What’s in a good letter of reference and whom should you ask to write it?
Think of your application as a story with different characters. The story is about you, obviously, but each of the characters, each item in your application, also has a story of its own. When assessing your application, we try to understand this story, to listen to each of the characters and put together the pieces for a fuller picture of you. Your two letters of reference are one of these pieces.
What to consider when choosing a referee
While academic letters of reference are preferred, we understand they might not be the most up-to-date representation of your accomplishments if you’ve been out of school for some time. So who writes them depends on when you completed your last degree.
Recent graduates must submit two academic letters of reference. This means both letters must come from people who have a teaching relationship to you. But if you earned your last degree more than two years before the start of the master’s programme, one reference may come from an employer. If you graduated more than four years prior to the master’s, both may come from professional referees (more on these below).
If you want to submit more than the two letters we require, feel free to upload any additional material in the application portal.
Academic letters of reference
The admissions committee can usually understand transcripts very quickly based on our extensive experience with grading and higher education systems worldwide. Academic letters of reference can then either confirm or challenge the assessment of your transcripts.
But letters of reference give us a more personal perspective: What is the referee’s relationship to the applicant? Can the referee add something not expressed in the transcripts? All of this and more can make a difference. Here are some questions applicants frequently ask about academic letters:
If possible, ask people who can convey a personal impression of who you are. While you obviously can’t control what they write, remember that someone who only knows your academic record may not make the most meaningful contribution to your story, going beyond what your transcript already says.
No, they don’t have to be full professors, but they must be able to assess your academic performance at university level. Ask someone who knows you and appreciates your strengths, even if they are not a professor.
This is certainly not required, but it might be an advantage. With knowledge both of your former academic life and the Hertie School, a referee can make a strong case in favor of an applicant.
Letters should be sent directly by e-mail from the referee’s official university e-mail address to grad-admissions[at]hertie-school[dot]org. Alternatively, they can be printed out and must be stamped in ink with a university or department seal, then scanned and e-mailed to us by either you or the university.
We do know, however, that specifically tailored letters are not always easy to obtain. Don’t worry! There’s no need to overstress this part of your application, as there are plenty of other characters in your story who have voices of their own. The key theme of your application should be yourself.
Professional letters of reference
If you’re eligible to submit a professional letter and prefer to do so, there are some things to keep in mind. This letter should attest to your strengths but also do more. Besides commenting on your performance, it should give some concrete background on your job or internship. Professional letters can add context and enrich the information summarised in your CV. Our recommendation: If you think a professional experience is particularly relevant for your profile and application, it makes sense to back this up with a letter of reference.
Professional letters can be sent by your employer or you from any e-mail address (no stamp required) to grad-admissions[at]hertie-school[dot]org.
Follow up with your referees
Keep in mind that we don’t contact your professors or employers automatically to ask for letters of reference. It is your responsibility to have the letters sent to us. While your letters may arrive after you submit your application in the online portal, we only start the evaluation process once we have all of your admissions documents on file. So make sure to follow up with your referees!
Want more insights on letters of reference? Check out 5 tips from the executive director of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA) here.