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Examining Scholarship Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation have been a scholarship application standard since the beginning. Having a qualified adult vouch for your integrity and work ethic was a cornerstone of early scholarship programs. The question we must ask ourselves today is, “Is the tradition of letters of recommendation a relevant aspect of selecting quality students for your modern scholarship programs?”

Who are letters of recommendation being written by?

In modern scholarship programs, most letters of recommendation are written by high school teachers and counselors. On the surface, they appear to be the best possible source. These education professionals interact with the applying student on a regular basis, are familiar with their academic ability, can attest to any character remarks, and have access to additional school records. However, they are also asked by exceedingly large numbers of students each year for letters of recommendation. A typical English teacher has six class periods with 25 or more students in each. If even one-third of those students ask for a letter of recommendation, that’s 50 students! Each student could ask for multiple letters and, in the case of many scholarships, each can have its own specific focus area (leadership, academic promise, financial hardship, etc.) Letters of recommendation become a tall order for teachers and counselors every year and many scholarships request two or more letters per student.

What information is commonly provided in a letter of recommendation?

Due to the volume of letters being requested, we shouldn’t be surprised teachers and counselors turn to technology to ease their burden and provide letters for every student who has requested one. Form letters are very common. I have no doubt you see a few form letters come through your program each year. One paragraph stating the student’s name, GPA, and class rank - ending with a statement that “highly recommends this student for any assistance you may offer.” More commonly, you will have the same opening stats paragraph followed by another that lists all the student’s extracurricular activities. In the best scenario, it ends with a short paragraph written from the heart by an educator who truly believes in the student.

How is this information being used in selection?

When a letter of recommendation comes in (or two or three), it is read by an evaluation committee alongside the application. The committee has access to the student’s GPA, class rank, extracurricular list, and financial need information thanks to the pointed questions on your application. In many instances, the letters of recommendation are skimmed and checked off. Done. Complete. The student followed instructions and provided a letter.

When choosing between a well written letter of recommendation or essay/personal statement, the student’s time and attention to their essay will win every time. Why is that choice so consistent? The student will be going on to college. They will be in class, taking notes, writing papers, and trying their best to succeed. Their time and attention, not that of their recommender, is what will be tested over the next few years. 

Strategic, Need-Based Scholarships: What are they and why do they matter?

As scholarship professionals, it is easy to get stuck in tradition and keep our focus on donor preference. Many donors and boards will insist on keeping letters of recommendation in the applications. In some cases, it may be what is best. I simply want to encourage you to have the conversation. Ask the questions I have used above while considering your own practices. Talk with donors, board members, foundation staff, school site staff, and students to collect information and make an informed decision on your use of letters of recommendation.   

About the Author

Born and raised in Bakersfield, California, Alyse has deep roots and strong connections to the nonprofit sector. Having worked in the field of college access and scholarships for over 10 years, with a focus on students residing in California’s Central Valley, she believes in the power of scholarships to uplift students, families, and communities. Before joining Foundant, Alyse spent three years with the Kern Community Foundation managing their grant and scholarship giving, as well as nonprofit relationships. Alyse joined the Foundant team in 2017 as a Client Success Manager (trainer, consultant, and emergency support provider) for Grants and Scholarships. After training and advising hundreds of clients, she led the Community Foundation Grant/Scholarship Client Services Team. Her passion for community building, professional development, and real-world impact has helped form the service philosophy for Foundant’s Client Success team. Areas of expertise: scholarship and grant process best practices, team building, remote work, and demystifying complex systems to foster accessibility.

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