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What goes into an MS Engineering reference letter?

Katie Schenk - September 23, 2016

Frustration stress and writers block

For entrance into any level of higher education, you’ll need at least one reference letter. If you’re considering an MS Engineering degree, you are probably looking at two or three reference letters. And that is per programme. If you apply to a few different schools, you’ll need to start multiplying the number of letters you need.

And you can’t write a single reference letter yourself.

Still, you will have more control than you think.

What's the point of any reference letter?

Some applicants don’t spend more than a minute wondering why colleges require reference letters. They’re needed and that’s all that counts.

But, a few moments reflecting on the purpose of these recommendations might may all the difference between a decent letter and shot at a seat or a stellar letter and early acceptance.

MS Engineering programmes request references because they want a glimpse into the person you are beyond grades, test scores, and work history. And they want to know what other people think are your strongest traits and competence levels. (Your perception of yourself goes into the personal statement you’ll need to write.)

Your ability to work well with others, collaborate on projects, put in the extra effort to get the job done, or even just the way your brain tackles an assignment is not something the admissions offices will see from your test scores.

You should also consider that everyone else applying to your MS Engineering programme will have similarly impeccable test scores and awesome undergrad grades. What they won’t have is the glowing reference letter you have. That’s how important the reference letter is.

Who should you approach for a reference letter?

The biggest mistake applicants make when selecting their recommenders is to ask the president of their company or the dean of their alma mater to write a reference letter.

If you’re close with those people and have spent time together on projects, by all means, ask them. But there is no point in asking someone who wouldn’t be able to pick you out of a lineup. They cannot possibly add an anecdote about your time together or provide admissions teams what they’re looking for.

The title, level, and perceived importance of a person is unimportant to admissions teams; how well a person knows you is what truly counts – even if their title is barely a notch above yours.

If you’ve recently completed your undergrad, a professor or advisor is a strong choice. You can also consider direct supervisors at your current or previous jobs. If your work experience isn’t exactly in your field of study, don’t stress too much. It’s just something you’ll want to explain in your personal statement.

And, by no means should you ever ask a family member or close friend to write you a reference letter for admission to a university; you need a recommendation from someone in your professional life.

Guiding the reference letter isn't writing it

You really shouldn’t ask someone to write a reference letter for you, hand them the name of the school and whatever forms they need and walk away. You want to give them more information so their letter supplements your entire application.

Generally speaking, you should let your recommenders know why you’ve asked them to speak on your behalf. They’ll want to know which aspects of your time together you want to highlight.

That’s just the beginning. You should also let your reference letter writers know why you want to go back to school, which courses interest you most, why you’re applying to a certain programme, and what you hope to do with your degree.

Every bit of information you can provide your recommenders will assist them to write the letter you truly want – without you writing it yourself. (Incidentally, you should never ask to see a reference letter; that’s a private matter – even though it is about you.)

Don't forget to follow up

No matter how much a person likes you or respects your work, a reference letter is a favour. It’s extra time away from their work and their lives to support your pursuit of an MS Engineering degree. Make sure you take time to say thank you. A token of appreciation won’t go unnoticed (though it should only arrive after the letter has been sent), and it can be as simple as a hand-written thank you card.

But, that’s not the last time you should make contact with your recommenders. Take the time to let them know if you did (or didn’t) receive an acceptance letter. Even if you choose a different school, anyone who is willing to write a reference letter for you will be interested in your successes.

You don’t want to wait too long to get the ball rolling on your reference letters either. Keep in mind that not everyone is comfortable with formal writing and will want to take their time to do you justice. 

While you wait, why not take a look at the MS Engineering programmes that accept Prodigy loans from qualified international students? Or, perhaps you should be studying for the GRE…

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