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Letters of Recommendation: Advice for Scholarship Applicants May 22, 2014

I confess that I’m a bit of a collector. In fact, for many years, my mother believed that I’d collect just about anything: coins, stamps, baseball cards, rocks, pencils, or used bubblegum. (Okay, maybe not used bubblegum). One of my most prized collections, however, is an ever growing stack of letters of recommendation. I’ve asked for one from nearly every employer I’ve ever had as well as a few coworkers and fellow volunteers. Most are of the fairly general type declaring that I’m a hard worker and get along well with others. These are fine if you’re looking for a job, but when it comes to applying for scholarships, something else may be in order.

There are, I discovered, two primary considerations when it comes to requesting recommendations of this variety. The first is, “Who do I know who is willing and able to write a letter in keeping with the theme of the scholarship?” While there are plenty of scholarships which go un-awarded each year, there are also many which are flooded with applications. Sorting out the genuine contenders can be a challenge – and a recommendation that highlights your compatibility with the scholarship theme may go a long way towards landing your application at the top of the list.

What does compatibility look like? To begin with, if you’re applying for a scholarship that’s awarded on the basis of volunteer activity, you may want to ask your volunteer supervisor for a letter… not your employer. The person who oversees your selfless efforts will be in a much better position to share about your passionate dedication to the cause than someone who only sees how you behave when you’re receiving a paycheck. Applying for a scholarship that’s only awarded to women of high character? Ask another woman familiar with your personal habits to write the recommendation. Looking to make it to the top of a stack of academic achievers? Talk to a teacher who has watched you excel.

The second consideration is, “How many people should I ask?” This can be tricky and it tripped me up the first time around. The application asked for two references… so I asked two friends to write letters. What quickly became apparent was that not all recommendations are created equal. While a person may be in an excellent position to declare your superiority, they may not be eloquent enough to make a good case for your acceptance. Nor will everyone you ask have the time to write a recommendation or, for that matter, have the letter written enough in advance of the application deadline for it to prove useful.

In this case, it’s better to ask for too many letters and have to choose a couple of your favorites than to miss out on an opportunity because the best candidates were unavailable or lacked the necessary literary skill. Personally, I suggest that if you need two letters, you start by talking with three potential letter writers. (It doesn’t hurt to have more in reserve, but you may need their help in the future, so don’t exhaust all of your options at once.) This gives you some flexibility and should ensure that you get the type of letters you’re looking for.

Finally, make sure to provide everyone who agrees to write a letter for you with appropriate guidelines. Explain the type of scholarship you’re applying for and what the selection committee is looking for in a candidate. If certain aspects of your life, character, or achievement need to be highlighted, provide that information to your letter writers in a timely manner.

While I can’t guarantee that following these rules will always result in your receiving scholarships, I can say with reasonable certainty that they will help your applications to stand out. And when they do, your chances of being a winner are definitely improved!


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