College References

Posted on 6th September 2021

US colleges review the different elements of students’ applications holistically, and references (known as “letters of recommendation” in the US) are an important factor in admission. US references carry more weight in the application process because colleges are interested not only in academic attainment but also what students will bring to the college community inside and outside of the classroom. US references should therefore be written in a different style to UCAS references: instead of focusing on academic achievements, US references should focus on a student’s character and habits of mind: who they are, and how they contribute to the classroom, the wider school, and local community. 

US university applicants will need to get two types of references for their applications: teacher and counsellor. Typically, they will need references from two subject teachers. These should be teachers who have taught pupils a specific subject in class (not their academic tutors, if their school provides pupils with these). The person who writes the counsellor reference may vary from school to school, but usually this will be the teacher in charge of US applications at a school, a guidance counsellor, head of sixth form, or, in the case of boarding schools, a housemaster or housemistress. 

The counsellor reference should provide an overview of how a student fits into the school community. Additionally, it should: 

  • Mention how long they have known the student and in what context
  • Comment on the student’s personal qualities and give specific support and examples of how the student has demonstrated these
  • Mention extracurricular activities, interests, accomplishments, and educational/career goals
  • Be enthusiastic, more informal than a UCAS reference, and engagingly written

It should be around one page, single-spaced, though if the reference writer has more positive things to say about a student, it is fine for this to be longer, as long as they avoid wordiness and repetitiveness. 

How can a student work to ensure a strong counsellor reference? First, if a housemaster or housemistress is writing the counsellor reference, students should be sure to have a good relationship with them, and to make themselves known in a positive way in house. Weaker counsellor references tend to be thin on information about students, so make sure your counsellor has lots of positive things to say about you! Another good thing to do is, before the end of lower sixth or at the beginning of upper sixth, provide a list of information to your counsellor, including: 

  • Your subjects and predicted grades
  • Universities applying to
  • Your extracurricular activities inside and outside of school
  • School responsibilities
  • Notable awards and achievement
  • Your academic and career goals

This will give them plenty of material to write their overview of your involvement at school. 

If you’re a counsellor, to write a good reference, as well as mentioning the above, you’ll want to focus on the student’s character. By starting off making a specific, qualitative, inclusive statement like, ‘Sally has been a caring, involved, and creative pupil, and a true asset to our school community’, you can later tie the student’s achievements to these personal qualities, creating a strong testament to their character. Additionally, working specific anecdotes into your reference can be beneficial: think of a time the student did something helpful or excelled in schoolwork or activities, and what personal qualities that showed. Tell this as a short anecdote within the overall reference to provide specific yet personal evidence to the reader. 

A good teacher reference should speak to the academic side of a pupil, but rather than focusing exclusively on data and grades, comment on things like a student’s diligence, responsiveness to feedback, preferred modes of learning, capacity to work in groups, and contribution to discussion. It should also have a more personal touch, as in the counsellor reference, and give some insight into the pupil’s character as expressed in the classroom. These references should also be around one page long. 

To ensure strong teacher references, students should make sure to participate and contribute in their classes. If they really enjoy a subject, rather than taking a more passive approach to learning, by engaging more with the teacher’s questions and with their peers in group work, they can show engagement and put their personality forward. 

Students should begin thinking about which teachers they’d like to ask to write their references towards the end of year 12, and ideally approach those teachers for references then. Don’t assume you should choose the teachers whose classes you’re doing the best in academically; instead, approach teachers who know you well as a person. Additionally, if there’s a subject you’ve struggled with, getting a teacher reference that speaks to how hard you’ve worked and how much you’ve improved can reassure admission officers. Khan Academy has a great template for students to use when approaching teachers for references here

Being savvy about US-style references is an important component of a successful application, whether you’re a student, teacher, or counsellor. Each US college has its own unique values, which encompass more than academics. So, references are a key way for admissions officers to assess whether the student’s values and the university’s are a good fit, and demonstrating good fit at a particular university is crucial to gaining acceptance. Submitting unaltered UCAS references to US universities can have an adverse effect on a student’s chances, so schools as well as students want to have an awareness of what US colleges want from references, and to make sure they have a process set up to give teachers advance guidance (and warning!) to write strong references. 

If you’re a teacher and would like guidance on writing US style references as well as learning other ways to support US applicants at your school, have a look at our teacher training event coming up in September, or email us at 

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