Recommendation Letters for Fellowships and Scholarships

Students who attend college often seek scholarships that will help with college expenses.  Writing a letter to help support a student win a scolarship is a huge responsibility. The recommendation letter will need to provide information about the recommender's experience with the applicant in an academic setting and their opinion of the student's potential for success in higher education.

It sounds easy enough. But it's up to the students to choose the best people to write the letters and to make sure their recommenders have everything they need to write the best possible recommendation letters. Below is a step-by-step guide for an applicant to get started.

10 Tips for an applicant to get started:

Do some research on the specific scholarship or fellowship and get your resume and statement of purpose in order. Consult the application packet and see what qualities and accomplishments the selection board is looking for. Compare your own qualifications to the qualities the selection board is seeking and take notes. Ensure you have these details handy before you approach a recommender.

Particulars count, and examples are crucial. Your recommender may remember that you were "a hard worker" but may have forgotten that you set up a new lab on your own. He or she may remember that you are "extremely bright", but may have forgotten that you not only made straight A's in class, but tutored some of your fellow students to get high grades in that class as well. Your resume and statement of purpose will serve as reminders of these details.

Choose the right people to write the letters for you. Choose a professor who knows you rather than the department head who doesn't. Good sources for letters are your academic advisor, professors who taught you or people you've worked for. It's a good idea to have not only a couple of references from inside your department, but to demonstrate diversity by having at least one letter written by a faculty member from another department or college.

Schedule a meeting with the professor to talk about the scholarship or fellowship. Use the meeting to explain why you think you could be competitive. Then ask the professor if he or she would have the time to write the letter and if he or she would feel comfortable writing a supportive and positive recommendation letter for you for this particular award.

If possible, inform the professor a semester or so ahead of time that you are considering applying for a scholarship or fellowship and would like him or her to write you a recommendation letter.  This way, the professor will pay closer attention to your actions and accomplishments.

Speak to the professor early enough so that he or she will have about a month to work on the letter. Since each recommendation letter must be tailored to the individual and to the award, your recommender will need plenty of time to complete it. Allowing your professor ample time to complete this task is both a courtesy and a necessity.

Neatly and thoroughly fill out any portion of the recommender's form that is necessary. This could be as simple as typing in your name and social security number. You want to make the task of recommending you as easy as possible for your recommender. Although the decision is up to you, selection committees recommend that you waive your right to see the letter when completed. Waiving your right to see the letter is thought to lend more credibility to the recommender's statements.

Make sure that you provide the recommender with a pre-addressed, stamped envelope if necessary or with other directions if the letter is to be returned to you.

Follow up with the professor in a couple of weeks to see if he or she needs any additional information. A call or an e-mail note from you will also serve as a reminder to the professor if he or she has forgotten to write the letter.

Finally, thank your recommender for taking the time to write the letter and let him or her know the outcome of the application.

NOTE: These tips are especially targeted for scholarship and fellowship recommendation letters, but are useful for graduate school and employment recommendation letters as well.