Reference Letter Checklist

A brief guide for faculty members who are writing letters of support/recommendation for students and postdoctoral fellows.

Most reference letters/letters of appraisal will be read by multi-disciplinary selection committees. It’s important to keep that audience in mind, and ensure that your letter speaks to the applicant’s specific research and skills, but is also comprehensible to a general academic audience.

The following is a checklist to help you ensure that you’ve covered the most important components of your evaluation. In general, it’s best to distribute the weight you give to each component mostly among the first two broad categories (the candidate and the research plan), but do plan to address the research dissemination plans and how the applicant and their research fit within the Faculty, where applicable.

Note: Requirements will vary for each agency and/or position. These categories are intended as a guideline only. Contact a grants facilitator if you have any questions!

*The first thing you should do is to establish whether any conflict of interest exists. Don’t hesitate to ask for guidance if you’re in any doubt.


About the candidate

Briefly: how you know the student, the nature of your work with them

Background & Preparation


Written and Oral Skills

Research Skills

Proficiency in languages needed for the research (if applicable)

About the research plan

The originality and significance of the research

The theoretical framework and its relevance to the field

The research methodology

Students who will be trained, where applicable

About the research dissemination

Planned venues for publication and other dissemination

Planned audience – within and beyond the Academy

Likely impact and outcomes of the research

About the Faculty

(will vary depending on agency and program)

Services and support the applicant will receive

The appropriateness of the institution that will award the degree (where applicable)

Infrastructure, research support available, etc.

Matching funds or in-kind contributions to be provided, where applicable

Reasons why the applicant and his/her research are a good fit within the Faculty

General Advice

  • Many organizations will expect you to address both the merits and the shortcomings of the applicant and the program of research. If your letter is too over-the-top positive it will actually carry less weight than a more balanced and thoughtful critique.
  • The committees need expert help particularly in assessing the theoretical framework, the methodology, and the appropriateness of the publication venues. It’s helpful to them to focus on these areas.
  • If you’re not comfortable commenting on all aspects of a candidate’s work because some of it is outside your area of expertise, it’s best to mention your particular area of research in your review. It’s still helpful to the peer review committee to have your comments on the aspects of the applicant’s work with which you are familiar.
  • Most reviewers will want to know a little bit about you, too. If you have any questions about conflicts of interest, confidentiality and privacy issues, contact a grants facilitator or the staff at the agency.

Other Resources

Writing Letters of Support (CIHR)

(contains especially great tips as to what makes a strong letter of support)

Checklist for Reviewers (Economic and Social Sciences Research Council, UK)

(checklist for those writing external assessments, but quite helpful)

GSAS Guide for Teaching Fellows on Writing Letters of Recommendation (Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard)
(Geared towards writing letters of recommendation for students; contains some helpful sample sentences)