Getting a Great Reference Letter for Scholarship Applications

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Reference letters are an important part of some scholarship applications. A letter of reference from a respectable source can go a long way toward impressing scholarship admins, and helps to show that you're an engaged person who just might deserve an award. You may need two or three reference letters for your scholarship applications, so it's good to get started on the process.

Let's take a look at how to get a reference letter that works for you.

Who should I ask for a reference letter?

Referees, as they're called — that is, people who offer references — come in all shapes and sizes, but there are a few guidelines to consider when you're deciding on who you should approach.

Choose an adult who has known you well for a year or more. Think teachers, coaches, employers. Avoid friends and family!

It's good practice to choose a few different people from different areas of your life. For example, you may want to ask the teacher who supervises your after-school club, the coach of your swim team, and your boss at your volunteer gig. Together, this would make for a good mix of referees.

How do I ask for a reference letter?

Give your referee plenty of advanced notice. If you have a deadline coming up, start asking four or five weeks ahead. Let your potential referee know what you're thinking of applying for — maybe you have a few specific scholarships in mind, or you're after a seat in a competitive program — and ask if they would be willing to write you a letter of reference.

You can even include links to the scholarships if you think it would help your referee understand your goals.

You may also want to include a pre-written reference letter for your referee to use. This doesn't mean they'll use your letter whole-cloth, but you can highlight some of the areas that make you look your best! Below, we've provided a couple examples. You may want to draft something similar as a launching pad for your referees.

If you don't want to provide a boilerplate reference for your referee to work from and customize, consider sharing your resumé instead. You can highlight a few spots you'd like your referee to focus on. This might help them draft something in line with your goals.

Sample reference letters: from bad to better

Sometimes, offering your referee a boilerplate letter to work from can help them, especially if they're on a tight schedule, or you don't have the closest relationship. Here are a couple example letters, along with comments, to help you understand what you should (and shouldn't) strive for in your letters of reference.

Reference letter example: bad

Hey XYZ,

Taylor graduated from Highland College and then the University of Manitoba. Between the two she went overseas to volunteer. She was there half a year. She worked as an electrician for a while before moving into life sciences. She's a good biology student and she does close-up magic in her free time. She helped me move once and I paid her $50.

Thanks for considering Taylor.

--Referee So and So

Would you hire Taylor based on the above? Or offer her a scholarship? The writing isn't enthusiastic, and there's not many supporting details that suggest this writer really knows and champions Taylor's candidacy here.

Reference letter example: better

To the selection committee,

Taylor Hughes graduated with an advanced technical diploma from Highland College in Saskatchewan, where she received several awards, and was part of a humanitarian effort to electrify rural villages in South America. Taylor led a team with expertise in renewable energy to bring reliable solar and wind power to two dozen households.

Since entering the University of Manitoba's life sciences program, Taylor has shown herself to be a dedicated and sharp-eyed researcher, passionate about her work. She's an asset to my soil analysis lab, where she's volunteered for 18 months. Taylor mentors first-year students on lifesci basics, and is a member of the school's Bio4Life club. She's even a skilled close-up magician — more than once, I asked myself, "how did she do that?"

Taylor's committed to her community and her passion for biological sciences. I have no doubt she'll make an exceptional researcher and conservationist. I whole-heartedly recommend her for your program. If you have any questions, or wish to discuss Taylor's candidacy further, please contact me any time.

--Referee So and So
Phone: (123) 456-7890

Evaluating these samples: from bad to better

Besides being longer, what did you notice about this example? Would you be more inclined to hire Taylor, or offer her a scholarship? The writing is more vibrant, and there are plenty of supporting details that provide evidence for the claims. There are moments of personal expression, too, which help paint a picture of the kind of person Taylor is.

Most reference letters end with an invitation to contact the referee for more information via phone or email, as appropriate.

Can I edit my referee's letter after they send it to me?

This is a question of ethics, and in short, it's not a good idea. Even if you provide the boilerplate template that your referee has worked from, once your referee has signed it, it's their work. Thus, it's not your place to edit the contents without permission from your referee.

If you've found a factual error, or a typo, get in touch with your referee, and either ask if they'll correct and re-send, or get their permission to make specific edits. This is another reason why you want to contact your referees long before your deadline!

How do I connect my reference letters to my resumé?

It's generally good practice to ensure that your reference letters match your resumé and cover letter. That is, if you hype up a particular volunteer experience on your resumé, it's a good idea to have a referee who can speak to this. Likewise, if you've got a sports background, having your coach as a referee makes sense.

The things your referee says in the letter should match up, more or less, with the things on your resumé. If the dates or other details don't match up, you have some editing to do!

I've got my reference letters. Now what?

If you haven't got them already, there are a couple other aspects of a solid application that you'll want to tackle:

Once you have all of these assets, you're ready to start applying! Seek out the scholarships that interest you most, knowing you're well-equipped with the documents you need to make a positive impression.

Best of luck!

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