We know high school students are extremely busy. Between homework, after-school activities, and everything that comes along with applying to college, you barely have a moment to breathe, let alone research and apply for scholarships. But it's worth it. The more free money you get for college now, the less you have to pay back in student loans later.
It's imperative that you start early, not only to save yourself the stress that often comes along with procrastination, but also because as the year progresses, you won't be the only one with a huge workload. Your teachers and advisers—the very people you'll rely on for letters of recommendation for scholarship and college applications —will be busy with dozens of recommendations, on top of grading papers and projects and wrapping up the year.
Above all the advice I'm about to give you on how to ask for a letter of recommendation for a scholarship application, make sure you at least heed this: Ask early, and ask nicely. Your teachers, mentors, boss, clergy, or whomever else you decide to ask do not have to say yes to you. If you don't give them enough time—and especially if you don't ask nicely—they may turn you down.
Follow the rest of these guidelines, and you'll be all but guaranteed a fantastic letter of recommendation, which will hopefully lead to a nice-sized check toward your future.
Who should I ask? Pay attention to the scholarship focus (community service, academics, sports, etc.), and ask the person who knows you the best regarding this area of your life. If the scholarship is searching for someone who has given back to the community, don't go straight to your math teacher for a recommendation—unless of course he or she also happens to be the adviser of the high school volunteer club and you've been an active member.
[Find out how to turn your community service into college cash.]
Is there anyone who's off limits? Yes. Don't ask relatives or friends to write you a letter of recommendation. Even if they are a witness to your fantastic tennis abilities, they're almost always biased. Scholarship evaluators won't take these letters seriously and your application could be thrown out.
Just how early should I ask? Give your recommender five to six weeks to write the letter. The more time you give your recommender, the better your letter will be. They'll be less rushed, more thoughtful, and more interested in sitting down to brag about you when they don't have a million things going on. As soon as you decide to apply for a certain scholarship, think critically about who you're going to ask, and then ask that person immediately—preferably five or six weeks before the scholarship deadline.
[Learn 4 hints to avoid missing scholarship deadlines.]
How should I go about asking someone? Even if you see this person on a daily or weekly basis, it's important that you send a formal, written request via E-mail (if it's been a few months since you've been in contact, consider giving him or her a heads-up in person that you'll be E-mailing the request). Include the instructions for completing your recommendation, along with the details I list below. When all the information is in one place like this, it is easier to save. Many E-mail programs allow users to flag messages and set reminders; if your recommenders choose to use these features, they'll have everything in one place when they're ready to sit down and write.
What information should I provide in my E-mail? The more information you give your recommender, the better. Clergy, teachers, and school staff see hundreds of people every week. Even if you've had a great relationship with that person, do not assume that they'll remember everything about you. In your E-mail, include the following information:
• Your full name
• The past classes in which you were enrolled with the teacher, or, if you're not asking a teacher, a brief reminder of your history with the person
• Why you need a letter of recommendation
• The focus of the scholarship and what the letter should focus on (i.e., your involvement with your church, your academic performance in a class, your experience in the theater department)
• Instructions on what needs to be done with the letter. Ask them to write the letter on formal letterhead, and tell them whether to give the letter to you or mail it. If it's the latter, provide the address along with an envelope and a stamp for their convenience.
If they haven't responded, when should I follow up? After a few weeks, you'll want to follow up to see what the status is of your letter, especially if you haven't received a reply. Though you don't want to be rude, you do have a right to know whether or not they are planning to write you a letter. It doesn't hurt to ask nicely if they've considered writing you a recommendation. They may have missed your E-mail or it may have slipped their mind. Above all, don't let any of these eventualities stop you from applying for a scholarship. If they won't or can't write you a letter, you still have time to ask someone else.
Is there anything else I need to do? Don't forget to say "thank you!" After the letter and your application have been mailed, be sure to send your recommenders a formal thank you note. If you're lucky enough to receive the scholarship, make sure you tell them and thank them again, either in person or with a card. They'll be thrilled to know that they helped you receive money toward college.
Michelle Showalter joined Scholarship America in 2007 and is an alumna of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.