April 7, 2014

Letters of Recommendation

Scholarship letters of recommendation show that people in your life respect your skills and accomplishments and are willing to say so in writing and sign their names. That’s actually quite wonderful. This page talks about how to obtain the best letters of recommendation you can in as painless a way as possible.

Scholarship Letters of Recommendation: Some Helpful Advice

Who Should You Ask?

First of all, the person who writes a recommendation for you should be someone who knows you relatively well. That doesn’t mean that only long-time associates qualify. It does mean that the recommender has had enough interaction with you to give a genuine assessment of your skills and achievements.

The people you choose to write recommendations must have the ability to write well. These letters are very influential in your case for a scholarship, and you need to be sure that your recommenders can translate their thoughts about you into writing. It may not always be possible to know how well people can write but, to the extent that you do know or can find out, try to select the best writers available to you.

It is also very important that your recommenders can be relied upon to produce the necessary letters in the right time frame. Again, there is no way to be sure on this point, but it’s sensible to avoid people who have the reputation of missing deadlines or being procrastinators.

Where do you find people to write scholarship letters of recommendation for you? Consider teachers in classes where you did well, athletic coaches, club advisors, volunteer work supervisors, employers, religious leaders, or friends of the family who are familiar with you and hold a position that lends credibility to the recommendation, such as the family’s attorney, your doctor, or a local businessman.

Analyze Your Need for Letters

Once you know which scholarships you will be applying for, review any directions for the letters of recommendation. Some applications will ask that the letters of recommendation address specific topics; others will simply ask for letters. For example, the Elks National Foundation requests two letters of recommendation. The first should be from a high school teacher and address issues of ability, work habits, leadership, personality, and integrity. The second should be from a member of the community and address participation in the community, leadership, and outstanding achievements. The goal of your review is to determine where you may be able to use the same letter of recommendation for multiple applications.

In some cases, you may be able to combine the requirements of various scholarships to develop a slightly more overall letter of recommendation outline. Clearly, you have to be sure that you do not attempt to create a laundry list letter outline that serves no purpose well. However, it is very helpful to reduce the number of individual, specifically targeted letters of recommendation required.

If you are able to combine letter requirements, you will have the opportunity to ask one person to write a recommendation letter that will be sent to multiple scholarship funds.

However, be sure that each letter of recommendation is addressed to a specific individual or at least to a specific scholarship fund. Your letter writer may be willing to allow you to reproduce and personalize his or her response then provide those letters back to the writer on plain paper. The writer can then copy the letters onto letterhead and sign them. In that way, you have met many scholarship requirements simply and effectively with the least inconvenience to your letter writer.

Requesting a Letter of Recommendation

First and foremost, please recognize that writing a letter of recommendation is not a simple task. You will be asking someone to work hard on a good letter that will represent you well. Approach your potential letter writers with a degree of humility and acknowledge upfront the commitment you are requesting and your appreciation for their help. Offer to make the job as easy as possible for them by doing some or all of the following things.

  • Provide all the information your letter writer will need. Make sure that he or she has a written explanation of the topics to be covered in the application.
  • Provide a list of your extracurricular activities.
  • Provide a copy of one of your college essays so the writer has a sense of your approach to the college application process and gains a bit more insight into your life.

Give your letter writers as much lead time as possible. It is very likely that some of your letter writers have been asked to provide recommendations for others as well. Asking and providing materials early gives you the best chance of getting your recommendation letter on time. Plus, if your letter writer subscribes to the “first in-first out” inventory system, you may get your letter even more quickly.

Check in with your letter writer at some point in the process to be sure he or she has everything needed. This check is both a supportive touch and also allows you to politely jog the writer’s memory and be sure your letter is in the works. Be sure to ask that the writer use official letterhead if possible.

After you receive the letter, write a note of appreciation. Writers of letters of recommendation agree to do so out of their own enthusiasm for students going on to college and their admirable interest in being supportive. Let your letter writers know that you appreciate their help.

Evaluating Your Letters of Recommendation

Review each letter you receive. Does the letter address the topics it needs to? Does the letter show strong support for you? Does the writer sound professional and well informed? Great! But what if…?

What if the letter does not address all of the necessary topics? This is tricky. If you know the letter writer well, you may be able to approach them, point out the problem, and ask them to add some content on that topic. If you are uncomfortable with asking for a revision, you need to seriously think about whether the letter is usable. Your decision may depend upon whether you have alternative letter writers that you can ask and how much time is left before the application needs to be submitted. In a pinch, send the letter. It would be far worse to fail to submit the correct number of recommendation letters.

What if there is some other problem with the letter? The support is lukewarm or the letter is not well written. Weigh the facts. If the letter is not supportive of you, look for another writer. If the contents won’t win a Pulitzer Prize, but the message of your worthiness for the scholarship comes across, it’s probably okay.


Treat those signed scholarship letters of recommendation like the treasures that they are. Place them immediately into plastic covers and attach them into your three-ring binder. That way you know where they are, and they have multiple forms of protection.

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