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. 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?




    Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
    Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

    Back to top