Strong letters of recommendation play an important role in the scholarship selection process. Recommendation letters explain why the applicant is extraordinary and deserving of a scholarship. Letters also attest to moral character and help scholarship selection committees screen out students whose conduct might embarrass or disappoint the benefactor.
Despite intense competition, scholarships are worth pursuing to offset the cost of college; almost $6 billion of scholarship aid is annually awarded to qualified students, according to The College Board.
Even if you’re well acquainted with a student, ask the student for an academic transcript so you can speak with authority about the student’s cognitive abilities and collegiate potential.
Cornell University suggests that individuals writing a letter of recommendation should also:
- review the student’s resume,
- review examples of the student’s school work,
- and review a description of the scholarship opportunities that the student is seeking.
Ask about deadlines and give yourself plenty of time to write a quality letter.
Create an Outline
A scholarship application is generally one to two pages in length, with:
- a salutation,
- a paragraph noting your connection to the student, three to five paragraphs extolling the student’s achievements and virtues,
- a paragraph personally endorsing the student, and your contact information and signature.
Identify which of the student’s many wonderful qualities to highlight. Choose attributes that best align with the preferences of the scholarship organization.
The Gates Millennium Scholars program for high-performing culturally diverse students requests recommendation letters that describe the student’s leadership achievements in extracurricular or community activities.
Write an Engaging Letter
- Be specific - Avoid sweeping generalities when depicting the student.
- Provide detail - Instead of simply stating that the student is a hard worker, emphasize how the student maintained a high GPA while working a part-time job, volunteering at the homeless shelter, and starring in the school play, for example.
- Speak to character - Include specific information that offers insight into the student’s character.
- Enthusiasm - The tone of the letter should be enthusiastic and inspirational, with mention of adversity the student has overcome.
The National Federation of State High School Associations suggests that coaches writing a letter of recommendation may want to mention a situation in which the student stood up to peer pressure and chose the ethical course of action.
Submit the Letter Promptly
Timeliness is crucial in the scholarship application process. Failing to submit the letter by the deadline can greatly diminish the student’s chances of receiving a scholarship. No matter how stellar, incomplete applications aren’t likely to be considered.
Take your responsibility seriously, and be a good role model for the student by making the letter a priority. Follow the scholarship instructions for submission; some organizations prefer letters to be mailed, while others want letters uploaded to a specified website.
- Check your work - Proof your letter carefully and consider asking a colleague to review it as well. A professionally written letter strengthens your credibility.
- Professional letter head - Use your school or agency’s letter head rather than personal stationary unless you’re writing a character reference for a family member.
- Be objective - Generally, scholarship agencies prefer recommendations letters from professionals such as principals, teachers, coaches, bosses and guidance counselors, because they tend to be more objective than friends and relatives.
- Big Future by the College Board: Scholarship Search
- Cornell University: Obtaining Letters of Recommendation
- National Federation of State High School Associations: Hey Coach: Would You Write Me a Letter of Recommendation?
- Winning Scholarships for College: Third Edition: An Insider's Guide; Marianne Ragins
Dr. Mary Dowd is a dean of students whose job includes student conduct, leading the behavioral consultation team, crisis response, retention and the working with the veterans resource center. She enjoys helping parents and students solve problems through advising, teaching and writing online articles that appear on many sites. Dr. Dowd also contributes to scholarly books and journal articles.