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You and I, we need to have a chat. You see, every year I review scholarship applications. I don’t know if it is because of COVID-19 or if my sample of applications were uniquely inadequate, but it seems high school seniors are not putting enough attention on their letter of recommendation.Young girl reading a piece of paper.

To help you avoid being overlooked (like the applicants I had this year) you should read the blogs that our Scholarship Specialist, Allison, has written on this subject. She has a unique vantage point into the relationship between students and providers.

Before we get into specific tips, I think I should explain my situation. While in college, I received a scholarship for work I was doing my sophomore year. A donor set up the scholarship and provided the funding, but the university manages the application and selection process. Every year a handful of past recipients receive applications from the college. We select the one student we best feel will benefit from the scholarship. We get on a call and each argues why their choice should receive the scholarship.

Why is this background information important? First, it tells you who is responsible for choosing recipients. Some scholarships are “check-the-box” scholarships where if you meet the requirements by the deadline you “win” the scholarship. Others, like this one, I call a “state-your-case” scholarship. These scholarships require you to paint a picture of why you are the best of the bunch.

Here are the tips, which I am sure you will notice apply to more than just your letters of recommendation.

Select Who Will Write Letters

It’s important to think big picture before you request letters. Too often the applications I receive include a single type or recommendation. For example, all the letters for one applicant were from teachers. Sometimes this can’t be avoided, but with planning you can do better.

We will address this again later but your goal should be to give the reviewer a complete picture of you as an applicant. For this student, I knew a lot about her accomplishments in the classroom, but had no idea what happens after that. It also raised questions in my mind about her extracurricular activities. She claimed to be captain of a sports team and volunteered for four years with a local nonprofit. No letter from a coach, no letter from a supervisor or employee at the nonprofit, no community member to vouch for this! I don’t know the reason these were omitted, but I also knew I could not fight to award her the scholarship.

Your goal should be to paint a complete picture of your life and support the things you have accomplished. Start an Activities Resume, and if you have one, update it. Use it as a guide to who at X organization can vouch for you and your work.

Requesting Letters

Often students ask how many letters they should request. On average you’ll need three letters per application. To make this more manageable I suggest you hack the process. Start with identifying at least five people. Ask them to write a general letter recommending you for scholarships. In most cases you’ll be able to reuse this letter. You’ll want to tell them that you will need to ask them for specific letters later, that way you can make certain letters stand out by having the recommend you specifically for that scholarship.

When requesting, make sure you point out what you are looking for in the recommendation. Tell the person what traits or work you have done that would help tell your story.

Here is a list of items you’ll want to include with the letter.

  • An up-to-date Activities Resume
  • What the recommendation is for
  • Why you’re qualified
  • Relevant work habits, skills, and academic successes
  • Requested due date (give your recommender at least a week)

Submitting Letters

You’ve heard it before, but I’ll say it again, DON’T MISS THE DEADLINE! In our recent round we had over 50 applications that missed the deadline, each of these we delivered directly to the trash. It is also important to submit in the correct file type. We always get odd files and while it will not disqualify you outright it often means the reviewer does not have the ability to read your letter. A .pdf file is a good option if they do not specify, and most programs will let you export as a .pdf.

Hopefully my experience can help you avoid the mistakes I see on many applications. Remember to apply to as many scholarships as you are eligible and able. This will give you the best chance to get the help you need. And do your FAFSA, it is not too late.