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How to get recommendations for the MADS program

Monday, 01/18/2021

The Masters of Applied Data Science (MADS) program at UMSI is revolutionizing the accessibility of attaining a graduate-level information degree through its online format. Its remote nature has brought together students from 44 countries on 6 different continents, many of whom are employed full-time during the program.

The MADS application requires at least one letter of recommendation from a contact who can best speak to the applicant’s likelihood of success at the school and allows for up to three letters to be submitted. 

For applicants who recently completed degrees, recommendations are common from academic references like faculty or a research associate; for those with more professional experience, a letter is often written by a workplace associate. 

Yet, for applicants currently in the workforce, securing a letter of recommendation can feel intimidating as it might signal to an employer or others in their professional network that they’re in the process of finding a different job or even a new career. 

Here is advice on how to secure quality recommendations from field experts and successful applicants.

Advice from the admissions team

UMSI’s recruiting and admissions coordinator, Kaitlyn Rye, noted that recommendation letters don’t need to come from current employers and that a professional reference can be from a wide array of people, such as a supervisor, manager or even colleague. 

She said, “If you've collaborated on a project and worked together, a colleague could be someone who could also write a strong letter. Some applicants even choose to ask a colleague or head of a professional organization from a volunteer experience.” 

Rye wants applicants who are worried about the letter as a barrier to applying to know that the recommendation is only a piece of what the admissions officers review. “Since we do a holistic admissions review, we are able to see the letter of recommendation to help support your overall application to the MADS program. The admissions committee views the letter(s) of recommendation as an additional component to your ability to do well and be a good fit in the MADS program,” Rye said.

Elements for successful UMSI recommendation letters

For the MADS application, letters of recommendation must come directly from the recommender. So, applicants can’t recycle previous letters unless their recommender sends them directly.  

When thinking about what to include in this letter, Katie Dunn from UMSI’s Career Development Office (CDO), points students towards U-M’s resource guide for graduate student applicants, which has general tips on the elements of successful letters.

Dunn recommends asking recommenders to provide “specific examples of strengths, skills, projects and experiences that would be relevant to highlight for the position or degree program.” She said, “You want to try to make it easy on the person you're asking by giving plenty of lead time, outlining examples they could consider including, linking them to the site and instructions for submitting the letter.”

Some applicants choose to have multiple letters from recommenders who can speak to their different strengths and abilities. Rye said that from an admissions perspective “each applicant is different and your recommendations are going to reflect your current phase in your journey to advancing or starting your career in data science.”

Applicants enter their recommender’s contact information in their application and are prompted through email to upload letters directly to the application. If recommenders prefer not to use the application system, they may email a letter of recommendation directly to [email protected]

Tips from three successful applicants

Saqib Khanbhai, MADS Fall 2020 Cohort: "For my MADS application, I asked both my current boss and my undergraduate dissertation supervisor if I could list them as my references for my MADS application, Both were happy for me to list them under the references part of the application process. In terms of asking for the references, I asked them both by email, initially asking if they were comfortable providing the reference and thanking them in advance for taking the time to consider giving the reference. Another key point to remember is to let them know when the references will be needed by, if the deadlines are available, so they can plan around it.

“Reading about references at the time, I remember that it is key to choose references that know you well enough to speak on the specific skills and attributes that make you stand out. If asked to provide multiple references, choose people that can speak to your various strengths."

Kira Rodante, MADS Winter 2020 Cohort: "I asked my boss and manager for letters because they knew me and knew my work. It was important for me to have people who knew me as a worker and as a person. I simply pulled them aside at a slow time during work, said I had really become interested in data science and wanted to apply to a graduate program and it would mean a lot to me if they would consider writing a letter of recommendation for me. I made sure to phrase it ‘if they have time, would they consider.’ I think I also pitched how the degree could help my work and the company long term."

Jordan Marquez, MADS student Fall 2020 cohort: "My advice is to ask for recommendation letters from connections who know you on a more personal level and that you feel comfortable sharing your academic, professional and personal background with. I found it much easier for these individuals to look at my strengths throughout my life and write a substantial and convincing recommendation for the program. I would suggest setting up a meeting with them to discuss why you would like them to write the letter and give them the ability to openly discuss any questions they might have. I provided them with information about the program and highlighted what I thought were my top accomplishments and how I thought that would lead to my success in the program."

For questions regarding MADS letters of recommendation or admissions, contact [email protected].


- Kate Cammell, Writer UMSI