Writing strong letters of recommendation for Morehead-Cain nominees: Tips for high school counselors and college prep professionals

Blog | September 18, 2020
A student walks across campus.
The deadline for candidates attending school in North Carolina is October 15.

Written by Ann Smith, Scholar Selection Officer for Morehead-Cain

Now that you’ve notified your students of their nomination and as we move toward the application deadline (the deadline for candidates attending school in North Carolina is October 15), the Selections team wanted to share a few tips for writing strong letters of recommendation for Morehead-Cain nominees.

We’re looking for concrete examples of times a student demonstrated motivational leadership, strong character, academic excellence, and a commitment to a healthy and active lifestyle.

Your letter helps contextualize the candidate’s story beyond their transcript and school academic report, as well as anything else mentioned in their application.

Getting started: Outlining the letter

First, focus your thoughts on a select few characteristics, then distill and deepen those thoughts to tell a representative story.

Recommendation letters often suffer from too wide a lens. You don’t need to describe the full scope of your relationship to the student unless that arc is important to understanding your message.

Ground your opinions in a larger context.

You might choose to compare the student to peers in a single course, to fellow classmates in a graduating class, or to students you’ve worked with over time.

Think of times of conflict or crisis when the student you’re recommending displayed a sense of steady competence and others-oriented leadership ability.

Did the student bring classmates together and help the school community find a good resolution to the problem? Reflect and share about those moments.

“Show, don’t tell”

That’s perhaps the same advice you’d give to students as they work on their own written assignments, either for college applications or for coursework. Simply put, stories illustrate key points better than facts or assertions could by themselves.

As a guide, you might follow the ASSERTION-FACT-ANECDOTE model when crafting your thoughts.

First, make an assertion about your candidate:

“Janora is an empathetic leader who appreciates input from peers who disagree with her.”

Second, cite a factual example that makes your assertion both meaningful and plausible:

“Due to her leadership style, the student council members are more engaged than normal.”

Third, relate an anecdote that supports your fact and shows your assertion in action:

“Janora came to her first student council meeting with goals, but also with questions and an eagerness to listen. She would move around the room asking different class reps about their ideas for the direction of the council, often focusing on the words of quieter members to encourage their engagement in the conversation. Then she’d tie ideas together, suggesting that one idea and another, though dissimilar, could work hand-in-hand. After that first meeting was over, there was an energy to the council that I hadn’t seen before.”

We’ve found that concrete examples and anecdotes help our readers and interviewers see candidates’ qualities in action.

Writing for online audiences

Our readers (and readers in most college admissions and scholarship processes) read online, not on paper.

When you read stories on any news organization’s website or on mobile, you’ll notice that paragraphs are kept to about three to four sentences each. Paragraphs are also separated with a line of space between each to help the content feel more manageable and readable.

Single-spaced content is just fine, as long as you have spaces between paragraphs.

Submitting your letter

Your letter is an important part of our selection process and we truly value the insight you provide as we review nominees for the Morehead-Cain! Thank you so much for your engagement with the Morehead-Cain application process, and for your support of a student competing for the scholarship.

You can review important application dates on the Counselors page. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us at selections@moreheadcain.org.