s research essay and other parts of the application is held in confidence. All Foundation reviewers sign a Confidentiality and Conflict of Interest Agreement.
LETTERS THAT ARE HELPFUL – From Research Mentors
As the Foundation is attempting to identify the next generation of research leaders, the insights research mentors have gained working with a student in a research environment are particularly critical. Your letter should help the Foundation:
1. Understand the context in which you know the student (how long, in what capacity),
2. Understand, if the student was working in your group, who actually oversaw the student’s work,
3. Understand how the student contributed to the work and how important the contribution was (Did the student work independently?, How much guidance do they require? How do they respond to guidance?),
4. Gain an insight into what the student already knows and can do,
5. Gain an insight into what drives or motivates the student in research,
6. Assess such things as the student’s originality, intellectual daring, insight, creativity, perseverance, and integrity by describing a specific instance where this was observed, and
7. Gain an insight into the likelihood that the student will become a successful research scientist, mathematician, or engineer. Comparison with previous Goldwater Scholars or other students who have gone on to pursue successful research careers can provide valuable insights.
Research mentors should keep remarks about their research program brief, but provide enough detail for the reader to develop a general understanding of the research. Mentors should spend most of their time discussing the student’s involvement in and, most importantly, contributions to the research endeavor.
LETTERS THAT ARE HELPFUL – From Others Who Know the Student
A research active faculty member (or post-doc) who has observed a student conducting their research but who is not one of the student’s mentors should:
1. Explain the context in which you know the student,
2. Focus remarks on characteristics that they have observed that will make the student a successful research scientist, mathematician, or engineer,
3. Provide examples of such observations which might include presentations given by the student that you have attended or discussions you have had with the student about their work and career goals, and
4. Compare the student to other students they have known who have gone on to successfully pursue a PhD and a professional research career.
A student’s course instructor should, when possible:
1. Discuss aspects of the course that are pertinent to the student’s career aspirations,
2. Describe how the student stands out from their peers,
3. Compare the student to others the instructor has taught that have gone on to successful research careers (e.g, In my xx years of teaching, the student ranks in the top xx% of all seniors in chemistry I have known.),
4. If possible, comment on presentations given by the student that the instructor might have observed, and
5. If you are familiar with the student’s commitment to their field through extracurricular activities where they demonstrate initiative, teamwork, leadership, and so on, describe these relative to their development and contributions in the scientific community,
6. Provide insights regarding the student’s career plans from informal discussions with the student.
LETTERS THAT ARE NOT HELPFUL
1. Letters that are written for another purpose.
2. Letters that do not provide insights into both the likelihood the student will pursue a research career in the natural sciences, mathematics, or engineering or suggest that the student has the potential to become a leader in these research endeavors.
3. Letters that say little more, for example, than “the student studied hard and received an A,” “the student is in the top X % of the course,” or “the student gets along well with others and has a sense of humor.” Avoid meaningless superlatives.