How to Get a Killer Letter of Recommendation for Your Scholarship Application

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When I was in high school, I asked my history teacher for a letter of recommendation for a scholarship. To my surprise, he promptly printed out a prewritten letter he gave to all his students. I could use it too, as long as I changed the “he’s” to “she’s.”

Luckily, I had enough time to ditch that letter and ask another teacher. When you’re applying for scholarships, a generic letter won’t get you far. Instead, committees want a personal letter that sheds light on who you are.

Even though someone else is doing the writing, there’s a lot you can do to get a strong letter of recommendation for your scholarship. Take these five steps, and you could be that much closer to winning money for college.

1. Find a teacher or mentor who knows you well

Your first step to getting a strong recommendation letter for a scholarship is asking the right person to write it. Unlike my high school history teacher, your recommender should write a customized letter for each and every student.

They should be someone you’re close to who can speak to your strengths. Plus, your recommender should connect with the theme of the scholarship.

“Make a list of individuals who … fit the scholarship profile,” advised college admissions coach Pam Andrews. “For an academic merit scholarship, ask teachers you had in math, science, or other core academic subjects. For leadership or community service scholarships, ask a community leader or leader of the organization where you volunteered.”

Not only should your recommender know you well, but they should have worked with you in the context of the scholarship. That way, they can write a letter that proves just how much you deserve to win.

2. Ask at least a month before your deadline

Once you’ve selected your recommender, make your request at least a month in advance of your deadline. Some students even ask in the spring of junior year for letters they’ll need in the fall.

“Remember the adage ‘the early bird gets the worm,’” said JP Figdor, a director at Synocate College Counseling. “Teachers and other recommenders will have many people asking them for letters of recommendation. Make sure your request is one of the first they hear.”

If you ask at the last minute, your teacher will have to rush to put together a letter. It probably won’t be their best work, and it won’t help your chances of winning the scholarship very much. Your teacher might even decline if they’re too busy.

To get the best letter you can — and stay in your teacher’s good graces — ask for your letter well ahead of your deadline.

3. Share all the details of the scholarship

Assuming your teacher agrees, your next step is to share everything they need to know about the scholarship. Send your recommender an email explaining:

  • What the scholarship is for
  • When the deadline is
  • How to submit their letter
  • What the letter should focus on

“Provide your recommender with the background information on the scholarship-granting organization, and make sure you share the eligibility requirements so that they know exactly what the committee is looking for,” advised Jessica Johnson, founder of The Scholarship Academy and recipient of $200,000 in scholarship money.

“The recommendation letter should be tailored to reflect the respective organization’s core values and mission,” she added.

You might not realize you can make suggestions for the recommendation letter for your scholarship. But most teachers appreciate any direction you can give.

4. Provide a thoughtful ‘brag sheet’ and resume

Even if you have a great relationship with your teacher, they might not remember your amazing thesis project or all the insightful comments you made in class. That’s why you should write up a “brag sheet” to remind them of your achievements, as well as share some of your goals.

Many high school counselors distribute brag sheets to students in junior or senior year. These worksheets typically pose a number of personal questions, like:

  • What’re some academic and personal achievements you’re most proud of?
  • What’s an experience that’s had a significant impact on you?
  • What three positive adjectives best describe you?
  • What’re your greatest strengths and weaknesses?
  • What major are you considering for college? What led you to choose that major?

If your counseling department doesn’t provide a template, you could write up your own. Sharing an updated resume with your GPA, extracurricular activities, and any awards you’ve received could help your recommender.

“Share very concrete bullet points about your accomplishments and challenge your recommender to write about … the qualities that would make you stand out from other applicants,” said Johnson.

Even if you have a close relationship with your recommender, you can’t expect them to remember everything about you. A brag sheet and resume will jog their memory so they can craft a letter unique to you.

5. Follow up with a thank-you note

Once your recommender submits their letter, don’t forget to thank them for their help. Show your appreciation with a thoughtful email or a handwritten thank-you card. And if you win the scholarship, make sure to let them know and thank them again for their assistance.

Their letter of recommendation for your scholarship could have been that special X-factor that put your application over the edge.

Letters of recommendation for scholarships play a big role

Many scholarship committees aren’t just interested in your grades and test scores. They’re curious about who you are and what role you play in your school and community.

“Letters of recommendation distinguish students and give [scholarship committees] the unique perspective needed,” said high school counselor Rachel Berlin. “Test scores and grades do not show committees the personal side of applicants — the letters of recommendation bring candidates to life.”

Effective letters can advocate for you in a powerful way. By choosing your recommender thoughtfully, you’ll be well on the way to winning scholarship money and reducing the cost of college.

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