Paying for college is tough, and federal aid often doesn’t cover tuition and living expenses. Sure, you could try to make up the gap by finding a job, but the market for student labour can leave much to be desired, and fitting work in around a full course load is often really hard. However, scholarships are one good way to help cover costs, and many of them are opening for submissions right around now. They take thought and effort (usually), but the rewards can be pretty great—if you get them.
One of the most important parts of many a scholarship application is the recommendations. You often need 2-3 recommendations from folks who know you pretty well, and are willing and able to talk you up to the selection committee. And one or two of those folks should be faculty at your university.
Here’s how to get good recommendations for your scholarship applications:
- Know the Rules
- Be Strategic
- Make It Easy
- Follow Up
1. Know the Rules
Start out by looking at the rules and requirements of the scholarship you’re applying for. It’s important to know these, because you’ll usually be completely disqualified if you don’t follow them. These rules often also lay out the purpose of the scholarship, and this’ll be pretty important for what you want your recommender to say, as well as who you ask for recommendations.
2. Be Strategic
Keeping in mind the scholarship’s purpose, think about the different kinds of recommenders you could reach out to in your university: professors, advisors, student activity administrators, resource centre coordinators, etc. Whoever you pick, make sure they have more than a passing familiarity with you; this should be someone who remembers your name, who you’ve interacted with recently. Building good relationships with professors and advisors is definitely not a bad idea.
For professors, you’ll want to have taken a couple classes with them, and you’ll definitely want to take advantage of their office hours. Stay engaged throughout the term, check in about your plans, get advice for navigating degree requirements, and so on. They may be willing to serve as your mentor, even; most professors have their students’ best interests at heart, and they might have some really great advice for surviving and thriving in an academic setting—or at least persisting to graduation.
Once you’ve identified the profs you’d like recs from, ask. For real, don’t just send them a link—they’ll never get it done. You need to give them the option to say no (which might happen if they don’t feel like they know you very well), and you need them to be ready for it. The best thing to do is to send an individual, politely-worded email to each person you’re reaching out to. You’ll want to send this email at minimum three weeks before the letter is due, but earlier is better; you want to give them plenty of time, and some will work on it immediately and get it in early, which is then one less thing for you to worry about.
Be sure to ask them (nicely!) if they feel comfortable giving you a recommendation, and if they will give you a good recommendation. Again, sometimes they may say no—don’t take it personally, but if it’s a prof you need to take more classes with, you may want to consider meeting with them during office hours in future courses; more face time can’t hurt your grades, and it might help you get future recommendations.
3. Make It Easy
Most people giving recommendations expect you to tell them what you want them to focus on. Professors don’t know you like you know yourself, and they don’t see everything you do day-to-day, so they’re going to need guidance on what should be highlighted in their letter.
Remember those rules and requirements mentioned above? (Of course you do, because you read them.) Those are the key to what needs to go into the materials you give out. The more work you do, the less your recommenders need to do, the more likely they’ll get their letters in by the deadline. So, your next move is to make a packet of materials.
This packet will serve as an all-in-one for writing your recommendation. You should include a cover letter and either a resume or profile sheet of some kind. The cover letter needs to include all of the requirements and deadlines the recommender needs to know, such as: who to address letters to, whether they should be submitted electronically or by mail, when the letter is due by, and so on. This will be a guide for them in how to write the letter, and when by, but you’ll also want to include…
Your personal info, in the form of a resume or profile! If including your resume, make sure it is absolutely current, and includes the work, volunteer, and activity experience that applies to the scholarship. If using a profile, you’ll want to make sure it is pretty simple, but includes relevant work, volunteer, and activity experience. (Profile examples: a quick internet search yielded this, this, and this; you could borrow one of these formats, or make up your own. Just make sure the it focuses on what you want your recommender to use.)
You can email all of this once they’ve agreed to write a letter for you, or if you or they prefer, you can drop by their office and give a printed copy to them in person. (This has the added bonus of making it more personal, and keeping your face and friendly demeanour fresh in their mind!)
4. Follow Up
Now, your recommenders have agreed, you’ve given them everything they need to write a great letter of glowing recommendation, and you’re all set, right? Wrong.
Follow up, follow up, follow up. About 1.5 to 2 weeks out, check in with folks who’ve agreed to write you recommendations. Some of them will have already completed the letter and sent it in, but many (most, if we’re honest) won’t. Give them a gentle nudge to remind them the deadline is coming up. They’ll probably appreciate your (politely-worded and timely) email; professors are busy—and things get lost in the shuffle—but if they agreed to recommend you, it’s because they like and support you, and want to help you do well.
Then, once they’ve sent it in, don’t forget the thank you! A nice, hand-written note is fine, and you should even contact them again, perhaps by email, to let them know if you got it or not; either way, thank them again. They do a lot, and they made time to show their support of you.
Not so bad, huh? There’s some time investment, but you’re in college, so you’ve already signed up for that. If you know the rules, be strategic, make it easy, and follow up, there’s no reason you won’t be getting great letters of recommendation and, hopefully, great scholarships to help you succeed!