Guide for Writing Reference Letters for Scholarship Applications

Applying for scholarships and awards is an important part of academic and professional development for many graduate students. Reference letters are often a critical component of a successful scholarship application. In order to write a strong, supportive, and effective letter, it is recommended that letter writers:

  • Review the evaluation criteria;
  • Read the applicant’s draft application;
  • Seek input on relevant information from the applicant that may be included in the letter.

When thinking about what to include, consider how your letter can add additional perspectives on the applicant you are supporting. An effective letter of support will:

  • Distinguish between first-class applicants—for prestigious scholarships such as the Tri-council, most applicants will have excellent grades and a strong research track record, and the letters are crucial in setting the applicant apart. Whenever possible, support your assessment with specific examples (the applicant was the top ranked student in the cohort of xx);
  • Highlight the significance of the proposed research from an expert point of view, as well as the feasibility of its scope and methodology. Clearly address how qualified the applicant is to take on the research, based on their profile and previous research experience;
  • Describe the applicant’s progress to date. Mention relevant background preparation, as well as evidence of originality, judgement, written and oral skills, and skill at research;
  • Explain the training environment and support that will facilitate the proposed research (in particular CIHR and NSERC);
  • Confirm and reinforce key features outlined in the application. For example, if the applicant has an exceptional accomplishment—an award or publication—then the reference letter can emphasize the prestige. Be sure to read the draft application closely, so that the information provided in the letter is consistent with the rest of the application material;
  • Provide additional information about the applicant relevant to the evaluation criteria. For example, the evaluation criteria for Tri-council doctoral scholarships are: 1) research ability and potential, and 2) communication, interpersonal and leadership abilities. Applicants are encouraged to share relevant information that may be included in the letter;
  • In some cases, given the multi-disciplinary nature of the review committee, it may be useful for the referee to describe disciplinary or field-specific expectations related to research contributions/output. In some disciplines, it is typical for graduate students not to publish until later in their doctoral studies, while in other disciplines, a few peer-reviewed publication credits are expected in the doctoral scholarship application. You may also comment on the importance of journals or conferences (national, international) at which the applicant presented material, if applicable.

Additional Tips

  • Follow the competition guidelines, such as page limit, if applicable;
  • Use superlative descriptors (e.g., excellent, outstanding) judiciously and support them with evidence;
  • Use the space effectively. A letter with only one or two paragraphs will impress the review committee much less than others with rich examples and enthusiastic support.
  • If you are not able to write a meaningful letter, you may note this to the student, so they will have an opportunity to seek another referee.

Contact Us

Mark Hayward
Associate Dean—Academic
Faculty of Graduate Studies
416-736-2100 x66957
fgsadacd@yorku.ca