When applying to college, completing a scholarship application, or applying to an internship, all of your application materials should work together to create a complete and cohesive picture of you as an applicant. Your essay is an opportunity to show your creativity; your resume is an exhaustive list of relevant activities, work experience, and awards to demonstrate your involvement; reference letters can add credibility to your story or a personal endorsement.
Scholarship committees have to find ways of distinguishing one student from another. For scholarships requiring you to submit a reference letter, this is often a good way of showing who you are as an applicant to the people making the decisions. A reference letter is an excellent way to provide more personal information to committees that cannot be gathered from grades and school/community involvement alone. That’s why it’s essential to make sure the person you ask to be a reference is the best person for it.
Here are some tips when you’re putting together your reference letter:
Ask the Right People:
It may seem obvious, but you should be sure to ask someone you know that will have positive things to say about you. This doesn’t mean avoiding asking teachers whose classes you struggled in or a coach who saw you needed a little extra coaching. Often, these people are excellent references who can speak about how hardworking you are, how you handle setbacks or embrace change. What this does mean is don’t ask someone who knows very little about the person you are now.
To start brainstorming who these people might be, begin writing a list. In this list, include your relationship with this person (teacher, coach, supervisor), how long you have known them, in what context, and what things about you they could comment on. A recent connection you’ve made is good, but a connection you have had for a long time, especially if that person has seen you change and grow, can be a great reference.
It’s a good idea to read the application and try to understand what the ideal applicant looks like from the reviewer’s perspective. Does the application refer to leadership experience, entrepreneurship, extracurricular activities, or passion for giving back?
Your application as a whole should reflect the characteristics the application is looking to find. Make the reviewer see that YOU are the ideal candidate. Looking at the list you made before, would any of these people be able to comment on these qualities specifically? For example, a club advisor may be able to comment on your passion for your club’s mission and commitment to your peers.
Some applications may be more open-ended, with more opportunity to show the parts of yourself you believe are most valuable/applicable to the scholarship and set you apart from the rest. For example, if you consistently discuss how your experience on the basketball team shaped you into the person you are today, it would be a good idea to include a reference from your coach. If you are going into a STEM field, it may make more sense to ask your chemistry teacher for a reference over an English teacher.
How to Ask:
Remember, if you ask a teacher, they (especially those teaching 12th-grade classes) are asked to write a LOT of references. When possible, ask them at least a month before the letter is due. Giving someone any less than two weeks can make them less enthusiastic about helping you. The first time you ask them, do so informally and in person. If the person seems willing to help you, follow up with an email. When you email your reference, include all the details they need to help you:
- Tell them how their letter will be used. Are you applying for a scholarship or summer internship? Your reference will need to know. You can even include a link to the program or opportunity in your message so they can see more details. If this person doesn’t know, tell them your plans for the future, such as enrolling at HACC to become a nurse.
- Attach a copy of your resume. The person you ask may only know you in one setting. Sharing your resume lets them see all that you do.
- What you want them to talk about / focus on. They are writing a lot of references and may have a template they use to get them started. Sharing precisely what you are looking for can help them tailor the letter to you.
- Due date and how to submit. Including file format, printed vs. emailed, letterhead, and signature requirements. These details ensure your reference arrives at the right place at the right time.
No matter who your reference is (teacher, coach, supervisor), make sure to check in with a reminder a few days before the deadline if materials can be submitted electronically. If you need to mail a physical copy, remind them at least a week ahead. Don’t forget to thank them and give them an update on your application. Your references will want to celebrate your success!
I am applying for [Scholarship/ college/other opportunities], and a part of the application requires me to submit [two letters of reference]. I think it would help my application if I included a reference from you.
Attached is a copy of my resume and a link to the specific opportunity.
Leadership is an essential component of the program, so I was hoping you would be able to touch on my leadership performance in [club/sport/activity].
My application is due [due date]. Please email your reference letter to email@example.com and include my name and the name of the scholarship in the body of the email.