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Duke University
Duke University
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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


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How to Get a Strong Recommendation Letter for Scholarships 

Just as admissions officers have to find ways to distinguish one student from the next, scholarship committees have to select winners from among thousands of talented applicants. Because most scholarship organizations provide rewards based on academics, achievements, or extracurriculars, it’s only logical that committees would seek additional information about a student’s character and interests. The best recommendation letters for scholarships provide valuable information about students that can’t be gleaned from grades and test scores alone. Keep reading for tips on getting a strong letter of recommendation so you can maximize your funding for college. 


Do You Need a Recommendation Letter for Scholarships? 


As a college-bound student, you probably know that recommendation letters are an essential element of any applicant profile. However, you might not realize that many scholarship programs also require you to provide a recommendation letter as part of the application process. Decision committees are looking for reasons to choose one student over another, and an effective scholarship recommendation letter provides the awarding institution with valuable information about a student’s character, values, interests, and achievements.


Not all scholarships require recommendation letters. For example, students don’t need a letter of recommendation to apply for the Unigo I Have a Dream Scholarship. On the other hand, students do need their high school official’s written recommendation to apply for the National Merit Scholarship and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation award. That said, it’s important to apply for funding from a variety of programs and opportunities, so start your search early and be prepared to ask for a recommendation as part of your process.


How to Ask for a Scholarship Recommendation Letter


As we mentioned above, if you’re planning to apply for scholarships, then the odds are good that you’ll need at least one recommendation letter from a teacher or other adult in your life. Unfortunately, many students make the mistake of asking for letters too late, or not providing recommendation writers with the information they need. It’s important to keep a few key items in mind when preparing to ask for a letter of recommendation.


Who to Ask for a Recommendation


While individual scholarship programs will have specific requirements for recommendations, most letters are written by teachers, professors, or school counselors. In some cases, an employer or athletics coach may be an acceptable recommender. Scholarship programs will give guidance around who you can tap to write your recommendation as well as if a particular type of recommendation is required, for example an arts scholarship might require a recommendation from your dance instructor while an English teacher might recommend you for a Writing scholarship. When in doubt, choose a writer who has known you for a long time, believes in you as a student, and can speak intelligently about your goals and relevant achievements. 


If you want an extra edge in the scholarship competition, seek out a recommendation from a teacher who also knows you in an extracurricular context. For example, you could ask your English teacher who also serves as your faculty advisor on the school paper, or your biology instructor who happens to coach you on the soccer team. Because they know you both inside and outside the classroom, they can write about you in a way that’s more well-rounded, informative, and overall more compelling. 

How to Ask for a Recommendation


It’s important to remember that your teachers and coaches aren’t obligated to provide you with a scholarship recommendation letter. If you want them to do this favor, be sure to ask politely. While email is an acceptable option for people you don’t see regularly, asking for a recommendation in person is generally regarded as the more appropriate option. If you do opt to contact someone via email, be sure to include a clear subject line and a friendly greeting before making your request. Your email should also include any important information, such as topics to be covered in the letter and the deadline by which it needs to be submitted. 


It’s important to make a good impression on the people you plan to ask for recommendations. While you should of course strive to have good relationships with all your teachers and coaches, it’s worth going above and beyond to form a personal connection with those who you plan to ask for scholarship letters. For example, you could stay after class a few times to discuss your college plans or ask them to share an experience from their own college application journey.


Additionally, students should take care to include all the information the recommender needs to craft an effective letter. Many students opt to provide teachers with brag sheets, or CVs that include any academic and extracurricular activities that are relevant to the scholarship in question. After all, your chemistry teacher might not know that you spend time interning at a local laboratory on summer breaks. Students should also include information relevant to the scholarship, such as letter length requirements and deadlines for submission.


Occasionally, a teacher or coach may decline to provide you with a letter. There are various reasons this could happen, such as if the person doesn’t know you well enough or is already busy writing recommendations for other students. If you hear a no from someone, avoid asking for explanations or pushing them to reconsider. Instead, choose another authority figure to ask.


When to Ask for a Recommendation


According to the Wall Street Journal, some high school teachers write recommendation letters for 50 or more applicants each year. With that in mind, students should make their requests early if they don’t want to get lost in the shuffle or have to go with their second choice. Remember, teachers aren’t paid for the time spent writing recommendations, and they often have to fit this task in among other responsibilities like grading essays and planning lessons or even in their personal time. For best results, ask for a letter at least a month in advance, so teachers and counselors have plenty of time to gather information and write the recommendation. 


To make sure you receive your recommendation letters for scholarships, follow up with the teacher a week or so before the due date. And of course you should send a thank-you note after receiving the finished recommendation.

What a Letter Should Include


The most effective recommendation letters for scholarships should do more than rehash your grades and academic accomplishments; this is especially true if the scholarship is non-academic, such as one for sports or volunteering. To make the right impression on scholarship committees, letters should include insight into your character and aspirations. Here are the key components for an effective letter of recommendation:


  • Recommender’s relationship with the student, including how long they’ve known each other
  • Student’s academic accomplishments and how they participate in the classroom (if an academic scholarship)
  • Student’s personal qualities, including work ethic and character, especially as it relates to the specific scholarship (i.e. a scholarship for students overcoming adversity should highlight this aspect of their character)
  • Specific examples of the student’s achievements, especially as it relates to the specific scholarship


By choosing the right teacher or authority figure to ask for a recommendation, and providing them with comprehensive information about your academic and extracurricular achievements, you can boost your odds of receiving a letter that makes the right impression on a scholarship committee.


Looking for tips on extracurricular excellence? At CollegeVine, we created a free chancing engine that considers an array of factors, including extracurriculars, academics, test scores, and more to give you insight into your odds of gaining acceptance to your dream school. Use our Chancing Calculator to assess your odds of getting into your dream college and then take steps to improve your chances. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get a jumpstart on your college strategy!

Short Bio
A graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC, April Maguire taught freshman composition while earning her degree. Over the years, she has worked as a writer, editor, tutor, and content manager. Currently, she operates a freelance writing business and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their three rowdy cats.