Thank you for agreeing to be a Waterloo graduate studies applicant's referee!
Strong reference letters are key to successful applications for admissions, scholarships and awards. Here are a few tips for you.
- Make the time for the students you mentor to assist them with their full application packages, including selection of additional referees.
- Collect the background information you need to inform your letter, e.g., the applicant’s current CV, proposed plan of study, academic transcripts.
- Explain why you are qualified to appraise the applicant.
- Tailor your reference letter to the criteria of the specific agency. Failure to comment on a specified characteristic, e.g., leadership, might be taken to indicate weakness in that area.
- Provide clear indication of the applicant’s strengths, e.g., quantify: the best writing skills of the 20 PhD students I have supervised; provide examples; use superlatives appropriately.
- Elaborate on accomplishments, e.g., explain why a grade, presentation or publication is noteworthy; why the research plan is important.
- Reflect the true merits of the applicant. Although you will want to present the candidate positively, not everyone is in the top 2%! Misrepresentation will be picked up by reviewers.
- Address areas of potential criticism, if relevant, e.g., explain why an aspect of the record, such as a poor early grades or a lower-than-expected publication rate, may not reflect the potential of the applicant.
- Make your letter stand out. Reviewers read many, many letters.
- Proofread your letter!
- Reiterate the CV or plan of study without elaboration.
- Talk about yourself (your course, your research program) without bringing it back to the applicant (e.g., their strengths, how it supports their academic growth)
- Assume the reader understands specifics of your field, e.g., technical aspects, the best journals.
- ‘Damn’ with faint praise. While a statement such as, “S(he) will likely successfully complete the program” may be the best you can say for a borderline applicant, this will disadvantage a top scholar.
- Include irrelevant information.
- Leave too little time.
See also: Bonetta L. (2009) Writing a letter of recommendation. Addendum to Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty, 2nd edition, Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Retrieved from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute website.