Letters of Reference for UK University Applications
- Content of the Letter
Regardless of where you are applying, nearly every course requires at least one, if not two or three letters of reference. Such documents are sometimes also referred to as letters of recommendation. In general, it is best for reference letters to be written by professors with whom you have worked closely, so they can offer detailed insight into you and your work.
Most students ask for letters of reference from their thesis advisor, academic advisor and professors with whom they have taken multiple courses or who are very familiar with their work. Such a close relationship will allow for a thorough and well-written letter. If you do not have more than one professor who you feel would be qualified or willing to write a positive letter on your behalf, it is also acceptable to ask employers or other mentors to act as a referee. If you chose this route, it is advisable to include an explanatory note detailing the grounds for your selection.
The letter of reference should be roughly two pages in length and should explicitly reference your overall work ethic, your career interests, research skills and ability to meet deadlines. Your referee should explain their relationship to you and highlight important milestones or achievements from your academic career. Moreover, a good reference letter offers clear insight into why you are interested in the course to which you are applying and how it would fit into your academic trajectory.
Your referee should be able to comment specifically on your level of engagement with material, thereby emphasizing your particular strengths. Your reference letter might indicate that you sought out extra discussion during office hours, highlighting your added commitment to go above and beyond what is required of you.
Additionally, if your referee is familiar with your extracurricular work, including positions in clubs, teams or even student jobs, it is perfectly acceptable for them to mention such engagements if they are relevant to the course. If you engaged in voluntary work, it is always positive for a referee to mention such an endeavour. By referencing such activities, your referee is showing that he or she is familiar with you as a person, while also highlighting your numerous positive attributes and qualifications.
- Structure of the Letter
A letter of reference should be written on the official letterhead of your referee’s home institution. It should contain their name and contact information on the right side and the name and address of the course to which you are applying on the left. Before the letter begins, the referee has the option to include a subject line identifying the aim of the letter. This line is not required, however.
The letter should open with the formal “To Whom it May Concern,” unless you are aware of a specific person who will be heading the admissions committee, in which case that person’s name can be included. Be careful with titles, however, and if you do include a name always double check spelling for any unintentional errors that could bring down the value of the whole letter.
There is no specific requirement in terms of how a reference letter is organized, though it is important that your referee display a certain level of knowledge regarding the course to which you are applying before delving into your skills and qualifications. Such a display indicates both a high level of professionalism as well as a certain level of commitment to you as a student and applicant. Admissions committees inherently acknowledge such commitment, though it may or may not be intentional on the part of your referee.
Your letter of reference should conclude with an offer for further contact from your referee. Moreover, be sure that he or she personally signs the letter, or else uses an electronic signature. A letter of reference without a signature is not official.
Letters of reference are often sent or uploaded separately from the rest of your application, in order for them to remain private. Just be sure that you have clearly communicated all deadlines to your referees so that no application remains incomplete due to an error in timing. If you are asked to include an uploaded version of reference letters, simply ask your referees to create a signed PDF, which you can add to the rest of your application.
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