Reference letter

Writing a compelling reference letter is a crucial part of helping a student secure a scholarship. As an influential figure in the student’s life, your letter can provide key insights into their qualifications, character, and potential for success.

This comprehensive procedure will provide you with step-by-step instructions, expert tips, and sample reference letters to help you craft an outstanding letter that will truly help the student stand out.

Why Do Scholarships Require Reference Letters?

Scholarship committees rely on reference letters to gain additional insights into an applicant. Grades and test scores don’t tell the full story. Reference letters help highlight important qualities that make a student deserving of a scholarship, such as:

  • Work ethic – Reference writers can offer examples of the student’s strong work ethic, perseverance through challenges, and ability to balance challenging course loads. These qualities indicate the student will put in the effort to succeed in college.
  • Character – References can provide firsthand accounts of the applicant’s integrity, responsibility, leadership abilities, and commitment to community service. These traits suggest the student will contribute positively to the college environment.
  • Accomplishments – References can validate and expand on the student’s academic, extracurricular, and work experiences highlighted in their application. This provides credibility and a well-rounded profile.
  • Potential – Most importantly, references can speak to a student’s potential for success in college and beyond. The letter should show the student is worthy of investment and will make the most of the opportunity.

Thoughtful reference letters reinforce the student’s qualifications, fill in important gaps, and ensure the scholarship committee has a well-rounded profile when making their decisions.

How to Know if You Should Write a Reference Letter

Scholarship applicants will specifically ask individuals to write letters on their behalf. This request signifies they value your opinion and believe you can positively influence the committee’s perception of their abilities.

Before agreeing to write a reference letter, ensure you meet the following criteria:

  • You have a meaningful relationship with the student – You should know the applicant well enough to discuss specific examples of their achievements, skills, and character. Avoid accepting if you only have a surface-level understanding of their qualifications.
  • You have directly observed their relevant strengths – Focus your letter on showcasing strengths and abilities you have witnessed firsthand that make the student deserving of a scholarship. Avoid speculation or general platitudes.
  • You are able to write a sincere, positive letter – If you have any hesitations or cannot truthfully write a glowing recommendation, let the student know you may not be the best choice.
  • You understand the scholarship requirements – Ensure you are aware of the specific skills, experiences, and attributes required so you can match your letter to the scholarship criteria.

If you can check these boxes, you will be able to provide the meaningful insights necessary for a persuasive letter. The student has identified you as an influencer who can clearly illustrate their potential.

How to Write an Effective Scholarship Reference Letter

Follow these key steps to craft a compelling scholarship reference letter that makes a strong case for why the applicant deserves funding:

1. Verify Deadlines and Requirements

  • Confirm the due date to submit your letter. Factor in time to allow for review, revisions, and quality check.
  • Ask if there is a specified letter format or questions to answer. Some applications provide a template.
  • Check if a digital or hard copy submission is required. This will determine if an actual signature is needed.
  • Get clarity on word count or page length guidelines. Follow any parameters closely.
  • Request examples of past successful letters if available. Use these as models for tone and content.

2. Gather Information About the Student

  • Meet with the student and ask them to provide any relevant details on their academic record, extracurricular activities, work experience, hobbies, and future goals.
  • Review the student’s scholarship application materials if possible. Understanding their full profile will help you determine the highest-value areas to highlight.
  • Ask the student if there are any specific attributes or accomplishments they would like you to focus on in your letter based on the scholarship criteria. This ensures your letter aligns to their candidacy.

3. Start With a Strong Opening Paragraph

The introductory paragraph should quickly establish:

  • Who you are and your relationship to the student
  • Your overall enthusiastic recommendation of the student
  • A memorable, attention-grabbing summary of the student’s strongest, most relevant qualification as it relates to the scholarship

This makes immediate impact on why this student deserves consideration.

Example opening:

It is my honor to strongly recommend Janine Henderson for the Acme Scholarship. As Janine’s math teacher for the past 3 years, I have witnessed her develop into an accomplished and driven student with limitless potential. Janine’s outstanding mathematical abilities, paired with her relentless work ethic and self-motivation, make her an exceptional candidate for this distinguished mathematics scholarship.

4. Provide Specific Examples of Relevant Strengths

The body paragraphs should expand on 2-3 key strengths with detailed, concrete evidence and anecdotes that reinforce the student’s qualifications. Each paragraph should clearly assert how the quality connects to potential for success.

Areas you may highlight include:

  • Academic abilities and achievements
  • Leadership skills
  • Initiative
  • Communication skills
  • Work ethic
  • Talents and interests
  • Character traits
  • Commitment to service
  • Ability to overcome challenges

Support each attribute with specific examples demonstrating the skill in action. Use vivid details and avoid generalizations.

Example body paragraph:

Janine’s academic record exemplifies her exceptional abilities in mathematics. She consistently earns top marks in all advanced math courses, having received an A+ in Trigonometry, Calculus, and AP Statistics. Janine not only comprehends complex concepts quickly but readily assists other students in grasping challenging material as well. As team captain of our state championship Mathlete team, Janine helped implement new training techniques that boosted the team’s performance over a 20% increase in the last testing cycle. She dedicates 15 hours per week tutoring classmates struggling with math, demonstrating patience and leadership. Janine’s mathematical prowess will enable her to excel in the rigorous quantitative studies integral to your engineering program. Her academic drive makes Janine highly deserving of this scholarship.

5. Speak to Personal Character

Beyond academics and activities, provide personal anecdotes that reveal admirable qualities about the student’s work ethic, integrity, values, leadership, responsibility, or passion. Share specific conversations or observations that offer insights into their character.

Example character insight:

I have personally witnessed Janine demonstrating commitment to community service. When our school hosted a holiday gift drive, Janine coordinated the entire initiative single-handedly. She devised a social media campaign that increased donations by 35% over the previous year. Janine worked weekends sorting gifts and created an inventory system allowing low-income families to choose specific items in a welcoming environment. Her compassion and care for giving back to others represents Janine’s outstanding character and principles.

6. Emphasize Potential For Success

Articulate how the student’s demonstrated abilities, accomplishments, and personal strengths suggest strong potential to thrive and contribute meaningfully if awarded this scholarship. Conclude by reiterating your wholehearted recommendation of this candidate.

Example conclusion:

Janine possesses the work ethic, natural intelligence, leadership, and determination to excel in your engineering program and build a bright future as an engineer addressing society’s grand challenges. She epitomizes the qualities of a deserving scholarship recipient who will make significant contributions to the university community. I offer my highest recommendation that Janine Henderson receive your scholarship. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions about this exceptional young woman and her extraordinary potential.

7. Review and Revise the Letter

Proofread your letter several times once complete. Ensure it is clear, concise, and compelling. Verify proper spelling, grammar, and formatting. Refine phrasesawkward phrasing. Read the letter aloud and make edits to smooth out any awkward phrasing. Have a third party review as well to get an outside perspective.

Tips for an Exceptional Scholarship Reference Letter

Implement the following strategies to craft an outstanding letter tailored specifically for scholarships:

  • Focus on abilities and qualities that align to the scholarship’s purpose – Understand what the award is for, and emphasize the student’s strengths in the relevant areas. Make direct connections between accomplishments and scholarship goals.
  • Quantify accomplishments – Include measurable outcomes and specific figures that showcase the student’s level of achievement (e.g. GPA, test scores, ranking, percentage improvements, number of leadership positions).
  • Highlight participation and initiative – Programs want students who will actively contribute to the community. Note ways the student takes on leadership roles, gets involved with causes, or spearheads new activities.
  • Use vivid examples – Thoroughly illustrate claims about the student with engaging stories, anecdotes, and details rather than simply stating general qualities. Help the student come to life.
  • Emphasize upside – While past accomplishments are meaningful, programs also want candidates with future potential. Discuss the student’s work ethic, curiosity, vision, and self-motivation to show ongoing promise.
  • Avoid negative comparisons – Focus the letter exclusively on highlighting the student’s merits rather than drawing comparisons to others or putting down peers.

Dos and Don’ts

Follow these dos and don’ts when writing a compelling scholarship reference letter:


  • Do customize your letter extensively for each scholarship. Avoid a generic form letter. Research the specific award and note the student’s direct relevance.
  • Do use specific examples, data, and quantifiable facts. This provides solid evidence of accomplishments.
  • Do focus on the most relevant strengths and achievements. Pick 2-3 key areas to highlight in-depth.
  • Do emphasize admirable personal qualities. Share insights into work ethic, integrity, kindness, leadership.
  • Do comment on growth and improvement. Note ways the student proactively develops their abilities over time.
  • Do speak to the student’s passion. Enthusiasm for their field suggests ongoing engagement and success.


  • Don’t exaggerate accomplishments or misrepresent the student’s record. Be truthful.
  • Don’t make unsubstantiated claims about potential. Base projections on actual demonstrated abilities.
  • Don’t include unnecessary personal details or anecdotes. Keep the focus on merits and qualifications.
  • Don’t reiterate activities from the student’s own application materials. Provide additional insights.
  • Don’t speak generically about strengths. Use vivid examples to illustrate.
  • Don’t submit a letter with errors or sloppy formatting. Proofread closely.

Reference Letter Samples and Templates

How to Write a Reference Letter for a Scholarship Application

The following two sample scholarship reference letters illustrate the content, formatting, and style of strong letters. Use them as models when crafting your own letter.

Sample 1:

To Whom It May Concern:

It is my pleasure to strongly recommend Janine Henderson for the Acme Engineering Scholarship. As Janine’s high school math teacher for the past three years as well as the faculty advisor for the Mathlete team, I have come to know Janine as an exceptionally talented and dedicated student with extraordinary potential.

Janine’s academic record exemplifies her exceptional mathematical abilities. She has taken the most challenging courses our high school offers and earned A grades in AP Calculus, Statistics, and Trigonometry. Janine not only comprehends complex concepts quickly but also patiently assists struggling students in grasping difficult material. As Mathlete team captain, Janine spearheaded new training regimens using interactive learning apps that boosted the team’s regional test scores significantly above the prior year.

Beyond her academic and extracurricular achievements, Janine demonstrates admirable character and principles. Despite her busy schedule, she volunteers 15 hours per week at our local middle school tutoring 7th and 8th graders in math. The students truly look up to her. Janine also assisted in coordinating our school’s holiday gift drive campaign. Through creative social media outreach, she increased donations 35% over the previous year. Her compassion and generosity are commendable.

Janine possesses the ideal combination of intelligence, leadership, determination, and heart to thrive at your university and beyond. I strongly attest she exemplifies the spirit of your scholarship through her academic passion, self-motivation, and commitment to community. Please do not hesitate to contact me if I can provide any additional information about this phenomenal young woman. I offer my highest recommendation for Janine Henderson.


[Your Name]
[Contact Info]

Sample 2:

April 15, 2023

Scholarship Committee
Acme Foundation
123 Grant Road
Chicago, IL 60601

Dear Scholarship Committee Members,

I am honored to recommend Alicia Chang, one of my most accomplished biology students, for the Acme Scholarship in STEM. I have been Alicia’s Advanced Placement Biology teacher for the past year, and have watched her excel with superior intellect and motivation. Alicia’s academic achievements, leadership initiatives, and passion for science make her an exceptional candidate deserving of this prestigious award.

Over her high school career, Alicia has compiled a sterling academic record, especially in scientific disciplines. She has earned straight A’s in Honors Chemistry, Accelerated Physics, and Advanced Biology while taking on a formidable slate of additional AP courses. Alicia thinks critically and asks insightful questions that elevate our classroom discussions. On the recent Ecology unit exam, Alicia earned the top score in our class with a 97%. She has a genuine thirst for understanding complex biological systems and theories.

In addition to academics, Alicia demonstrates outstanding leadership ability. As president of our Women in STEM club, Alicia has tripled membership by launching creative new outreach initiatives including a middle school mentoring program. She leads weekly hands-on workshops helping peers apply classroom concepts through engineering projects and experiments. Alicia’s grant proposal for new robotics kits and lab equipment enabled our school to expand extracurricular STEM offerings. She has become a role model for young women interested in science.

Beyond her school involvement, Alicia spends numerous hours volunteering at our local science museum leading educational programs for children. She developed science experiments and activities to make learning engaging, earning her the museum’s Youth Leader award. I cannot overstate Alicia Chang’s promise as a leader and future innovator. She demonstrates immense potential to achieve great things if awarded your scholarship.

Please feel free to contact me if you need any other information about Alicia and why she merits this honor. It is with great confidence that recommend Alicia Chang for the Acme Scholarship. She possesses extraordinary ability, ambition, and moral character capable of impacting the world. I appreciate your consideration.


[Your name]
Biology Teacher
[School name] [Contact info]

Scholarship Reference Letter FAQs

How important are reference letters for scholarships?

Reference letters carry significant influence during scholarship selection. The committee relies heavily on the perspectives of teachers, mentors, supervisors and other references who know the student. Compelling letters can tip the scales during final decisions.

How should a scholarship reference letter be formatted?

The letter should adhere to standard business letter formatting with the date at the top, followed by scholarship committee name, address, and salutation. Use a formal tone and include your relevant identifying information at the bottom. Paragraphs should be single spaced with an extra space between each.

What makes a great scholarship reference letter vs. a bad one?

Great letters are specific with vivid examples of relevant accomplishments. They reveal admirable qualities about the student through anecdotes. Weak letters simply offer generalities and platitudes without evidence or substance. Sincere enthusiasm for the student comes across clearly in exceptional letters.

Who should write a scholarship reference letter?

Look to teachers, counselors, coaches, employers, mentors and community leaders who know the student’s abilities and can meaningfully discuss their merit. Avoid family friends providing biased praise without substance. References should have credibility based on their relationship to the applicant.

What information should I request from the student?

Ask for a copy of their application, resume, personal statement and any other application materials to understand their full profile. Have them provide transcripts, test scores, and a list of awards and extracurricular activities. Discuss their proudest accomplishments and future ambitions.


Writing a compelling reference letter is vital to helping applicants secure academic scholarships and financial support. Your insights into a student’s qualifications can truly make the difference in them achieving their educational goals. By following this comprehensive guide, you can craft an outstanding letter that makes a persuasive case for why the student deserves the award over other applicants. Put your heart into the letter as a meaningful mentorship opportunity to change a young person’s life trajectory.

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