Scholarships are competitive. They represent an investment in you as a student and your commitment to pursuing your goals in college. Donors want to make sure you're putting their money where your mouth is, so to speak.
In order to earn a scholarship, applicants should give committees a clear sense of who they are, what their plans are, and how motivated they are to achieve them. Letters of recommendation for scholarships can go a long way toward testifying to a student's past achievements and potential for future success.
Let's take a more in depth look at what purpose recommendation letters serve in the scholarship application process.
What's the Purpose of Recommendation Letters for Scholarships?
Scholarships are often awarded to a specific type of student with specific goals. They might be merit-based and awarded for achievement in science, writing, or math. Others support a special talent in athletics, music, or art. Whatever the focus, most scholarships are looking for something distinct.
Letters of recommendation can go a long way toward reinforcing a student's unique story and testifying to her special talent or commitment. If the scholarship committee is looking for the next great violinist at Carnegie Hall, then the recommendation can speak to the student's singular commitment to daily violin practice and her moving solo concerts at school. Letters of rec can both validate and add further dimension to the story a student is telling the scholarship committee.
Recommendation letters also show that the student has teachers, counselors, or other people in her life who are excited to advocate for her. Glowing reference letters show that others believe in her past and future accomplishments. They also hint that a student will be similarly successful at connecting with professors at college and making the most out of the opportunities that are available in and out of the classroom.
Finally, strong reference letters help a student come to life as a 3-dimensional person in the eyes of a scholarship committee. While students may have similar resumes, recommendations can help differentiate students and illuminate their unique character and personality. While resumes list what a student has done in the past few years, recommendation letters describe how a student conducts herself and what passions and motivations drive her actions.
The best person to communicate all this knows the student well and has the writing skills and time to handcraft an eloquent statement of support. If you're a student applying for a scholarship, how can you choose the right person(s) to take on this important task?
Choosing Your Recommender
First and foremost, you have to know the requirements of the scholarship. Do they want to see recommendations from a teacher? A counselor? A friend? Do they want one recommendation, two, or three?
The type of scholarship will also help determine who you ask. To win a scholarship for achievement in science, you'd most likely want to ask your biology, chemistry, or physics teacher. If it's a baseball scholarship, then Biology Department Head Mr. Wilson singing praises of your lab skills might not get you too far.
Besides these more obvious considerations, you should be thoughtful about who you've connected with and who knows you well enough to provide deep insight into your character and personality. Junior year teachers are often a good choice, because they had you in class recently and for an entire year. Freshman and sophomore year teachers may be reaching too far back into the past, and senior year teachers probably don't know you well enough yet.
Some students ask a department head or even the principal. These letters can go a long way if the administrator knows you well, as it shows you stood out among all the students in the school. If it's a generic or distant letter though, then it won't be that effective, even coming from the principal or other administrator.
Besides supporting you and having a strong relationship with you, the best letter writers are skilled and experienced at writing recommendations. Often your school counselor will have good advice as to which teachers are good choices. You might also hear through word of mouth, or consider how many years of experience a teacher has.
Depending on your relationship with the teacher, you might share guides on how to write strong recommendation letters or a sample letter of recommendation for scholarship with them. You can gauge how this would be interpreted, whether it would be seen as a helpful gesture or unintentionally cause offense. Here you can do a little detective work, figure out who has the skill and time to craft an effective letter, and who might be open to suggestions or feedback.
Once you've figured out who you want to ask to recommend you for the scholarship, how can you go about asking them?
Might I have a moment of your time?
How to Request Letters of Recommendation for Scholarships
Since a letter of recommendation for scholarship takes time and thought to craft, you should ask for it at least a month before the scholarship deadline. It's definitely advisable to ask in person. Asking face to face communicates respect and maturity, plus it allows you to have a discussion about your application and any questions your recommender might have.
If you're asking a teacher, it's a good idea to set up a time to meet during a break period or after school. You should also bring your completed "brag sheet" in hand, which I'll discuss in more detail below. When you meet with your teacher, you can make your request direct and to the point. She's probably well used to receiving requests for letters of recommendation, whether they're for college or scholarship applications. You could say something like the following, customized to your specific scholarship and teacher:
I'm applying to the X Scholarship to support my plans for college next year. I really enjoyed your class and learned a ton from you. I'd be flattered if you could provide me with a strong letter of recommendation for my application.
From here, pay attention to your teacher's reaction. If she seems busy, hesitant, or otherwise not into it, you might want to ask someone else. A lukewarm letter won't boost your application; in fact, it could actually hurt it. Make sure your recommender is happy to write you a letter without reservation. Otherwise, thank her and ask somebody else.
A lot of teachers, especially experienced ones, are familiar with the various colleges that their students apply to over the years and can customize their rec letters to each school. Since there are so many scholarships out there, though, they might not know the ins and outs of the one you're hoping to win. This information, along with a "brag sheet," is useful to discuss when you make your request.
Information to Give Your Recommender
Of course, the necessary information is the logistics: how to submit, what forms to fill out, and what deadlines to meet. Make sure to tell your recommender exactly how and where to send their letters of recommendation and by what date. Then you can share more about the scholarship itself and why you feel you deserve it.
To help your recommender customize your letter to your scholarship, tell her all about what the scholarship is for and what kind of students it's looking to reward. You can also share the rest of your application, so your recommender can complement your story. If you're focusing in on your passion for coding and building websites, then your computer science teacher can talk all about the site you designed in her class.
In addition to your application, you could provide a "brag sheet" like many students do for college recs. You might call this something else in your school, but for the purposes of this article I'll stick with brag sheet. The brag sheet is more than a resume. It goes beyond listing your grades, clubs, and activities and provides space for you to reflect on your goals and passions. You can share significant experiences that shaped your values and sense of who you are, along with tough obstacles you had to overcome in your life. Your parents may also give input on this.
Sharing these reflections not only helps remind your recommender of what you've accomplished in high school, it also helps reveal deep things about yourself that she may not have known about yet. By learning what's important to you and what lessons you take from your experiences, your recommender can gain even further insight into who you are. All of this is a recipe for a powerful and moving letter of recommendation in support of your scholarship application.
Sharing so much about yourself can feel uncomfortable to a lot of students, and requires a certain amount of vulnerability and courage. Don't feel like you have to talk about anything you'd rather keep private. At the same time, sharing your stories could help you connect more meaningfully with your recommender and lead to an insightful, dynamic recommendation letter in your favor.
Your recommender may even share her letter with you for feedback, though this is completely up to her. Recommendation letters are generally kept confidential in the academic world.
Once you've made your request and shared all the important details, what are the next steps you should take in this process?
Unlike the Penrose Stairs, these next steps are possible and recommended.
After giving your recommender at least a month's notice, if not more, I recommend following up with her about a week before your deadline. You can ask her if she has any other questions about the scholarship and thank her again for providing you with a reference.
Once she's submitted her part, and you've completed all the other parts of the scholarship application to the best of your ability, make sure to send a thank you note. Also let her know how it all ends up, hopefully with a letter of congratulations from the scholarship committee!
Ultimately, your instincts about who should recommend you will take you a long way. Additionally, these are the most important points to remember about getting a letter of recommendation for scholarship.
Key Points to Remember
These are the most important takeaways for requesting letters of recommendation for scholarships.
- Ask a qualified person (experienced teacher, counselor, supervisor, etc) who knows you well and is happy to provide you with a strong and thoughtful endorsement.
- Discuss all the important details with your recommender, like the requirements of the scholarships and the themes of your application.
- Take the time to reflect on and share your thoughts about your own motivations, goals, and the significant experiences that have shaped you in your life.
- Send your recommender a friendly reminder about a week before your deadline, and be careful to get everything completed thoroughly and on time.
- Send a thank you note (or fruit basket, cookies, Groupon for paintball lessons...whatever seems most fitting).
All parts of your scholarship application are important, including your recommendation letters! As long as you're careful about who you choose, your letters of recommendation can go far toward strengthening your application and impressing the scholarship committee.
Do you also need letters of recommendation for college? Is the process of asking for a letter for college any different than asking for one for scholarships? Find out here, with our complete guide to requesting recommendation letters for college.
Are you applying to a selective institution, like an Ivy League school? Learn how to make your application stand out among the pool of qualified applicants with this Harvard alum and admissions expert's guide to getting into Harvard or the Ivy League.
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Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.