Thank you for agreeing to be a Waterloo graduate studies applicant's referee.

Strong references 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 requested criteria. 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.
  • For confidentiality reasons, make comparisons to other students by name.
  • 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.
  • Use faint praise. While a statement such as, “They 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.

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