How to Strengthen your Application through Purposeful References

How to Strengthen your Application through Purposeful References

No matter what graduate nursing program you choose to pursue, one common application requirement will be the submission of recommendation letters from references of your choosing. Reference letters give the opportunity for an outside perspective regarding your academic and professional strengths, passion for nursing, leadership accomplishments, and overall potential for success.

Depending on the specific program, whom you should ask to write you a letter may vary. However, the most common, and most required, references should come from professional and academic connections. So, who makes the most sense?

People to consider:

  • Professional – A current or former supervisor/manager is going to be the best option as all admissions committees like to have reflections on an applicant’s current professional abilities. From there students can seek out other professional references from their department leads, other department leads that they often collaborate with, senior leadership, or other professionals they often work with that sit at a higher level than their own. For students coming right out of an undergraduate program, an internship or volunteer experience supervisor would fit into this category. Other professional references can include faculty that you have worked with for research projects and teaching/lab assistants. References from coworkers and colleagues that work at the same level as the applicant will not be accepted.
  • Academic – Professors will be the best option from your most recent academic program. If you are still in contact with a professor from an academic program that occurred before your most recent, that will be beneficial as well, as well as academic advisors. For applicants that are already nurses, clinical instructors would fall into this category too and will be a good option. Recommendations from former teaching assistants will not count as academic references.
  • Other – Other acceptable references can come from people who you have a mentorship relationship with and can speak to your professional and personal goals. If you volunteer outside of work at local organizations, those supervisors/directors can also provide insightful information for your application. Those you shadowed could also be an excellent choice as they have a chance to discuss your potential in the role or specialty.

So, now begs the question, “What should I tell my references to talk about?” This will all be dependent on the relationship you have forged with these individuals. Below are some skills they should consider mentioning:


  • Leadership ability or potential
  • Communication skills – both oral and written
  • Interprofessional skills – ability to work in teams
  • Ability to accept critique and feedback
  • Ability to be flexible/resilient – how do you handle stressful situations
  • Passion for your profession or future profession


  • Academic readiness and preparation
  • Potential for academic success at next degree level
  • Ability to think critically and synthesize new concepts
  • Problem solving skills
  • Openness to new ideas and diverse thought processes
  • Strengths and ability to accept critique to improve
  • Ability to collaborate with peers
  • Research skills, if applicable

Tips to consider:

It is helpful for your references if you have a conversation with them about your professional goals and give them helpful tips on how to format their letters. It is always best to have your references start their letter with their position and how they know you. This helps the Admissions Committees understand your relationship with the refences and why they were selected as a reference.  You will also want to suggest to them to have their letters written on their organization’s letterhead and make sure there is an electronic signature including their working title. Always follow your specific programs reference recommendations listed on the program website.

And finally, while it may be tempting because we know they will say wonderful things about you, reference letters from direct coworkers, friends, and family members will not be accepted. If you have questions about who you want to ask to be your reference, please reach out to us directly and we are happy to brainstorm with you to make your application competitive!

About the Author: Laura Panozzo

Laura Panozzo is the Assistant Director for DNP Executive, PhD, and DNP/PHD Recruitment at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. She can help you take the next step in your nursing career, contact her at 443-287-7430 or [email protected].

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