Find out why universities ask for reference letters when you apply for a Masters – and how they use the references when making a decision on your application.

1.  What Is  a Masters Reference Letter?

A reference letter is a letter of recommendation. It’s a document that a person who knows you well writes about you to recommend you to someone for something.

To support your Masters application, you will usually need to provide two academic references.  These are reference letters that focus on your academic studies and your suitability for the Masters course that you have applied for.

2.  Why Universities Ask for References

When a university receives your Masters application, they will need to assess whether you have the right abilities, skills and potential to do well on the course that you have applied for.

In addition to the information the admissions staff can gather from your qualifications and personal statement, they will want an ‘opinion’ about you from a person who knows you from a professional perspective.

This person, who is known as your referee, should be able to confirm some of the details that you have included in your application about your experience and achievements.  Ideally, your referee will give a clear recommendation to the university to offer you a place on their course.

3.  How Universities Use Your References

Whether or not a university is interested in your application, the admissions staff will always read your references before making a final decision on your suitability for their course.

How much importance the admissions staff give to your references compared to other information in your application can vary from course to course.

A supportive and positive reference is very important and can make all the difference as to whether or not your application is considered further.

However, whilst for some courses you will need to have strong letters of recommendation, for others it may be enough if your references aren’t negative.  While, other universities may give your references points in accordance with a specific criteria that they are looking for. The points could be used later when deciding between applicants.

4.  What Goes into Masters References

A good academic reference will focus on your studies, academic abilities, achievements and your suitability for the Masters course that you have applied for.

In addition your referee would need to comment on why the subject that you’ve chosen is right for you.  For example, he or she might mention your future career plans in their reference letter.

Your referee will or should also give an opinion about you as a person.  What are your qualities and strengths?  How are you different – and why should the university choose you?

5.  Who Can Write Your Reference Letter

If your Masters course requires two academic references, you should ask two different academic members of staff from your current or previous university.  For example, you could ask any teachers or professors who know you well.

Although most Masters courses ask for two academic references, in some cases they might only ask for one.

Also, if your course has a strong professional focus, you may need to send a work reference, in addition to your academic reference.

6.  Work Reference Letters

If you graduated from university several years ago – or perhaps you’re applying for a Masters without a Bachelor degree – you should be able to send work references instead of academic references.

In this case you should ask your manager or another senior person that you work with closely to write a reference for you.

Your work references would still need to indicate your academic abilities, and not simply focus on your work experience.

The admissions staff will be interested in what makes you a suitable applicant for their Masters course.

Instead of just simply listing your work tasks and responsibilities, your work references should highlight the experience, skills and abilities that you’ve gained during this period.

For example, you referee could comment on things such as: How quickly you learn, your analytical skills, your ability to deal with complex information, your written and verbal communication, how quickly you have been promoted, what your future potential might be, and so on.

7.  Who Can’t Be Your Referee

If someone doesn’t know you well enough to give a reliable opinion of you, you shouldn’t choose them as your referee.

You also should only consider asking someone to write you a reference if you’re confident that they will take the task seriously and will provide you with a positive and supportive reference.

Finally, sorry to state the obvious, but references from parents, family members or friends will not be acceptable.

Final Thoughts

You shouldn’t see reference letters as just another application requirement that you need to meet. Rather, see them as an opportunity to support your Masters application with two independent recommendations.

It’s important that any person writing a reference for you knows you well and is able to write positively about you.  It’s also important that your references focus on the aspects that will be relevant to your planned studies on the Masters course.

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