Use the 5 Ws to Get Great Scholarship and College Letters of Recommendation

Great letters of recommendation can make a student stand out from the crowd. They can mean the difference between a college acceptance letter and a wait list offer. They can mean the difference between getting that scholarship and getting left behind. That’s why it’s important for a student to do what they can to increase the odds of receiving a stellar letter. It’s not that hard. It’s just a matter of following the 5 Ws – Who, What, When, Where, and Why – and understanding how all of the pieces fit together.

Who to Ask for Scholarship and College Letters of Recommendation

When it comes to scholarship and college letters of recommendation, the more the merrier. Seriously. Students should ask three high school teachers, their school counselor, adults who have supervised their volunteer work, church and community leaders, scout leaders, coaches, neighbors, and employers. They need to cast a wide net to see what they’ll catch.

But it’s not quantity over quality. The key to selecting potential recommenders is finding those adults who will be able to tell compelling stories about the student. These are generally people who have either known the student over a number of years (a minister, for example) or who got to know them well for a specific reason (such as a coach).

The student most often, but doesn’t always, get to choose which teachers are their college application recommenders. Some colleges may require a math teacher and an English teacher, for example, while others leave it up to the student. To receive glowing recommendations, it’s important that a student is engaged and forms genuine relationships with the teachers and counselor who will become their recommenders.

When to Ask

Yes, we’re skipping past the “what” for now. Because “when” is the most important of the Ws. For adults who pass in and out of the student’s life, such as a volunteer coordinator or summer employer, it’s critical to ask just before the relationship ends. The student wants their recommender’s reflections to be fresh and heartfelt; the recommender shouldn’t have to wrack their brain to recall specifics about the student’s performance.

For teachers and counselors, the student should ask during the spring of their junior year. Yes, that’s early – but that’s the point. The following fall, the rest of the college-bound senior class will be asking for letters. Juniors who ask in the spring will get more thoughtful and insightful letters. Best of all, when it comes time for the teachers and counselors to send that student’s college letters of recommendation, they’ll already have a version on their computer that they can tweak and send.

Explaining the Why

When a student asks a teacher or counselor for a letter of recommendation as a junior, the potential recommender may ask why the student wants a letter so early. The student should be prepared to explain that they are getting a head start on college scholarship, summer job, and internship applications, and that the letter of recommendation will be helpful throughout the process.

What to Provide to Recommenders

Back to the “what.” Students asking for letters of recommendation should always provide background material to their recommenders. After all, the recommender may only know one facet of the student’s life, and may not understand the student’s goals. Once a recommender agrees to write a letter, the student should follow up with a cover letter reviewing why they’d like the letter, expressing the hope that they can pick up the letter within three weeks, and thanking the recommender in advance for their help.

The student should include their resume and a data sheet with the cover letter. Many high schools have some version of a data sheet (sometimes called a “brag sheet”) that students use. It typically includes basic family information (with whom the student lives, number of siblings), GPA, class rank, SAT or ACT scores, plans after high school, and personal and professional goals. This provides the recommender with additional information and context for their letter.

The recommender may ask to meet with the student to ask further questions. The student should, of course, make themselves available for such a meeting.

Where to Ask

It’s common sense, but a student should ask a potential recommender in person, when possible. They should ask at a time and place where there isn’t a lot of commotion and when the student can have the potential recommender’s undivided attention. Rather than asking a teacher at the end of a passing period, for example, the student should approach the teacher and ask if they can have a few moments of her time when it’s convenient.

When it’s impractical to ask for a scholarship or college letter of recommendation in person, it’s acceptable to ask via email. The student should explain the “why” and let the potential recommender know that they can send them additional information (the “what”) once they agree.

The Bigger Picture

By gathering letters of recommendation throughout their high school careers, and then asking teachers and their counselor during the spring of their junior year, a high school student is in an excellent position for college applications. The student has a sense of which recommenders will provide effusive evaluations and which are more lukewarm. The student will be forewarned if a recommender can’t string a coherent sentence together or brings up an inappropriate topic.

When it comes time to apply to college, the student must check the box that says they waive their right to read letters of recommendation submitted on their behalf. But since they’ve already see what is likely the first (or perhaps final) drafts, they’ll know who they can count on, with whom they might have to do relationship-building, and who they need to avoid listing as a college recommender. That spring sneak peek will give the student confidence in approaching recommenders for college letters of recommendation.

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About the Author:

Sally Smith is a college and scholarship coach who helps families navigate the path after high school. She facilitates in-person and online group workshops, and provides one-on-one coaching on a variety of topics. Sally can help families gain an understanding of the college selection, application, and decision process; pinpoint scholarship opportunities; write effective college admission and scholarship essays; decipher the FAFSA and CSS Profile; gather stellar letters of recommendation; and develop strategies for college entrance testing and test preparation. To learn more about the services she provides and to schedule a free 30-minute consultation, visit

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