Skip to main content

Scholarship application help

We have many resources to help you with application requirements of external funding competitions.

We've also included tips for scholarship referees. You can share this information with the academic professionals who are contributing letters of reference to support your funding application.

Writing effective reference letters presentation, September 2022.

Reference letters are critical to a scholarship application, but they are often the most overlooked part of the application process.

Other than the applicant essays you'll be writing, these letters are the most important part of the application. All applicants being considered for a competitive scholarship program are already first class, so reference letters can help distinguish you from other outstanding applicants by highlighting your uniqueness.

The following tips can help you find people who'll write you reference letters that stand out.

Choose your referees wisely – you have more control over this than you think!

  • Ask prospective referees if they can give you a strong reference.
  • Your referee should be familiar not only with your academic abilities, but also your personal interests and background. They should know how those relate to and enhance your ability to carry out your proposed research.

Provide your referees with all the information they need to write a strong letter.

  • You should give your referees a copy of:
    • a comprehensive draft of your research proposal
    • your CV
    • your unofficial transcripts
    • a personal statement that includes your career goals, interests and extracurricular activities
  • What makes you memorable? Include any relevant information the referee could use to emphasize extraordinary achievements in light of where you are in your program and your research career.
  • It is also vital to provide the scholarship selection criteria and ask that they specifically be addressed in the reference letter. A strong reference letter will address your academic excellence, research potential, publication record, oral and written communication skills, and your interpersonal and leadership abilities.

What gives you the edge over others being considered?

  • The more information a referee has to draw from, the better the case for support they can make for you.
  • Give your referees plenty of time—you don't want them writing letters at the last minute.
  • Give your referees information about the required format and length for the reference letter, where to send it and any relevant deadlines.
  • Follow up with your referees about a week before the deadline just to make sure that your reference has not been forgotten and to acknowledge the referee's support.

The bottom line:

The reference letter needs to present an accurate and complete picture of your achievements and research potential. Adjudication committees look for the extra excellence of a student when considering evaluations. Most committees look at what you have already accomplished, but are event more interested in your potential to accomplish more in the future.

  • Present research plans coherently and in a logical and connected order. Describe tools, techniques, methods and timelines
  • If you are critiquing existing models or approaches in the literature, make sure you're objective and respectful. Demonstrate clearly why your approach is better than other approaches in your discipline
  • Provide enough background to place your research in context in your field of study
  • State the significance of your research to your field. If applicable, state why it's significant to industry, policy development and/or development of new research models
  • Include all relevant information in the research proposal. Do not refer to URLs or other publications for supplemental information which will not be read by reviewers
  • If your proposed research is a continuation of your master’s thesis, clearly state the differences between work done for your thesis and the research activities outlined in this proposal
  • If your research considers matters of biological sex, gender or details related to diversity, describe how it will be addressed in your research method
  • Avoid the use of discipline specific jargon and highly technical terminology. If you use it, you have to explain it and that will take up space. Remember that your proposal is being read by intelligent people who may not necessarily be specialists in your area of study
  • Avoid typos, run-on sentences, incomplete information, incorrect information, editorializing and unduly negative criticism
  • Do not use acronyms, unless you must refer to something multiple times. If you must use them, spell it out the first time and use acronym to save space. For example: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)
  • Think about creative use of headlines, en-dots, subsections, bold, underlines and italics. These make a page look attractive and create white space
  • Stick to the presentation standards established by research council and described in the application instructions for the council you are applying to. NSERC, SSHRC and CIHR each have their own format
  • Don’t be afraid to convey your enthusiasm for your research topic in your proposal. It can help make it polished and engaging
  • Ask a friend who is not familiar with your research to read your proposal at a time when they really don’t want to. Ask them to put a red X beside any sentence they had to read more than once. This can quickly identify sentences that may need editing
  • Read your proposal out loud to yourself. If it doesn’t “flow” when you read it, it will probably be difficult for someone else to read
  • Have a small number of people who care about you and your success read your proposal. This could be your supervisor, department graduate advisor, friend or family member, or the UVic coach for your research council. Listen to their feedback and use what works. Remember that it is ultimately your proposal
  • If your proposed research overlaps with areas funded by other granting agencies, justify your submission of this proposal to this agency. For example, submitting to SSHRC rather than to NSERC or CIHR. This is particularly important with regard to health research
  • If you changed disciplines, or if your research has changed since your masters thesis, explain that and indicate that you are familiar with the new area
  • If doing research-creation, be sure to clearly describe the research component part of your project. This applies primarily to fine arts PhD proposals.
  • Remember this is your research. It is not a summary of your supervisor’s work or the work of those who came before you

  • Start by asking the student to give you a copy of the award evaluation criteria, their research proposal and any other relevant information to help you in the preparation of the letter
  • Tailor the letter to the specific competition rather than a generic "to whom it may concern"
  • Rather than using general comments, assess the applicant’s strengths for each criterion, giving an example whenever possible
  • Consider providing comparisons with other students to help distinguish the student as being exceptional or performing above the grade. (i.e. Why is this student the one best candidate for this award?)
  • Provide as much relevant detail as possible, using specific examples

Include evidence of:

  • familiarity with the candidate (how long, how well, the nature of your working relationship)
  • past achievements
  • work experience and academic training relevant to the research
  • ability for critical thought and analysis
  • ability to apply specific skills and particular knowledge
  • judgement and ethics
  • originality and creativity
  • initiative and autonomy
  • leadership ability and potential*
  • enthusiasm for research
  • special skill sets, if applicable. For example, teaching proficiency, excellence at mentoring junior lab partners, technical acumen, etc.
  • communication, interpersonal and relationship building skills

Comment on:

  • the ability to complete projects on time
  • how this research fits into the candidate's long range career goals
  • how the research platform is supported by the local resources and talents at UVic (or elsewhere, if the student is leaving UVic)
  • the quality of the journals in which the applicant has published and the potential for future publications
  • the significance of the research, the innovativeness, potential contributions
  • the impact and benefits to Canada

*Leadership is of critical importance for Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship applicants. In addition to the above, please ensure your letter provides evidence of:

  • professional involvement in dance, arts, music or other professional roles
  • significant artistic achievement
  • recognized athletic achievement, especially in a leadership role
  • entrepreneurial achievement, such as start-up companies
  • foreign travel and study
  • mentoring of others
  • teaching experience, with some detail about who they taught and how the evaluation of teaching was done
  • supervisory experience
  • student government and involvement in the university community, including committees, teams, senate, boards, ethics committees and/or other elected positions
  • project management
  • roles in professional societies and/or organizing conferences/meetings
  • community involvement in charity and non-profit organizations
  • relevant other experience, such as parliamentary pages and internships