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Writing effective reference letters

Professors are often asked by students to write reference letters for funding opportunities. Reference letters are critical to a fellowship or scholarship application, helping to distinguish an individual from a pack of outstanding applicants by highlighting unique strengths.

Successful reference letters

  • Are written by academics who know the student and their work well.
  • Are written with the knowledge that the audience will be other academics, but not necessarily in the same academic discipline.
  • Include specific examples of the student's outstanding achievement(s).
  • Include details about the student's progress, initiative and success in the program.
  • Convince the selection committee that the proposal is valid and that the student is capable of successfully undertaking the research.
  • Explain any anomalies in the student’s record (e.g. poor grades during a term when they were ill, etc.).
  • Highlight previous accomplishments (explain the importance of awards and publications).
  • Mention how and why the student stands out from their peers, particularly if writing letters for others in the same competition.
  • Are clear, forceful and literate. 

Additional resources

Further details and instructions can be found in Tips on writing effective reference letters, a presentation given at a 2010 Best Practices workshop. Designed to help you write the best reference letters possible, this page answers important questions such as:

  • Am I obliged to write a reference letter if asked by a student? How should I respond if I'm not supportive?
  • How much lead time should I expect in order to write a reference letter?
  • What information should be provided by the student?
  • What are the key elements of a “good” reference letter and what pitfalls should be avoided?