College students spend a lot of time getting to know themselves. Many like to think of themselves as true "individuals" doing their own thing. Whether they dye their hair purple, or wear the same pair of shorts three years in a row, students like to be themselves (I’ve even had the same grungy hat on for the last four years).
But while we are being ourselves, we often forget to develop relationships with other people who may help us reach our long-term goals. Sure, we have our "party pals," but these people typically won’t help us get where we want to be in life.
Think about it. Most students will be in school about five years. That’s five whole years to get to know people who may be able to help get you where you want to be in life. It’s critical for students to learn how to develop the right relationships in college.
Professors, advisors and other college personnel are typically people we avoid getting to know well. But these are usually the folks that can help students get into grad school or even find their first job.
So, talk to your potential references. Learn about what their interests are and how they spend their time. In the case of professors, pay attention in their class and show up on time. Asking questions and getting involved in class discussion is a great way to stand out in the professor’s eyes. It may sound like sucking up, but it’s not. It’s just being attentive.
In order to increase the chances of getting a strong letter of recommendation from someone, you must pay attention to three important tips.
1) Pick the right reference
In regards to scholarships, picking the right person to write the letter can help put you ahead of the competition. The best recommendations come from people who have worked closely with you, and who understand the award you’re applying for.
For example, the director of the homeless shelter where a student volunteered would be a great reference for an award sponsored by a community service group. However, a person shouldn’t necessarily use that reference for a scholarship application to an economics honors society. Perhaps a professor in economics or another professional in the same field would be the best person for that purpose.
Teachers and professors are typically excellent sources, but also consider previous employers, coaches, clergy members and community leaders. Also, pick someone who can address the award’s special criteria or the sponsoring organization’s particular interests.
One warning though; don’t ask a family member for a recommendation. The praise a person may get from Uncle Marty for cleaning up after his last Super Bowl bash won’t have the credibility to impress the judges.
2) Be on Time: When to ask for the letter
Knowing when a person will need a letter of recommendation is sometimes hard to estimate. In most cases, people ask for recommendations as they need them. But planning ahead may save you some time. Start by making a list of potential letter writers, including names, addresses, email and phone numbers.
A good idea is to ask for letters right after you’ve finished a course with a professor who likes your work. If you wait until you need the letter (maybe two or three years down the line), you risk losing it because the professor doesn’t remember you. Some colleges can help by maintaining an official letter file. That way, when it is needed, the person can just call up the office holding the letters and have them sent.
3) How to make sure the letter shines
Some professors and others on a student’s potential recommendation list may allow people to call them by their first name, or even to party with them. But it is important to make the reference process formal. Start by scheduling an appointment to discuss the recommendation fully.
Supply the writer with as much information as possible, including your correct contact information, materials/information needed for the application. Also, including two copies of any forms the letter writer would need to fill out (for a rough draft and a final draft), a description of the award, and the name, title and mailing address of the recipient are crucial to receiving a great letter.
It’s also important to include complete instructions on how the letters should be handled, information about your achievements such as your transcripts, résumé, and reminders of your past work with the letter writer (e.g., a description of coursework, a copy of an essay or class project, etc.).
If you’re concerned that a reference has forgotten about writing your letter, gracefully remind them by asking if they need more information. Once your letter has been sent, be sure to send a thank you note to him or her. It’s a lot to keep in mind, but all this work should produce a great letter of recommendation — which means you can breathe easier next time you submit a scholarship application.
Jose Vazquez, a marketing major at Western Illinois University, has been awarded 27 scholarships, amassing more than $100,000 in aid to date. He is the author of the book "Free Cash For College: The Everyday Students Guide To Financial Aid," which can be found at www.vazquezmedia.com. He can be reached at Scholarshipguru@youngmoney.com.
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