Which referees should I choose for my postgraduate application?

Selecting the right referees for your postgraduate application form is essential to being successful. To choose wisely, follow the advice of Professor Sian Maslin-Prothero, dean of the Graduate School at Keele University.

You are usually only asked to name referees at the end of an application for a postgraduate course, but they are as important as your personal statement and academic history. Universities are generally unable to interview every applicant (especially for taught masters), so they use references to gain an impression of the applicant and inform their decision about whether to accept you on to the course.

Who do I put as a referee on a postgrad application form?

In many cases you'll need to give the names of two academic referees. Ideally these will be lecturers or tutors from a previous course since they should be able to comment on your academic capabilities and suitability for the programme of study being applied for.

If there's been a long gap since you last studied, then admissions tutors are generally sympathetic to this and accept references from an employer or another appropriate individual who can comment on your academic ability. Please note that this doesn't mean a personal friend, someone who has no knowledge of your academic standing, a classmate or a member of your family. Character references won't carry any weight at all.

If you do want to include a previous employer as a referee, think carefully about how appropriate this is. If you're looking to study in a similar area to your employment, then an employer's reference can be very valuable, or if you're highly experienced at writing high-level reports or documents, this can be useful too. If you are a social worker working in the social care sector and you haven't studied since qualifying as a social work practitioner, for example, it would be appropriate to ask your employer to write a reference.

Do's and don'ts: a postgraduate applicant’s guide to references

  • Do make sure you give all the information you're asked for on the firm: name, title, contact details (address, telephone number, email address) and the capacity in which you know them, eg lecturer, tutor or employer.
  • Do approach your referees before listing them on your application and check whether they will represent you in a positive light!
  • If you're asked to supply your references with your application, do contact your referees directly and ask them to provide a reference in a sealed envelope, addressed either directly to the institution or to you, the applicant. If they choose to email it to the university it needs to be sent via an official, work email; a Yahoo or Google address is not acceptable as admissions tutors will not be able to verify where it has come from.
  • Don't hold up submitting your application waiting for your referees to come through.
  • Don't worry if you need to change your referees at a later stage – it's not a problem.

Further advice on applying for a masters, doctorate or postgraduate diploma