The basics
THE USA: Applying to University

Reference letters: Things to consider

What is a reference letter and why is it such an important part of the university application process for international students? Read our full guide to ensure you secure a reference letter that impresses...


An integral part of an application process is the reference letter. These are valuable because they help admission committees make an opinion about an applicant aside from their academic records. Plus they are written by someone else, not the applicant themselves. They are also something which students will need to call on when seeking employment so it's good practice for the future.


What's the purpose of a reference letter?

To start with, different universities have different requirements for the recommendation letters. While some are interested only in referrals from academics, others will also require recommendation letters from current or previous employers. The last one is particularly common for the MBA admission process.

However, there are universities, like Stanford University, which often ask for more specific references – a recommendation from a peer or someone you were engaged with in a project aside from your academic career e.g. volunteering pursuits. The purpose of these is to evaluate your ability to work and interact in a team, and find out more about you as an individual (what you’re passionate about, skills or talents you have etc.).

'Who can I ask to be a reference?'


What makes a successful reference letter?

The key thing is the person you request to write your recommendation, also known as a ‘referee’. Who will write your letter is entirely up to you, so make sure you put some thought into choosing this person. The person you choose should know you well, have interacted with you closely and recently, and be someone of respectable character. The more insight a professor has into you as a student and a person, the more detailed and unique your recommendation will be. 


What can I do?

However, it is not the recommender’s responsibility to get you into school. What can you do to make the most of your references:

  • Talk to your referees, explain your motivation for further studies. If you have a particular university or college in mind, give details to your referrer about your choice and why you think you will be a good candidate for that university. Discuss your choice and ask for advice.

  • Make sure you provide your professor with a list of your accomplishments, CV or any other information you think will be important to mention. This way they can allude to points you plan to highlight in your application/resume.

  • If you don’t need a reference letter, but simply a reference to be contacted, you should still ask your referees for their permission beforehand. It’s good courtesy rather than them being contacted out of the blue to talk about you to a stranger.

US Admissions counsellor William Tran says: ‘The more personal and specific the letter, the better. I'll read a bunch of recommendations that will say generic adjectives like "conscientious" or "intelligent". That means nothing to me because every student (I hope) is intelligent, asks questions in class, or is passionate about learning.’

He continues: ‘Another type I've seen is just listing the students' extracurricular activities (captain of ice hockey team, founder of xyz [sic] club). That's like recommending Barack Obama because he's the President of the USA. Letters need depth, personal stories and unique characteristics that no other student shares. Not just surface titles. 90% of the letters I read are generic and they're missed opportunities for sure. A letter with common adjectives doesn't help or hurt since most students have them but everything else equal, a student with a bland personality is at a disadvantage.’

There is another common mistake made by applicants. They tend to request recommendation letters from “big names” in the hope that this would make an impression on the admission committee. Jay Bhatti in his articleAn Inside Look at the Brutal Business School Admission Process comments:

‘We have gotten recommendations from senators, CEOs, and world leaders. Unless the applicant worked directly for the recommender, these letters of reference are usually very vague and un-insightful. It’s better to get a reference from someone who has had direct supervision responsibility over you and can talk about your accomplishments with firsthand knowledge.’


How you can help your referee

You should make sure that you give the referees plenty of time to write your reference; after all, they are doing you a favour, so it would be rude to rush them (especially if they have busy schedules). Also, provide them with a large envelope containing all necessary forms, with each form accompanied by a stamped, addressed, business-sized envelope and a list of the schools and deadlines. Each form’s due-date should be made absolutely clear. It’s a small sentiment but it shows that you’re organised, which will hopefully reflect well in what they choose to write about you.


And if your referee hasn’t written your reference?

 If you’re worried that your referee hasn’t sent off what they need to yet and the deadline is approaching, don’t harass them or they may decide they don’t want to do it. Send a brief email or drop by their office under the pretence of ensuring they have everything they need – they may just need a reminder and this is a friendly way to go about it.



Read more:

'Writing your personal statement'

'Essentials: University applications'

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About Author

Paul Ellett is the editor for Hotcourses Abroad. His role is to plan, produce and share editorial, videos, infographics, eBooks and any other content to inform prospective and current international students about their study abroad experience. When he's not thinking about student visas in Sweden and application deadlines, Paul is an avid fan of comedy podcasts and Nicolas Cage films.


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