6 Ways to Get Great Scholarship Recommendation Letters

Ask early and match the recommender to the scholarship to ensure great recommendation letters.

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Applicants should meet with potential references to explain why they want to go to law school.
Applicants should meet with potential references to explain why they want to go to law school.

It's officially March, which means there are roughly two weeks of winter remaining and two months of the school year left to go—and not long before you'll be packing up your car and heading to college, possibly for the first time in your life. These next few months are going to fly by, which means you should start checking things off your college to-do list now.

Since we're also in prime scholarship season, we suggest that searching and applying for scholarships be the first thing you do to get ready for college. That way you can rest easy knowing that your degree won't come with a shockingly high student loan bill. And because your teachers, advisers, and mentors will likely get many requests for letters of recommendation, now's the time to approach them if you want a high-quality, timely response. Follow these tips to successfully solicit recommendations.

[Learn more about finding scholarships.]

1. Avoid relatives: If you're all set to ask your favorite auntie to transfer her bragging into a written letter of recommendation, we implore you—don't! Though she may be your biggest fan, you need someone who will be taken seriously, and scholarship evaluators will likely skip over letters from parents or relatives. Instead, plan on asking a trusted teacher or mentor.

2. Think about the subject matter: Though getting a recommendation from a teacher is always better than asking your best friend to write one for you, we suggest you don't just turn to your favorite teacher for a generic letter.

Is the scholarship given by your church or place of worship? Think about asking your youth director to write one for you. If the scholarship rewards applicants for their volunteer work, turn to a mentor or adviser at one of the organizations where you volunteer. The same goes for a scholarship geared specifically toward a certain subject matter or major: Ask a teacher whose expertise lies in the same field.

[Make a financial aid to-do list with these tips.]

Picking a person who can speak to your abilities for the specific scholarship for which you're applying will result in a higher quality, more meaningful letter of recommendation.

3. Don't wait until the last minute: Teachers are busy, especially in the spring! A lot of work has to get done before the end of the school year rolls around, and your scholarship letter of recommendation will not exactly be a teacher's highest priority, especially if there are a hundred other students asking for one, too.

Ask as early as possible. By giving your teacher or adviser plenty of time to write, you'll be more likely to get a letter that is well thought out, organized, and professional—not to mention handed in on time.

4. Ask nicely: This goes hand-in-hand with not waiting until the last minute. If you're rude, ungrateful or if you ask for a letter the day before it's due, the person you ask is going to be a lot less willing to do you this favor, let alone write nice things about you. If you don't mind your Ps and Qs, you could be flat out rejected or end up with a lousy letter, both things best to avoid.

[Look for these qualities in your recommenders.]

5. Share the nitty gritty details: Once you find the perfect person to ask, make sure you provide all of the important details—and we do mean all of them. That includes: your full name (don't assume that your favorite teacher knows your last name, as many have hundreds of students they teach daily); your complete contact information; past classes in which you were enrolled, and/or a brief reminder of the history of your relationship; the focus of the scholarship and what you'd like them to focus on in their letter; and instructions for what needs to be done with the letter, such as whether they should send it back to you, or mail it directly to the scholarship committee.

6. Say thank you: In fact, we recommend thanking your recommender formally, preferably with a handwritten note. You'll likely apply to multiple scholarships over the next couple months, and there's a strong possibility that you'll have to ask this person for another letter of recommendation—if not for a scholarship, than possibly for college applications. It's always best to stay on his or her good side!

Michelle Showalter joined Scholarship America in 2007 and is an alumna of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.