Requesting Letters of Reference

Almost every scholarship application requires letters of reference.  Requesting that individuals write such letters for you is also essential for job consideration and admission to institutions of higher learning.  Use the following checklist to make sure you have covered all the bases.

Nuts and Bolts

  • Give your writers adequate time!  Contact references at least three weeks before the deadline if possible.
  • Provide an envelope for your writer to use.  Affix the postage and correct address ahead of time. However, campus mail does not require postage for faculty and staff. You can save the stamp if you are asking a recommender to send his/her letter to another office on campus.
  • Request the letter of reference in writing (in addition to making personal contact).  Provide the following information in that request: 

    • Deadline.  Specify POSTMARK or RECEIPT deadline.
    • Destination.  Even if you provide an envelope.
    • Interior address/greeting.  Not always the same as the mailing address.
    • Full name of the scholarship.
  • Supply and clearly identify any forms that the writer is supposed to mail in addition to the actual letter.
  • The writer also needs details about the scholarship itself.  Help your references understand their audience: 

    • Criteria for selection.  Stated attributes of the successful scholar.
    • What the scholarship seeks to support and/or foster. 
    • The amount and structure of the award.
    • Your future goals.  How does the scholarship support those ?  What study do you hope to fund?  What career objectives are served?
  • Provide a draft of your scholarship application, particularly the resume and personal statement.  Your writers need to know how you are presenting yourself.  It allows them to write in a complementary way as well as a complimentary way.  And they are often great resources for constructive criticism anyway.    
  • Check back well before the deadline.  Check again closer to the deadline.  Be polite but never just assume that your letters were written and mailed.  
  • Waive your right to see the letter if applicable.  Confidential letters carry more weight.

Tips for Choosing Your Writers

  • Pay attention to any stipulations in the scholarship application.  The Rhodes wants four references from your professors.  The Goldwater advises against asking your high school teachers to write letters.  Et cetera.
  • Choose people that know you well.  The goal of good letters is to reveal your strengths in Technicolor.  Your letters should portray the unique merit of your candidacy.  This means that anecdotes and examples are very important.   Letters from people with impressive titles are nice, but if your contact with them was limited, the letter may be flat.  Vouching for you is not enough.       
  • Choose individuals who can talk about relevant performance and credentials.  If the scholarship emphasizes leadership, ask an individual who has seen you lead.  If the scholarship emphasizes academic prowess, you need to contact individuals that have had the opportunity to judge that: college professors, research supervisors, your advisor.  And if the scholarship values a variety of things, make sure your letters cover different aspects of your accomplishments.
  • Letters from high school teachers, family members, friends of your family, your minister, etc. rarely carry much weight if you are competing at the undergraduate level or higher.  However, there are possible exceptions.  For example . . . your minister might be crucial if the scholarship is funded by a religious organization.    
  • Comments like "Well . . . I really don't know you that well" are often an indication that the person does not feel like they will be able to write a strong letter for you.  There is no value in lobbying for lukewarm letters.
  • If an individual has volunteered previously to serve as a reference, that usually means they will work to produce an enthusiastic letter on your behalf. 
  • Most of your references should speak to recent efforts: things you have done within the last two or three years.

Conclusion

Many students realize that reference letters take time and feel guilty about asking for them.  This is probably healthy . . . but remember that your writers are individuals who want to help you succeed.  They should be happy to assist you if you are soliciting letters from appropriate individuals.  It might also be helpful to remember that once a writer has written one letter for you, it is typically easy for them to revise that text for subsequent letters.  Competing for scholarships helps your writers get a big jump on whatever you might ask of them later such as job letters or graduate school letters.

In a nutshell, treat your writers with the utmost courtesy and give them the information they need to support your candidacy effectively.  Strong support from those who know you is essential for scholarship success.