Getting into college is quite the process. And even once you get the acceptance letter you’ve been waiting for, it seems that process has only begun. Next comes the financial aid forms, the questions about student loans and work study and a hundred other things that you probably never thought of.
Instead of jumping immediately into the student loan world – and graduating with huge debt before you even get a job – students often turn to scholarships, which offer money for college that you don’t have to pay back.
In order to get a scholarship, however, you need to apply – and for most programs, that means writing an essay and collecting letters of recommendation from people who can explain to the scholarship committees why you are the best candidate for that award.
Even though you won’t be the person writing the letter, it’s critical that you lead and direct that process – which starts before anyone writes anything. This will help set you apart from other applicants and help you increase your chance of winning the scholarship.
Choose The Right People
While your first instinct may be to ask your best friend, significant other, or even your parents to write your letter of recommendation, this is a bad idea. All of those people will most certainly write you a glowing review, and the reviewers expect that, so they don’t take those letters as seriously. You want every single letter to count in your favor, so the people you choose to recommend you matters a great deal.
Other students might be inclined to ask a prominent businessman, politician, or other well-known name to recommend them. The problem with this is that unless that person knows you well, their letter won’t help you as much either.
The best people to choose for a letter of recommendation are those who know you well and can still speak to aspects of your professionalism and suitability for the scholarship. Some ideas would include teachers who know you well, not merely a tenured professor who doesn’t have any first-hand experience with you as a person. Other good people to ask would include your priest, rabbi, pastor or imam if you are actively religious, a former boss who can attest to your work ethic and dedication, or your supervisor on any volunteering you’ve done. You want someone who they know can intelligently speak about your professional side without the bias of being related to you or personally involved with you.
Make Sure They Know What to Do
While the people listed above may have done a letter of recommendation before, it’s important that you make sure they understand the program you’re applying to. The letters should be tailored to you personally and what you’re applying for, so if the person asks you to tell them what to write, don’t take it as a sign of laziness, take it as the perfect chance to explain exactly what you need.
Don’t be afraid to be clear about the program’s requirements, and talk to them about the organization offering the scholarship too. Each scholarship committee has values that they believe in and want their winners to embody, and if your letters of recommendation speak to those values, that can only help you.
Give Them Plenty of Time
You’ll also want to make your timeline clear as well. Make sure you don’t simply tell them the package deadline; they may take that to mean you don’t need them to get the letter back to you until then. If you’ve created a schedule for your scholarship applications, then you should be able to give them a deadline to have the letter back to you that offers plenty of time for them to write it and plenty of time for you to submit it to the committee. That means making sure you start the application process far earlier than you think you need to.
Keep in mind that the people you’re asking also probably have jobs, families, and other obligations too. Once you’ve agreed on a date for them to have the letter back to you, don’t pester them constantly to see if they’re finished. If you’ve come up about a week before your agreed-upon deadline, and you haven’t received the letter or heard from them, go ahead and contact them, and ask politely if there’s anything else they need from you. That has the effect of reminding them to finish it or send it to you, without being confrontational and still respecting their time.
Give Them a List to Refer To
When you provide them with the information needed to write your letter of recommendation, include a list of specific achievements, even if they are already aware of some of them. It will help refresh their memory, but will also provide more detail they can refer to as they write. In addition, any additional things you’ve accomplished that they aren’t aware of can be mentioned as well.
When you’re preparing this list for them, don’t be tempted to include every award, every contest, every top grade. Stick to the accomplishments and key achievements that you think the scholarship committee for that program will be most interested in. Lastly, make sure that they have the information they need before they start writing. Be prepared to provide that to them as soon as they agree to write your letter.
This might seem like a no-brainer, but in the hubbub and chaos of getting ready for college, sometimes the little things get missed. This, however, is one ‘little thing’ that isn’t so little. Whoever agrees to write you a letter of recommendation for a scholarship is taking time out of their own schedules and doing so because they believe in your abilities and your future. Don’t repay that faith by being ungrateful or rude. Take the time to offer a genuine thank you; send a formal card or personalized thank-you note. A quick text is a bit too casual for this; it’s best to err on the side of formal in this case.
The letter of recommendation is one facet of your scholarship application where you’re dependent on the work of someone else. Don’t let that be the reason why your package fails to net you that coveted scholarship. Approach the letter process like a professional, and you’ll have a letter that you’ll be proud to send on.