Letters of Recommendation for High School Student Scholarship Money

by Dr. Mary Dowd
Student showing teacher paperwork at her desk

Strong letters of recommendation play an important role in the scholarship selection process. Recommendation letters explain why the applicant is extraordinary and deserving of a scholarship. Letters also attest to moral character and help scholarship selection committees screen out students whose conduct might embarrass or disappoint the benefactor. Despite intense competition, scholarships are worth pursuing to offset the cost of college; almost $6 billion of scholarship aid is annually awarded to qualified students, according to The College Board in 2014.

Gather Information

Even if you’re well acquainted with a student, ask the student for an academic transcript so you can speak with authority about the student’s cognitive abilities and collegiate potential. Cornell University suggests that individuals writing a letter of recommendation should also review the student’s resume, examples of the student’s school work, and a description of the scholarship opportunities that the student is seeking. Ask about deadlines and give yourself plenty of time to write a quality letter.

Create an Outline

A scholarship application is generally one to two pages in length, with a salutation, a paragraph noting your connection to the student, three to five paragraphs extolling the student’s achievements and virtues, a paragraph personally endorsing the student, and your contact information and signature. Identify which of the student’s many wonderful qualities to highlight. Choose attributes that best align with the preferences of the scholarship organization. For example, the Gates Millennium Scholars program for high-performing culturally diverse students requests recommendation letters that describe the student’s leadership achievements in extracurricular or community activities.

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Write an Engaging Letter

Avoid sweeping generalities when depicting the student. Instead of simply stating that the student is a hard worker, emphasize how the student maintained a high GPA while working a part-time job, volunteering at the homeless shelter, and starring in the school play, for example. Include specific information that offers insight into the student’s character. The National Federation of State High School Associations suggests that coaches writing a letter of recommendation may want to mention a situation in which the student stood up to peer pressure and chose the ethical course of action. The tone of the letter should be enthusiastic and inspirational, with mention of adversity the student has overcome.

Submit the Letter Promptly

Timeliness is crucial in the scholarship application process. Failing to submit the letter by the deadline can greatly diminish the student’s chances of receiving a scholarship. No matter how stellar, incomplete applications aren’t likely to be considered. Take your responsibility seriously, and be a good role model for the student by making the letter a priority. Follow the scholarship instructions for submission; some organizations prefer letters to be mailed, while others want letters uploaded to a specified website.

Other Tips

Proof your letter carefully and consider asking a colleague to review it as well. A professionally written letter strengthens your credibility. Use your school or agency’s letter head rather than personal stationary unless you’re writing a character reference for a family member. Generally, scholarship agencies prefer recommendations letters from professionals such as principals, teachers, coaches, bosses and guidance counselors, because they tend to be more objective than friends and relatives.

About the Author

Mary Dowd holds a doctorate in educational leadership from Minnesota State Mankato, where she has led many different administrative offices such as the dean of students, affirmative action, women’s center and student conduct. She also enjoys teaching, writing and advising students on how to succeed in college. Her writing experience includes published research, training materials and hundreds of practical online articles.

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