Choosing a Strong References for Scholarships

Asking someone to serve as a reference for your scholarship application, or any application, requires organization and respect for the reference giver’s time. Your reference giver plays an important role because they speak to who you are as a person, something that your resume or essay can only partially convey.

Scholarship Application: References

Asking someone to serve as a reference for your scholarship application, or any application, requires organization and respect for the reference giver’s time. Your reference giver plays an important role because they speak to who you are as a person, something that your resume or essay can only partially convey.

NOT a family member or friend, except in rare, specific circumstances, like if the scholarship application asks for this. Read through the scholarship application requirements. What qualities are they looking for in the scholarship receiver? Who in your life has seen those qualities in you at work? For example, if the scholarship relates to educational prowess, a former or current teacher would be great (try to use a college teacher if you can; a high school teacher will do in a pinch).

If the scholarship is looking for examples of your leadership abilities, consider a ranking officer with whom you worked, or a member of a team or organization in which you took on a leadership role. This can be in a paid or unpaid workplace, in school, or in a volunteer position. Tailor the references to the scholarship; you wouldn’t use your best friend as a reference for a job at a coffee shop. 

Ask as soon as you discover a scholarship for which you want to apply that requires a reference. If you plan to apply for more than one scholarship, consider making a list of scholarships, their descriptions, what information the reference giver should provide (contact information, a letter of recommendation, an email address to fill out a confidential reference online), and the dates they are due in order from the one due the soonest to the one due the latest. 

If this is a person you see on a regular basis, ask them face-to-face. Set up a follow-up meeting to go over the scholarships in person and to provide the reference giver the list of reference types/due dates. A reference giver might ask you for information like your current resume or a copy of your scholarship essay if you have it drafted so that they can make sure their reference is consistent with the other information in the application. 

If this is someone you don’t see regularly, send an email from a professional account (a university email account, a personal account that has your name as the address). Be sure to use proper email etiquette: Start with a salutation (Dear Prof./Ms/Mr/Dr. __________), write a paragraph or two, proofread what you wrote for spelling and grammar errors, and end with your signature (Sincerely, ____; My best, ________; Thank you, _________). Taking the time to write a well-formed email shows your reference giver that you respect their time and may help convince a busy person to take the time to write you a letter or speak with a scholarship bestower on your behalf. 

It’s a good idea to check in on your reference givers to remind them that a deadline is coming up. This can be as simple as a quick email that says, “Dear _____, Thank you for serving as a reference for __________. The deadline for that application is coming up, so I wanted to check in to see if there is anything else that you need from me. It is due _______. Thank you!” Follow up between 7-4 days before an application is due to give your reference giver plenty of time to work on that letter in case it slipped their mind. 

Scholarship Application: Essays

The following resources from Kansas State University and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill provide thorough overviews to help you think through your response to a scholarship essay prompt. The UNC resource focuses on statements of purpose, which are useful both for scholarship applications and applications to specialized undergraduate or graduate programs, while the K-State resource focuses specifically on the mindset needed to write a successful scholarship essay.

Before writing your essays, reflect on your unique experiences, identities, interests, goals, and values. Write a list that you can refer to as you draft various essays. 

Read through ALL of the instructions the application gives so that you don’t miss anything. Create a checklist of everything to include in the essay. Is there a specific word limit? Stick to it. Do they ask you to answer four different questions? Underline where you answer each question in your draft to make sure you have clearly responded to their specific asks.

Do you know what I mean when I say that I am hard working and organized? Sure, vaguely. How about if I say that I set up daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly schedules on a calendar synced to all my devices to stay on track with specific projects? The more specific you can be about yourself, the better. Instead of saying “I learned so much from _______ experience,” tell your reader what specifically you learned. 

Unlike other essays you may write in college, scholarship essays are the place to get personal. Use “I” and talk about yourself. The resume lists all of the things you have accomplished; the essay shows who you are and why the reader would want to have coffee with you (or give you a lot of money).

Giving specifics will help bring the story to life. While you do this, try to avoid clichés—what did you specifically feel? What did you learn: the good, the bad, and the ugly? Authenticity in storytelling goes a long way, and the folks reading your essay will appreciate the time you took to convey your experiences with nuance. This leads to the next to-do…

Show your reader your experiences by telling them a story. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and so should your essay. Start your essay with “the good stuff”—grab your reader’s attention right away so they keep reading. Remember, they have a pile of these on their desks or in their inboxes. Like any essay, your scholarship essay should have a thesis statement to which you connect all of your ideas. Think of this as your one-sentence answer to the essay question. The rest of your essay supports and elaborates on that point with transitions between each body paragraph. In the end, rather than restating your original thesis, give your reader a “So What?”: why this essay matters. Why did they read about your love for your local taco truck and its place in the community for three pages? A take-home message will leave your reader with something to chew on long after they have finished reading.

Read the scholarship program’s mission and what they are looking for in an applicant. Circle key words and phrases. Connect your essay or personal statement back to these specific goals and values so the reader knows exactly how you fit in with their program. Your essay should demonstrate how you would specifically benefit from and contribute to the program and its mission. Using their key words and phrases in your thesis statement is a great way to show how you are the best choice for their funding. 

Writing scholarship essays is a tough business. You will want time in between writing a draft and submitting it to read through, not only for spelling and grammar issues (which matter a lot!), but to ensure that you are addressing that program’s goals and answering the questions they pose. Your essay may make perfect sense to you, but a reader might need clarification or more information to understand your ideas. Make an appointment to take your first draft to the University Writing Center or ask someone you trust to ask clarifying questions to read through it for you. Then, revise with their questions in mind. 

Tips on writing a “Why do you deserve this scholarship?”