Letters of Recommendation - Common Questions

Personal information, essays, transcripts - these are all fairly standard components of the scholarship process and the college application procedure. Another common factor, and one that you may not know much about, is the letter of recommendation. Many scholarship providers and admissions officers will request that you submit one or more letters of recommendation to apply for their scholarships or for entrance to their school. As a starting point for gathering those necessary letters, here is the 'who, what, where, when and why' of recommendations:

Who should you get a letter of recommendation from?

When you find out you need a letter of recommendation, you may be tempted to run to a family member (How could your grandma ever say anything bad about you??) or a friend, but your first choice should probably be a teacher, employer or some other non-personal acquaintance. Although having a letter of recommendation from a family member or friend is not a bad thing, most scholarship providers and educational institutions prefer that you submit at least one letter from someone who you are not emotionally tied to, as this person will be able to write more objectively and honestly about your qualifications and strengths.

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When asking people to write you a letter of recommendation, ask them if they can write you a good letter of recommendation. You should pick people who can not only write well, but write well about you. Choose people who are relevant to the sponsor's goals. For example, ask a science teacher to write a letter of recommendation for a science scholarship, not your English teacher. All else being equal, it is better to ask someone who has known your longer and who is more impressed by your qualifications.

What should your letter of recommendation say?

Sometimes a scholarship provider or college admission department will tell you what topics your letter(s) of recommendation should cover. When they don't, it's probably best to have the letter writer talk about your strengths, his/her relationship to you, and why he/she feels you would be deserving of the scholarship or admission. Giving concrete examples of experiences is the most important element of a letter. The writer can even provide examples of challenges he/she has seen you overcome, significant achievements you have made, and initiative you have taken. The letter of recommendation should be typed, but signed by the letter writer. Also, it is important that you give the person who is writing the letter for you plenty of time to complete it. If he or she feels rushed, the letter of recommendation might not be as well thought out as you might expect.

Where should you tell your acquaintance to send the letter of recommendation?

The rules and procedures for each college and for each scholarship program will vary, so be sure to carefully read the application form and all instructions about how to send in your letters of recommendation. Some colleges and scholarship committees prefer that the letter writer send in the letter of recommendation separately from the application packet, to ensure that the student did not manufacture his/her own letter. Others prefer that you include the letter(s) of recommendation with the application packet so they do not have to worry about having incomplete application packets, but they may require you to submit the letter inside a sealed, signed envelope to ensure privacy and validity. Again, the rules vary, so be sure to pay attention to the fine print when trying to find out where to send in your letter(s) of recommendation.

When do you ask for a letter of recommendation?

If you choose your teacher to be a writer of the letter for your application you should manage your time wisely, moreover, you should manage your teachers’ time also. Here is what one of them says: “I've been teaching for something like 12 years now -- five years in my present position -- and as each year ticks by and more and more graduating seniors ask me to endorse them for jobs and graduate school apps. A handful of them come back to me asking for them again and again as they apply for new jobs or new programs, and I sometimes wonder: How many of these letters will I write in my lifetime? As earnest as I am about these students' talents, at what point do I cross the threshold and become a sort of "factory," mass producing them? A lot of requests generally come in at the same time of the year, in one big glob...and since I spend a lot of time composing or recomposing them, I wonder at what point does it become a workload issue?” You really don’t want your request to get lost in the “one big glob”, do you?

Why do you need to submit a letter of recommendation?

Most scholarship providers and college admission offices want some outside perspective about the student who is applying for their scholarship or admission to their school. Before you get annoyed because a letter of recommendation is another thing you have to worry about, think about the positives. You may be able to use that letter over and over again. Not only can you use it for other scholarships you are going to apply for, you may also be able to use it for college admission, internship positions, and job opportunities. Letters of recommendation are a great way to showcase your talents and abilities for scholarship providers and admissions officers. An outside perspective that acknowledges your accomplishments and strengths can go a long way toward convincing an organization that you are worthy of admission or deserving of their scholarship dollars. It also gives you a chance to relax for a second and stop being cheerleader to yourself just with this part of your application.

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