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Meet Elizabeth Felts
at Harvard College
(2010-2014)

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Reference Letters

Most US universities and scholarship programmes will also request two to three letters of reference.

"Pick your references carefully. A US reference isn't like a UK one--you really need to pick someone who is going to sell you. Really be organised--know exactly what you need and when you need it, and go through it with a systematic approach."
Joel, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Choosing Referees

The university may provide some loose guidelines for selecting referees (such as at least two of the letters being from a teacher or school administrator). However, it will ultimately be your responsibility to choose your referees and to liaise with them about submitting their letters.

We encourage you to choose your referees carefully, asking only those teachers, counsellors, employers or individuals who know you well and can enthusiastically recommend you. A great letter probably won't get you in, but a weak letter can hurt your application.

Letters of reference should reinforce how you meet the university's admissions criteria, so it is important to have a well-rounded list of referees. They should be able to speak specifically and positively about your ability to succeed academically and contribute to campus life.

Some students will ask three teachers or administrators who know them well, both in and out of the classroom. Others will ask someone who knows them from an extracurricular or work capacity and two teachers to provide a rounded view of themselves. If you need more assistance, you may wish to use our checklist for choosing a referee.

Preparing Your Referees

Once you have selected your referees, you should brief them on the logistics for how to submit the letter. Some universities will have an additional form to submit alongside the letters. Some will have online reference letters, while others will request print copies. Additionally, some universities will require letters to be submitted directly from the referee, while others will ask the applicant to include them with their application package.

Regardless, it is your job to inform the referee of the details. We encourage students to meet with their referees well in advance of the deadline to discuss their letters. Your aim in this meeting is to make it as easy as possible for them to write an informed letter. During this meeting you may wish to share with the referee information about areas they can cover in the letter. By enhancing their existing knowledge of you and your work you will be ensuring that their reference will be the best it can be.

Letters of reference should highlight your:

It is in your best interest to prepare your referees to write your letter. Invest time in this. On a practical level, you should inform them of:

It is your responsibility as the applicant to check in with your referees regularly about their progress and the timely submission of their letter.

Tips and Resources

Above all, encourage referees to avoid being restrained and too modest. American referees tend to write in an enthusiastic tone, using very positive and descriptive language. Thus, it is important that your referees keep the audience in mind and be aware of the fact that a standard UCAS reference will not be a sufficient complement to your US university application. You may wish to share with your referee our notes to help guide referees.  EducationUSA also provides a downloadable handout 10 Tips for Recommendation Letters as well as a sample reference letter. MIT also provides a guide for writing recommendation letters and samples

As a final note, on your application form you will have the option to waive the right to see a copy of the letter. This is recommended by US universities and our office, as it ensures the authenticity of the letter.