Writing a scholarship recommendation letter for students is a big responsibility. Scholarship selection committees typically weigh them heavily. In fact, what you say about a student can be a difference maker, especially when there are multiple strong candidates.
I have been on both a scholarship selection committee and a graduate school admissions committee. In these positions, I saw what a great letter of support can do for a student. I cannot underestimate the importance. It’s huge!
Scholarship recommendations are supposed to be an objective assessment of a student’s record, but great letters go a step further and speak about a student’s potential. Strong letters of recommendation strike the right balance of noting a student’s past performance and highlighting where the student is headed (their potential).
Of course, there are other themes that a strong recommendation letter for scholarships should address, too. Below you’ll find a list of key components of a scholarship reference letter. These are major themes that should be a part of any scholarship recommendation letter template.
If you’re asked to write a letter for your student, these points will help you support them in a major way. There is also a sample letter to help guide you.
Before Agreeing to Write a Letter, Ensure You Have Something Positive to Say
After teaching hundreds of undergraduate students, I have certainly had my fair share of requests to write recommendation letters for students. On many occasions, I was delighted to do so. On others, however, I knew I couldn’t write a letter that would help them reach their ambitions. So, I was honest. I told them the truth. While it wasn’t easy, I knew that writing a mediocre reference letter would hurt the student’s chances of winning the scholarship or landing a position they were seeking.
So, what exactly did I say to these students? In short, I told them that I couldn’t write anything beyond an average letter because that’s what their grade in my class objectively demonstrated. If I were to write an exceptional letter for a student who received a C+ in my class, then my letter would have minimal credibility. I told these students that it would be in their best interest to obtain a reference letter from someone who can sincerely say that they received a stellar grade and performed well in their class. In every case, the student thanked me for my honesty.
The takeaway here is that you should be honest about the written support that you can provide for your student. If you wholeheartedly believe in them and can state, with credibility, that they did well in your class, great! Write that letter. But if you don’t, be honest and don’t hurt their chances of winning a scholarship.
Know What the Scholarship Committee is Looking for
When writing a recommendation for scholarships, start by doing some research about what the scholarship committee may be looking for. You’ll want to know what kind of award it is (merit scholarship, needs-based scholarship, etc.), how much money is being offered, when applications are due (so you can schedule your writing and be aware of scholarships due immediately), and whether there’s a specific application process (e.g., completing a form, sending your letter to a specific e-mail address). This will allow you to tailor your letter to meet their expectations and support your student with relevant information.
For example, if you find out that the scholarship committee is looking for someone who is committed to community service, then make sure your letter includes information about how much time and energy the student has put into volunteering at local organizations. And if you know they’re looking for someone who has overcome adversity, let them know about any challenges the student has faced and how they’ve handled them.
Additionally, you may want to ask for a copy of your student’s scholarship essay and a summary of their extracurricular activities or student qualifications. This will help you have a full picture of the student’s profile.
State Why You are a Good Assessor of the Student
When writing a scholarship letter of recommendation for a student, you should be able to explain why you are someone who is qualified to write the letter. This will strengthen the letter because you are the right person to highlight the student’s fit with the scholarship’s mission.
To do this, you may want to speak about how you supervised the student or in what capacity you met them. For example, if they were a student in your class, then you should highlight how they performed and how they interacted with their peers and teachers. You may also want to include information about their test scores and assignments, as well as their attitude toward schoolwork.
If the student was not in your class, but rather worked on projects with you or under your supervision, then you might want to include what sort of work they did and what kind of results that work produced. You may also want to mention any awards or honors that they received due to their work under your supervision. This tip goes for extracurricular supervisors, too, including coaches, mentors, and community organizers.
Your recommendation for scholarships should also include how long you have known the student. If you have supervised the student for a long time and watched them grow, it’s important to emphasize that fact. This information will make it clear that your relationship with the student was or continues to be ongoing and meaningful.
Finally, if you have any relevant titles or life experience that gives you credibility to comment on a student’s profile, include this, too.
Your Assessment Relative to Other Students
In your reference letter, you may want to give your assessment of that student relative to others. This makes a big statement to scholarship committees, especially if you have had a long career and worked with many students.
For example, you might say something like: “As a teacher, I have seen many students come through my classroom. But [student name], in my opinion, stands out from the crowd. Relative to the thousands of students I have taught, I believe that [student’s name] is in the top five percent in academic performance.”
Giving examples in a reference letter will help your audience get to know your student. This personalization helps in a major way.
If possible, use specific examples to highlight your student’s academic career, such as an essay they wrote or their participation in class discussions. These experiences will help demonstrate how well you know your student and how they respond to real world scenarios.
You can certainly do this outside of academics as well. For example, if you’re talking about how the student is a good leader, be sure to mention a time when they demonstrated those qualities in action. If the student worked on a project with you, this would be the perfect time to mention their leadership or communication skills.
What is the Student’s Potential?
A scholarship letter should be more than just a list of achievements; it should speak to the student’s potential. The best way to do this is by explaining what you see in the student and how they’ve demonstrated incredible capabilities – and how this will serve them well in the future.
For example: “I have been working with [student] during his time at [school name]. I have watched him develop as an artist over the past year and am confident that he will continue to grow in his craft. His work ethic has always been excellent, and he has never missed a deadline. He is always eager to learn more about his craft and strives to improve himself every day.”
When recommending a student for a scholarship, make sure you highlight their willingness to learn and improve, if this is the case. This will help a scholarship committee see that they are investing in a student who will continue to be a great ambassador of their award.
Be Authentic and Sincere
In any reference letter, don’t just regurgitate information from a student’s résumé—that will bore the reader and make them wonder why they’re reading the letter at all. Be sincere and try to avoid mechanical language that can really be said about any student.
You may want to try something like:
You know that student you’ve seen go above and beyond? The one who always puts in 110%? The one who is kind and caring, but also fiercely determined and ambitious? That’s the student who deserves your scholarship. That’s [student’s name].
Or, you can use strong word choices and phrases like: “I wholeheartedly support this student’s application”, “I sincerely believe that [student’s name] is the best candidate for your scholarship”, or “I believe unequivocally in [student’s name]’s scholarship application.”
Sample Scholarship Recommendation Letter
Below is a sample scholarship recommendation letter that tries to include the major themes outlined above. This letter of recommendation template aims to highlight a student’s academic capabilities for a college scholarship centered on academic performance.
Dear BridgesEDU Academic Scholarship Selection Committee,
I am pleased to provide this scholarship letter of recommendation for Emily. I sincerely believe that she would be an excellent ambassador of the BridgesEDU Academic Scholarship program and would adeptly espouse its values.
Emily was a student of mine in History 402: American History, and received a 92% (an A+ letter grade). The course, which operated in a seminar format, ran from September 2021 to April 2022. As the Course Director, I am able to comment on Emily’s academic abilities including critical thinking, writing, and oral communication skills.
In small group settings that were designed to reflect upon and summarize academic articles and book chapters, Emily excelled. She was often a confident and valuable contributor to her peer discussions. She was also consistent in providing insightful critical analysis. Emily’s level of thought was easily one of the most advanced amongst her peers. Without reservation I can say that Emily’s contribution elevated the quality of our class discussions.
One of Emily’s most valuable qualities is her ability to think critically in both classroom discussion and writing. Emily’s final paper in my class was outstanding. Out of the thousands of undergraduate essays I have read, I would easily place her work in the top ten. In the paper, Emily examined archival material from the university library. She argued that music was the most important education mechanism in early 1900s rural America. The argument was unique and full of promise. In fact, I could easily see Emily thriving in a doctoral program with an emphasis on this very topic. I believe her academic skills merit this praise.
Given that your scholarship rewards academic achievement and future potential, I wholeheartedly offer Emily my highest recommendation for the BridgesEDU award. Without hesitation, I can say that she deserves the scholarship.
If you require any further commentary, please feel free to contact me during regular business hours. I have included my contact information below.
John Doe, Ph.D.
Professor, University of America
123 Any Street, Boston, MA, 01234
Summary: How to Write a Scholarship Recommendation Letter
- Before you agree to write a scholarship reference letter, ensure that you have something positive to say. Remember, the student is counting on you!
- Do some research to know what themes the scholarship selection committee is looking for before writing your recommendation letter.
- Demonstrate why you are a qualified person to speak about the student’s abilities.
- Try to include an assessment of the student’s performance relative to other students you have taught or supervised.
- Always give examples of the points you are highlighting. The examples should be from your direct supervision of the student.
- Highlight the student’s potential.
- If you don’t know where to start, examine a scholarship recommendation letter template.
Christopher Grafos, Ph.D., is the founder and chief scholarship mentor of BridgesEDU Scholarships. He has taught at every undergraduate level and served on scholarship selection and graduate school admissions committees. He’s dedicated to helping college students find and win scholarship money. When he’s not doing this, he enjoys playing tennis, but not professionally … definitely not professionally … or even proficiently.