How to get a great letter of recommendation

How to get a great letter of recommendation

Apr 1
Theresa Miller, Academic Advisor, Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics

I get asked to write a LOT of letters of recommendation. A LOT. As I write letters of recommendation I’d like to suggest some items for thought before you, as a high school or college student, ask someone to write you a letter of recommendation:

-Be sure to inform the letter writer exactly what this scholarship is for, and what qualifications they are seeking in their candidate. Do not just copy the website in, but go the extra mile to write one to two sentences that highlight the purpose of the scholarship or award you are seeking.

-Be very clear about your career goals, major in college and college choice to the recommender. If you’re not sure what you want to do, write down something to them anyway that reflects generally your direction. Scholarship app readers and recommendation writers want to see a goal oriented person with a purpose in life. That goal may change over time and that’s okay, but a career direction saying that you don’t know what you want to do in life doesn’t speak well to someone who you are asking to invest in you.

-Remind the writer of how you know them, and any special anecdotes about your relationship. “I was the person that created a fundraiser for the local food bank with your help and I was so glad to get to know you better through that process.”

-Think about the best person to write each letter, not just two or three people to write all your letters. This is an undue burden on the recommender, and doesn’t do you any favors either. I am much better suited to some industry letters of recommendation than others, and to evaluate certain traits than others (for example if I didn’t have a student in my class, and the scholarship wants letters to speak to their academic ability, then I’m not the right writer. This IS going to put a burden on YOU to go above and beyond and think about each application and the best person for that application specifically.

-Be sure you are asking someone to write you a letter that will give you a great recommendation. So that means going the extra mile to get to know your teachers, advisors, and others in circumstances other than the norm. Just sitting in a class, and never engaging with the teacher is not going to create a relationship or impress anything on that person that will create a great letter.

-Give TIME allocated for each letter to be written and submitted. Trust me, even though you don’t think it will take long for multiple letters to be sent, they do. Better letters are personalized to the scholarship, and each scholarship in this electronic submission world we live in has its own system that I must use to log in, answer questions, and then submit using their specific requirements. This takes time, so please respect that.

A letter of recommendation is a privilege, not a right.  It should be a reflection and extension of your resume or application, not a regurgitation of it. Making those kinds of letters happen is a result of what you do during high school or college to make you different. Be sure to engage with different people, employers, teachers and others during high school and college that will help you have those types of people that will write you GREAT letters, not lukewarm ones. The worst for me is to receive an email request for a letter of recommendation from someone I can’t bring to mind right away. That’s not going to be a great letter from me, and that’s a disservice to the student.

Happy scholarship season!

typing a letter