The Do’s and Don’ts of Getting the Best Reference Letter

Things to Do

• Discuss your reference letter with your referee

Make sure your referee knows your skills and achievements and what important details you would like them to highlight. Provide them with your up-to-date curriculum vitae (C.V.), transcript, and a personal statement specifying your career goal and interests.

• Get your referee to explain their relationship to you and why they are capable of providing a meaningful assessment of your character and/or achievements.

For example, a letter from a referee that has known you for 4 years and has worked directly with you carries a lot more weight than a letter from someone who doesn’t know you personally and have only known you for 4 months. Letters should include a brief statement of the referee’s relationship with the scholarship applicant in a positive and professional way.

• Tailor your reference letter to the scholarship requirements.

Be sure to know the focus and expectation of the scholarship. Are they looking for a candidate with strong leadership or someone who has contributed to their community in an exemplary way?

Make sure your reference letter relates your achievements and personality to the type of candidate the scholarship committee is looking for. For the leadership type, you may want the referee to describe those academic and extra-curricular activities that could highlight your leadership qualities and distinguish you from others.

• Highlight your personality and not just your achievements

You want your reference letter to supplement your application. This means it should highlight something that you aren’t able to put in your application. For example, how others view you. By highlighting your personality, the scholarship committee will be able to see a different side of you and not just your achievements.

• Customize with a personal touch to your reference letter

Include the name of the scholarship organization that you are applying for. If your reference letter is addressed to their specific scholarship selection committee, it will give a personal touch feel instead of a generic reference letter.

Make sure the referee has included a signature, along with contact information even though there is usually separate section for referee information on your application.

• Keep the length of your reference letters to around one page

If a reference letter is too short, it fails to provide enough details and examples to boost your application with a competitive edge. Go back and discuss with your referee about what they can elaborate on.

If a reference letters is too long, it will be skimmed through and your highlighted details could be overlooked. Keep it concise.

Things to Avoid

• Do not improperly date reference letters

Review the date on the reference letter. Do not use a reference letter that is almost a year old. Try to date it between 2-5 weeks before the deadline of the application.

• Thank you letters are not reference letters.

A thank you letter for your commitment and what their organization is responsible for is not a reference letter. Your reference letter should not consist largely of unsupported praise. A reference letter is a personal letter about your personality and personal achievements, with supporting points.

• Do not include irrelevant or outdated references.

The reference of your experiences or achievements in the reference letter should be relevant to the scholarship application. It should focus on experiences that happened within the past couple years. Even letters from a referee with a long-standing relationship with you need to be as current and forward-looking as possible.

• Do not underestimate the importance of reference letter.

No matter how strong your qualifications are, there will always be others with equivalent or better achievements and grades. However, some exceptionally strong comments written by your referee particular to you will certainly influence the judging committee.

More Tips on Reference Letters: The 3P’s (Plan, Prepare, Prosper)  ← Hyperlink to

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