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How to Get a Letter of Recommendation for Scholarship Applications


Raise your scholarship application’s profile with the right letter of recommendation!

Over the next six months, colleges, universities, and private foundations will hand out billions of dollars in scholarships to deserving students. Many of these groups will be hit with hundreds of applications for only a small number of scholarships. This leaves plenty of qualified students to scramble to find the money that they need for school. In a world where competition for higher education is fierce, what can be done to make your application stand out?

Your first instinct may be to bulk up your resume: improve your grades, add some volunteer work, or inflate your awards/achievements. Unfortunately, there’s only so far that you can go before your resume starts to raise eyebrows. While this avenue of differentiation may be the least effective, there is one way to raise the visibility of your application and increase your chances of getting the money you need for school: stellar letters of recommendation.

Getting the right letter of recommendation takes more than just asking the first three people that you run into. Most applications allow up to three letters of recommendation. Therefore, you need to strategize about the best people to approach.

Generally speaking, there are three types of letters of recommendation that you will want to include in your application.

1. A Letter From Someone Who Saw You Improve

For many applicants, the first person they ask is a teacher or professor in whose class they excelled. The theory is that this instructor saw the student at their very best, and can write an excellent letter of recommendation about how amazing that student is. This is a natural instinct, but it is usually wrong.

Scholarship review boards like to see students persevere through difficult challenges. A student who only earned A’s in their classes may not know how to react to adversity and may respond poorly to their first B on a post-secondary level assignment. On the other hand, a student who struggled, yet worked hard to pull out a C is a much more attractive story. This demonstrates the student’s understanding that grades don’t always come easy. However, with enough effort, good things can happen.

When giving a scholarship, especially a large one, the reviewer wants to believe that the applicant will put the money to good use by finishing the semester/year/degree. Students who have never faced real hardship are at risk of burning out in post-secondary. Thus, they represent a higher risk. For this reason, don’t be afraid to let the reviewers see your struggles. As long as the recommender can highlight your victories as well.

2. A Letter From Someone Who’s Known You A Long Time

It can take years to develop character traits like honesty, integrity, confidence, and the desire to see a project through to the end. A teacher or professor who’s known you for a semester doesn’t have enough information to make an authoritative statement about your character the way that someone who’s known you for a decade can.

A letter of recommendation that focuses on your character tells the reviewers about the person who will represent their organization or post-secondary institution. This insight goes well beyond what they can read from your test scores and extracurriculars. Additionally, it supplements areas of your application that seem weak. Because you will be a representative of the organization that gives you funding, they have an interest in vetting their applicants for potential issues. A testimony about your honesty and integrity helps reviewers feel confident that you won’t be expelled from school for cheating. Meanwhile, a letter about your strength and resilience lets them know that you won’t crumble under pressure.

However, just knowing you for a long time is not enough to make this letter effective. A family friend who’s known you since birth is less credible than a basketball coach that you’ve known for five years. When looking for someone, seek out coaches, religious leaders, people at places you’ve volunteered, or scout leaders.

3. A Letter From Someone Who Saw You Lead

Very few people are born leaders. For most, leadership is a skill that must be learned over time, through trial and error, and years of experience. If you took on a leadership role in high school or in your post-secondary journey, emphasize that role as a point of differentiation from your peers.

This letter is important because it shows several character traits that extend past academics. Leaders have a strong worth ethic, a commitment to excellence, the ability to mediate conflict, organizational experience, and other skills that you can’t learn from reading a book.

Leadership roles don’t have to be large to have an impact. Something as small as taking the lead in a group project is enough to set you apart from many applications. Of course, the more intensive the experience, the better. The person who writes this letter can come from several different parts of your personal or academic life. This is the perfect time to ask your boss or supervisor at the place you volunteer(ed).

As the number of students going to post-secondary increases every year, so does the number of students applying for scholarships. To increase your chances of securing financial aid, strengthen your application with a strategically chosen letter of recommendation. Doing so will help draw attention to your submission. This will raise the profile of your application.

Are you looking for more information? Learn about Securing Letters of Recommendation next!