Get Scholarships with the Perfect Recommendation Letter

April 4, 2019
Maya Mundell

Oftentimes students don’t realize how important recommendation letters are for earning scholarships and other types of student funding. Be assured that a great recommendation can go a long way and make all the difference.

For the sake of showing you how much weight and importance a good recommendation letter can carry, I’m displaying an email that was sent to me after being accepted into a master’s degree program. The program director sent the email in response to my request for more financial aid. The relevant line is bolded. (Feel free to ignore the rest of the email for right now; I’ll get back to the rest a little later.) “Dear Ms. Mundell,   Congratulations on your admission to MAPSS!  We were very impressed by your performance at Cornell, by the unusual interest of the questions you outlined in your statement , and by the superlative letter you earned from Mary Crawd .  Our program has historically done extremely well with field-switchers like yourself, transitioning from Near Eastern Studies to the graduate literatures in Anthropology.  And as you recognize, we have some outstanding Anthro faculty who share many of your research interests, including Stephen Palmie. Although it would ordinarily be impossible to increase your award – with full tuition the only higher grant, something we award to just the top 5% of our entering students – there may yet be a possibility of doing so, by drawing on a special fund restricted to University-designated minority applicants.   Those funds are also distributed on an exceptionally competitive basis, but I would be prepared to lobby the Dean on your behalf.  If you happen to have received any competing funded offers, please forward them as they will help me make my case.   I realize that you have some difficult choices ahead, and I would be happy to talk about them with you.  Please feel free to give me a call in the office any day this week.  My number is listed below.” Name changed for confidentiality   Clearly, the “superlative” letter played an important role in swaying the university’s decision to accept me. But more importantly, the letter was a key factor that led the university to offer me half tuition and to even consider giving me more financial aid. Mind you, this email highlights some other great points about the effectiveness and benefits of simply asking for more funding. Ok, so now that you know that an outstanding recommendation letter can increase your chances of being awarded more scholarships and funding, here are some tips that’ll help you get the most out of your recommendations.

Ask for your recommendation letter early. Remember, teachers and professors are busy. The students who ask first are more likely to get the best letters.

Pick teachers, counselors, or coaches who like you. You need someone who can speak to your character in a positive light. I’ve heard horror stories about students spending ages working on scholarship applications only to have all of their hard work demised by a bad recommendation. Save yourself the misfortune and pick a teacher/professor who you know has only good things to say about you.

Ask politely and be humble. Never automatically expect a teacher or professor to write you a letter. Make sure that whoever you ask is willing to do this good deed for you.

If you sense that the person you asked is hesitant or unwilling to write the letter, choose another recommender. You want to make sure that you get the best letters possible. Although an enthusiastic recommendation isn’t necessary, it’s very helpful and will get you much further than a lukewarm letter.

Coach your recommenders. Give them a resume or CV highlighting all of your relevant accomplishments and experience. Inform them about the scholarships that you’re applying to by providing short and quick summaries so they have a better idea about what they should include in the letters or evaluations. If the deadline is drawing near, check up on them and give a light reminder to submit the recommendations. You don’t want to miss out on getting a scholarship simply because a recommender forgot to submit their part in time. Basically, do whatever it takes to make the task easier for your recommender.

Always have a back-up recommender just in case the worst-case scenario happens and your recommender doesn’t submit the recommendation. It’s also always good to have an extra potential recommender so you don’t have to keep asking the same person for letters. If you plan on applying to many different scholarships and sources of funding, extra recommendations will prove to be particularly beneficial.

If you win a scholarship, that’s a great indicator that whoever submitted your recommendations gave you high ratings and spoke highly of you . You should ask these people to submit letters for other scholarship applications. Submitting other letters would be easier for them too, as they already have a base letter for you that they can quickly edit and reuse.

Stick to the same 4 to 5 recommenders . Once a recommender has written a letter for you, it’s easier for her/him to provide you with another one. Already having an existing letter or base to work with makes writing for you easier and your chances of having the recommendation submitted on time increases.

If you have the option to submit more than the required number of recommendations, do it— especially if you have recommenders who have already written letters for you and can quickly reuse what they have. Extra letters show that there are several people who can attest to your awesomeness and credibility. More support never hurts.

So now that you’re equipped with all of that information, you’re ready to take the first steps toward getting the best recommendations possible and ultimately coming closer to graduating debtless. Stay strategic, stay focused, and get paid to be a student.