Admissions blog

Tips for your letters of reference

What’s in a good letter of reference and whom should you ask to write it? Here are our application tips for the MPP, MIA and MDS.

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, especially if you’ve been out of school for some time. So who writes them depends on when you completed your last degree.

Recent graduates (who graduated two, or less than two, years before the start of the master’s programme) must provide two academic letters of reference. Your letters don’t have to be from professors, but they must come from people who have a teaching relationship to you. Letters from thesis advisors, research supervisors and visiting professors and lecturers are acceptable.

But if you earned your last degree more than two years before the start of the master’s programme, one reference letter 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).

Ultimately, you are the protagonist of this story, so don’t shy away from being in the spotlight! If you want to submit more than the two required letters and feel they will help the admissions committee see the most accurate representation of your strengths, 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 also 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? Apart from your grades, this helps us understand what kind of student and person you are and how you would fit in the larger Hertie School community. All of this plays a role. Here are some questions applicants frequently ask about academic letters:

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 add context and enrich the information summarised in your CV. Our recommendation: If you think a certain 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 directly to ask for letters of reference. It is your responsibility to reach out to your referees and have the letters uploaded to our online portal. 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! We also recommend contacting them well in advance so that they send your letters in time and you’re not rushing in the last moments.


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.

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