A referee reviews her letter of reference for a student.

A scholarship application usually, although not always, requires at least one reference. The reference is an important part of the application and you should be strategic when deciding who you'll ask to be your referee. When the scholarship committee is considering two equally good applications, it may be the reference that determines who wins the award.

So, who should you ask?

A referee (a person who provides a reference) should be someone who knows you well and can speak with knowledge about your character, activities, and experiences.

The person should have known you for a year or more, and relatively recently (for example, within the last two years). They should have, or have had, regular contact with you so they can comment on aspects of your character, such as responsibility, integrity, work ethic, leadership skills, etc.

Ideally, your referee should be able to give specific examples of your having demonstrated the skills and qualities the scholarship is looking for. Generally speaking, the more specific the person can be when providing your reference, the better.

The only kind of person who cannot be a referee is a family member or a friend.

Different kinds of references

Sometimes the application will specify what kind of person is required to give the reference. For example, if it requires an academic reference, that usually means a teacher, or perhaps a guidance counsellor or principal. In any case, it's best to ask someone with whom you've had recent experience. So, for example, opt for a Grade 11 teacher rather than a Grade 9 one.

It can also help to align your referee with the type of scholarship you're applying for. For example, if it's a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) scholarship, ask a science or math teacher. If it's a leadership scholarship, ask a teacher from a leadership related class, like Leadership 12, or a teacher who has seen you take on a leadership role in class, e.g. as a group leader or spokesperson.

Bonus points if the teacher knows you outside of the classroom as well — perhaps as the coach of a school sports team, debate club, etc.

If the scholarship doesn't specify who or what kind of position your referee needs to hold, then you can choose from anyone (other than friends and family) who you feel would give you a great reference. Consider approaching a coach, a direct supervisor at a paid or volunteer work position, a youth group leader, a music teacher, a church leader, etc.

Okay, now you know who to ask. But how should you ask, and when? Check out part 2 of How to Get a Great Scholarship Reference!

Janet MacDonald is a former university admissions officer who helps high school students and parents to find and prepare university scholarships through her company, MycampusGPS.ca. She offers one-to-one scholarship consulting for high school students, and scholarship essay writing workshops. Janet's blog is one of the top education blogs in Canada.