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References for Postgraduate Degree Applications

Written by Rhiannon Topham

Most universities will ask you to include the contact details of one or two ‘referees’ who can provide you with a reference to support your Masters application.

Referencing requirements differ between institutions and programmes, so you should check the guidelines of your prospective university. Most postgraduate taught degrees ask for two references, whereas research courses may ask for up to three.

Who provides you with a reference may also depend on your personal circumstances, which this guide will explain.

Do you need a reference for a Masters degree application?

Yes, you’ll almost always need a reference if you want to apply for a Masters. This will usually come from an academic at your previous university, but if it’s been a while since you studied you may be able to submit a professional reference from an employer.

References are an important part of the admissions process, giving universities a good idea of your personal qualities and academic aptitude from the people that know you best.

What’s the point of a reference?

University admissions teams don’t just offer places on the basis of undergraduate grades alone. While some courses ask applicants to attend an interview during the admissions process, most rely on a strong personal statement and two references from verified sources.

A couple of solid references can provide admissions officers with the kind of insight needed to persuade them of your suitability for your chosen course.

Who to ask for a reference?

A referee should be someone you’re familiar with who can reflect on your academic and personal qualities well. In most cases, your references will be written by academics from your undergraduate course such as your personal tutor or dissertation supervisor.

If you’ve been out of higher education for a while and are re-entering after some time in employment, then you may be asked to provide a reference from your current employer, line manager or supervisor.

Remember to

  • Ask your referee for their permission
  • Use their official institutional or employment email, as these are easier for admissions teams to verify once they make you an offer
  • Check that contact details are up-to-date and correct, as the inclusion of wrong details can delay the application process
  • Make it as easy as possible for your nominated referees by giving them a bit of direction and explaining to them what course you’re applying for and why you’re interested in it

Universities usually don’t accept references from relatives, friends or teachers who aren’t employed at university-level institutions. If you’re considering a postgraduate degree but have been self-employed for some time, or you wish to nominate an academic referee who is now retired and no longer has an official email address, get in touch with your prospective university’s admissions team before applying.

What a reference should include

Most universities have their own format for completing and processing references, but they are usually one or two pages long and submitted online through the same system as your application.

References are endorsements of any strengths you have which would be relevant to postgraduate-level study, particularly the course you’ve applied for.

Academic referees are typically asked to reflect on:

  • Their relationship to you and how long they have known you
  • Your academic performance, especially in relation to other students
  • Your levels of motivation and creativity
  • Transferable skills such as an ability to write and communicate professionally
  • Your future potential in academia and employment
  • English language proficiency if you are applying for a course in the UK and English is not your first language

References from employers will be quite similar, but will also include an appraisal of your roles and responsibilities at work.

Universities in the UK usually ask that references be written in English, unless the applicant is applying for a course at a university in Wales and the rest of the application is written in Welsh.

Your responsibilities

Academic staff are usually happy to write references for students when asked, but, because this is part of their job, they may have to manage several requests at once. The same goes for employers.

While most Masters applications are open throughout the year, you should consider whether your referees are likely to take any breaks or holidays which may delay your application process.

It’s down to you to ensure that references are received within the application deadline, not the institution or referees. Universities cannot send reminders to referees or contact them directly to follow up on a reference – this is your responsibility as an applicant, so set your referees a clear deadline.

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