How to Get a Great Letter of Recommendation

Letter of RecommendationDid you know that most scholarship applications require two or more recommendation letters?

Recommendation letters—from people who know you and your work well—give the scholarship committee a glimpse into your strengths, your qualities, your personality, and your accomplishments. With these letters in hand, the committee will decide which among the many candidates will receive their scholarship. Letters of recommendation are a great way of getting the committee’s attention, telling them who you are, and why they should take you seriously.

Before you ask just anyone for a recommendation letter, consider who might be the most appropriate people to share their knowledge and opinions of you with the scholarship committee. To state the obvious, they should not be family members. They should, however, be people you respect and have a good rapport with, people who know you and your abilities well enough to write objectively about your qualifications to receive the scholarship. It’s also important to choose people who can write a well-thought-out recommendation highlighting your best personal and academic qualities. We also suggest that your recommenders have documented expertise in the field the scholarship is in.

Once you’ve found your best recommenders, make sure they have everything they need to give you the clearest, most focused recommendation letters they can. Don’t be tempted to write the letter yourself and have your recommenders sign it. Scholarship committees want to hear from the people who know you and your scholastic achievements, and often require that the letters go directly to them without your reading them. You should give your recommenders:

  • Information about the scholarship purpose, requirements, and sponsor
  • A copy of all scholarship application materials including your essay and other recommendation letters if you have them
  • The name and address the letter should be sent to
  • The suggested letter format (see below)
  • What information the letter should contain (see below)
  • A good amount of time to write the letter, at least a month
  • A clear deadline and friendly reminder if needed
  • Information about the rules for submitting the letter to the scholarship committee
  • An addressed, stamped envelope if needed
  • Anything else that will make the process easier for your recommender (i.e., a list of important facts including your experience, work descriptions, projects completed, accomplishments or achievements, length of time you’ve know each other or worked for the organization, etc.)

The letter itself should meet a few formatting standards and contain specific information that most scholarship committees want to know. Here are a few suggestions that we’ve come across that may help your letter stand out. The letter should:

  • Be one or two single-spaced pages, typed on letterhead, and dated
  • Be directed to the specific scholarship committee it’s going to, not “to whom it may concern.” Use the name of the committee chairperson if you have it.
  • Note how long and in what capacity your recommender knows you
  • Mention the specific scholarship in the body of the letter
  • Address specific criteria for this scholarship
  • Include specific anecdotes or incidents that show the recommender knows you well
  • Put you in the larger context of your recommender’s experience with students or others
  • Provide current examples of your activities in the scholarship field
  • Support your scholarship essay and application materials
  • Describe why you are a good match for this scholarship
  • Avoid summarizing other application materials
  • Use your recommender’s full title on signature line

Recommendation letters are an integral part of your scholarship application, and well-written, thoughtful recommendation letters are a must. Be sure to individually and formally thank your recommenders for taking the considerable time and effort required to help you shine in front of the committee and increase your chances of landing that coveted scholarship.

The above recommendations are put forward as the best practices to follow. However, when you’re applying for dozens of scholarships, it would be a burden to request customized individual letters for every scholarship. Another alternative is to have your recommendation letters be specific to you, yet generic enough to be reused. This means asking your recommenders to write a letter without the name and address of the scholarship committee and the name of the scholarship. In this case, addressing the letter “To Whom It May Concern” is perfectly acceptable. We also suggest that you have 6 to 12 people write letters of recommendation. This permits you to select the top 2 or 3 that are the best match for a particular scholarship.

We think summer is the best time to ask for letters of recommendation. Why? Because people are relaxed, have more free time and vacations, and are generally less busy at work. Now is the perfect time to write down a list of people you can ask and pull together the information they’ll need to write an awesome letter on your behalf. This way, you’ll be ready to make your requests in June.

If you need help getting great recommendation letters (or other documents for your Scholarship Portfolio), check out our Scholarship Summer Camp starting on June 24th.

Do you have letters of recommendation? If you do, we’d love to hear about your experience and any advice you can share on how you got great letters!