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Recommendation letters: Who to ask, when to ask, and what specifically to ask for.

I remember the few times that I’ve had to ask people to write letters of recommendation for me. The conversation always started out somewhat awkward as I mustered up the courage to ask my supervisors to state, in writing, that I was a fabulous, conscientious, dynamic person in hopes that the people reviewing the recommendation would let me into the program for which I was applying.

As my career progressed, I was then subject to those same requests from student employees and other colleagues. More recently, in my role as a scholarship judge, I have been the reviewer of these types of letters.

Based on my experience in multiple roles in the process, I offer you this advice if you need a letter of recommendation as part of a scholarship application:

  1. Build relationships with people before you might need the letter. Think of your interactions as a deposit in your social connections bank. You might not have any reason to ask for a recommendation now, but think about your future as a student, employee and, possibly, scholarship recipient. Scholarship judges can tell if people don’t really know you or have limited enthusiasm about recommending you.

  2. Provide the recommender with clear, specific details when you ask for this special favor: the format, length, deadline, confidentiality requirements, if any, and delivery options. This saves time and clarifies expectations. For example, are they supposed to give the letter to you and you add it to your application packet or are they supposed to send it to the scholarship committee in a sealed envelope? Is there a word limit or page limit? Following the directions matters. You can be disqualified from a scholarship if you don’t follow the directions. Don’t let that happen to you.

  3. Coach the recommender through the process, if needed. It’s perfectly acceptable to discuss with the recommender your qualifications and why you think you are a great fit for the scholarship.This will give him or her something to write about. I loved it when my student employees gave me pertinent information about their background. It was my choice to use that information or not, but it was helpful during the writing process.

    For example, if the scholarship was about community service and leadership, I might not have known about that person’s involvement in the community if they didn’t take the time to tell me about it or provide me with a short paragraph about it. Another part of “coaching” is to provide a copy of your application materials so they can see the context of the scholarship. Also, you should send them friendly reminders prior to the deadline.

  4. Plan time for the recommender process. You will receive better letters if you give people ample time. The types of people that are approached for recommendations are, most likely, very busy and may have other students for whom they also are writing letters. I recommend asking people at least two weeks in advance of the deadline.

  5. Thank the people you approach, even if they choose not to write a letter. Your sincere gratitude will be remembered and appreciated!

More tips on letters of recommendation are available in the Frequently Asked Questions section of the University of Phoenix scholarship website.