Advice for Students Writing Thank-You Notes to Donors

Introduction

You’ve won a scholarship or grant. Congratulations! It’s no easy feat to secure funding for a semester, summer, project, or idea. But now what? Before you cash the check and roll around in the bills, you should write a note of thanks to the kind donor who funded your new cash influx. (Side note: Spend your scholarship on what’s intended for. Ignore that thing about rolling around in dollar bills.)

Writing thank-you notes is a time-honored tradition—one that’s been written about by many manners experts including our favorite early twentieth-century etiquette author Emily Post. When you hear “early twentieth-century etiquette” do you think tea parties and knowing which fork you should use for the fish course? (It’s the fish fork, duh.) Well, you wouldn’t be wrong. But, Post’s advice about thank-you notes transcends the staid convention you might associate with 1920s-era propriety.

For instance, take a look at one of the examples that Post includes in her “formal” letters of thanks section:

“Dear Mrs. Eminent:

Thank you for these wonderful prints. They go too beautifully with some old English ones that Jim’s uncle sent us, and our dining-room will be quite perfect—as to walls!

Hoping that you are surely coming to the wedding,

Very sincerely,

Mary Smith.”

Can’t you just imagine Mary Smith saying this in a gush of emotion? It’s not stiff or formulaic. Its grammar is questionable (“hoping that you are surely coming” and “too beautifully”). And it’s even a bit confusing—what is “as to walls!” supposed to mean?

Now, we’re not saying that you should replicate Post’s work—your letter to a donor should make sense, should generally be grammatical, should be longer and more detailed than this, etc.—but one thing that you should replicate is this natural style. If Emily Post, the preeminent etiquette queen says that you can say something as silly as “as to walls!” when writing a thank-you note, you should feel free to break out of the shackles of sedate academic prose and write something that seems like a real human could say it.

A Few Notes on the Genre

Before we jump in, let’s take a second to define the thank-you note genre. In particular, this page will focus on writing thank-you notes to donors who have given financial gifts through a scholarship, grant, or other means. What follows outlines the typical rhetorical situation for a thank-you note of this type:

Author: A student who has received a financial gift from a donor

Audience: The donor(s) who have given the gift

Purposes: To communicate appreciation for the gift, to explain its impact, to tell the donor(s) a bit about the student’s life, and to validate their decision to contribute to higher education in this way

Setting: Soon after receiving the gift, within the context of shared appreciation for education, and within the community norms and values of the particular organization associated with the gift

It’s important that you also define the particular rhetorical situation that describes the kind of note that you’ll be writing. So, before you begin, make sure that you identify the author, audience, purposes, and setting that describe your particular letter. Thinking carefully about these elements will help you personalize your letter and ensure that it is appropriate for your particular situation.

In addition to consulting this guide, it is essential that you check with the organization that has administered or given you the gift to determine if they have specific guidelines about how you should write your letter. In particular, if you’re a student at UW-Madison who has been given a scholarship through the UW Foundation, please refer to their guidelines in addition to the recommendations given here.

If you’re writing another kind of thank-you note—like a thank-you for a gift or a thank-you after an interview—some of the advice on this page may be helpful to you, but please be sure to check other reputable sites to learn about the conventions for those specific forms of writing.

Common Sections in a Thank-You Note

A thank-you note of this kind has several parts, which are outlined below.

Salutation

A “salutation” is the greeting at the beginning of your letter. Almost always, this looks something like “Dear Ms. Santos,” or “Dear Mr. Chan and Ms. Singh,” or “Dear Mx. Nkrumah”  (Mx. is a gender-neutral title). In general, follow these guidelines:

  • Always use “Dear” to start your salutation because it’s a standard formal but still warm greeting.
  • Refer to the donor(s) you’re addressing by their title (Dr., Mr., Mx., etc.) and their last name(s). If you’re not sure about a donor’s title, don’t guess! Ask the organization that granted your award.
  • Put a comma at the end of the salutation.

Introduction

The introduction of your letter goes in the first paragraph. Here, you’ll present your purpose for writing and you’ll briefly introduce yourself. For the most part, in your introduction, you should:

  • Explicitly thank the donor(s) for their gift. Mention the particular scholarship or grant by its full name (but don’t mention the amount).

For example: “Thank you for funding the Anders Jakobsson Memorial Award, which I was excited to receive this year.”

  • Introduce yourself and tell the donor(s) a bit about your academic career so far.

For example: “My name is Imani Jones and I am a first-year student at UW-Madison studying Chemical Engineering. I am from Waukesha, Wisconsin, and I recently graduated from Waukesha West High School.”

or

“My name is Chang-woo Kim and I am a senior at UW-Madison studying Human Development and Family Studies. After I graduate, I am hoping to pursue a career as a Social Worker after earning my master’s degree in Social Work.”

Body Paragraphs

The body of your letter (which goes after your introductory paragraph) should be comprised of 2-3 paragraphs. Your aim in these paragraphs should be to give the donor(s) a snapshot of your life. Some questions that you may answer in these paragraphs include:

  • Why did you choose UW-Madison? (You may want to answer this question if you are a first-year or sophomore.)
  • Why did you choose to pursue your (intended) major(s)?
  • What was your favorite course at UW-Madison? What did you enjoy about it?
  • How did you pick your intended career? Why is it so appealing to you? (You may want to answer this question if you are a senior or junior.)
  • How are you involved in campus life? Do you lead a club or organization? Work in a lab?
  • Are you employed? What is challenging or exciting about your job?
  • Do you volunteer in the community? What do you find meaningful about serving others?

Pick a few of these questions to answer in your body paragraphs. Don’t try to answer all of them or feel obligated to give the donor(s) a comprehensive understanding of everything going on in your life (remember, this isn’t a resume!). Instead, focus on a few meaningful experiences and highlight these in your letter.

When choosing which questions to answer, it’s also important to take into account the kind of grant or scholarship you’ve received. If it’s related to a particular major, career, or other aspect of your life, make sure that your letter is relevant to these experiences. For example, if the award you’ve received is associated with your degree program, you may want to describe a meaningful class activity from a course in your major.

Conclusion

After your body paragraphs, you’ll write a final brief paragraph that will conclude your thank-you letter. In this paragraph, thank the donor(s) again for their generosity. This paragraph should also emphasize how their financial gift will make a difference in your life and how it will advance your academic career.

Closing and Signature

After your concluding paragraph, pick an appropriate closing and hand-sign your letter. For example:

This image shows a few example closings: "Sincerely, Abdul Masood [hand-signed] Abdul Masood [Typed] or With appreciation, Kai Cohen [Hand-signed] Kai Cohen [Typed]

Thank-You Note Recommendations

  1. Be clear. When you’re writing to donor(s), remember their context may be different from your own. In order to make sure that they understand what you’re referring to, make sure that you explain yourself thoroughly and avoid jargon. Be sure to use the full names of departments, universities, employers, clubs, etc. and avoid acronyms. Try not to make too many assumptions about what your donor knows. When in doubt, explain!

 

  1. Tell stories. Particularly in your body paragraphs, tell the donor(s) stories from your experiences. For example, in your paragraph about working in an oncology lab, you might recount a time when a particular lab procedure challenged you and how you overcame this obstacle. Describe how it felt to help a community member learn about their ancestors while you were volunteering at the local library. Explain why a particular art history lecture blew your mind. Give details and show the donor(s) a few snapshots from your life.

 

  1. Use a natural tone. Although it might be tempting to get out your thesaurus and use the most erudite language you can muster, your thank-you note should sound like you! As Emily Post would say, avoid “pedantry” and “affectation.” Ditch rote recitations and inflect your letter with your authentic voice. One trick to make sure that your letter sounds genuine is to read it aloud. If your sentences sound contrived, change them up. Pretend that you’re having a casual conversation with one of your parent’s friends whom you don’t know super well (or someone from their generation) and use this kind of language instead.

 

  1. Convey appropriate emotion. It’s a big deal to get a scholarship or grant, so your thank-you note can express this! You can say that you were “so excited” or “thrilled” to receive the award. You might say that you’re “incredibly thankful” for your donor’s generosity and—even better—describe the real-life impact that the award will have on you. Essentially, you want the donor(s) to connect to your emotions and understand the difference they’ve made in your life.

 

  1. Think about the physical form. Although you might be familiar with writing thank-you notes in pretty cards, this is probably not the time to bust out your fanciest stationery. Because your letter should be about one single-spaced page in length (or a bit over if you’ve got a lot to convey), a card won’t give you enough space to fully express your thoughts. Instead, use standard 8 ½ x 11 printer paper. Type your letter to make sure that donor(s) will be able to easily read it and hand-sign it to make it a bit more personal.

Thank-you Note Examples and Annotations

As you begin to draft your note, please read over the following examples from real students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in addition to the guiding principles listed above.

Dear Department of English Undergraduate Scholarship Committee, Thank you so much for choosing me to receive the [Scholarship Name]. I know that there were many qualified candidates, so I am very grateful that you chose me to receive this scholarship. I will use this scholarship to help pay for the graduate program I am going to begin in June. I will be getting my Master of Science in English Secondary Education here at UW-Madison. This is an intensive program, so I will not be able to work while participating in it. Because of this, I appreciate this generous gift even more, so thank you again! [Annotation for the previous sentence: Good details here. It's clear how the award will make a difference in this student's life.] To share some information about me, I am graduating this semester with a B.A. in English Creative Writing. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time as a student in the English Department. All of my teachers and advisers have been so kind and knowledgeable. [Annotation for the previous sentence: Because this particular award is given by the English department, it's important that this student describe the positive impact of this program.] I also have honestly loved every English class I have taken here at UW-Madison. Outside of academics, I worked for three years at the Ingraham Badger Market, I was an editorial intern at the Wisconsin Historical Society for a year and a half, and I have interned at the Literacy Network of Dane County for one year. Also I spent time volunteering with high school students through Centro Hispano and playing the violin in the All University Strings Orchestra. After I finish graduate school, I plan on teaching high school English. I hope to instill the same appreciation and love for literature and writing in all of my future students that I have gained here. [Annotation for the previous sentence: Here, the student shares their career aspirations, which are in alignment with the award they've received.] I want to conclude by thanking you again for picking me to receive this scholarship. I am honored to receive this scholarship, especially since [Scholarship Donor Name] herself was also an educator, and it means a lot to be recognized by the English Department. I apologize for not being able to attend the award ceremony, but my absence in no way reflects a lack of gratitude. I appreciate this scholarship so much along with the amazing English Department here at UW-Madison. [Annotation for previous sentence: This letter closes with a sincere expression of gratitude.] Thank you again for your generosity! Sincerely, [Signature] [Student Name}