For every US university to which they apply, students normally have to provide 2 to 4 teacher recommendations and 1 counsellor recommendation.
In general, students have the flexibility to decide their area of study after they enrol, and if a student applies to a specific major, they will usually have the opportunity to change majors. This means that the main difference between a good UK reference and a good US reference is that, in the United States, the reference does not have to confirm the student’s suitability for a particular course.
Although students ask teachers to write recommendations on their behalf, there is an expectation that students will never see their letters of recommendation. This is designed to create a more open line of communication between universities and secondary schools.
In the US there is a federal law, ‘The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA)’ that protects the privacy of student education records - and as a result students are asked to sign a ‘FERPA waiver’ as part of their application, legally waiving access to the teacher and counselor references written about them. Students don’t have to sign this waiver, but most universities feel more comfortable if a student has signed it. This is so that they can feel more confident that the student hasn’t unduly influenced what has been written in the letters about them.
Relationship between student and recommender
Since the process is for students to request their Letters of Recommendation, and teachers are expected to provide detailed evidence about the student, it is important that students have developed personal relationships with teachers well before needing a LOR.
Students should chose a teacher who they feel understands them, and with whom they are willing to share their application process.
Strong recommendations provide evidence of a student's unique abilities, and why they are an outstanding student in their particular context. If a teacher cannot write a strong letter of recommendation for a student, the teacher should be prepared to decline the request and discuss better alternatives with the student and counselor.
Once students reach the end of their penultimate year at high school, the process of ‘Front-Loading’ begins. This is about providing all the necessary information to the teachers writing LORs. Teachers will be expected to highlight transferable skills and abilities like critical thinking, leadership and perseverance. If referees use concrete examples to illustrate each of the characteristics they say the student has, the letter will have more impact.
Teachers won’t always remember the moments that students do spectacular things in the classroom. The student can refresh each teacher’s memory by using Unifrog’s Activities and Competencies tools to identify strengths and provide specific anecdotes to emphasise or recall in the LOR.
In addition, the Unifrog CV tool is an easy way for students to provide an overview of their experiences and accomplishments.
Lastly being able to see a draft of the student’s application essay on Unifrog’s Essay tool sheds more light on the character of the applicant.
A student usually knows who they want to write their Letter of Reference well in advance, so they should take the time to build the relationship and make a request in advance. More time for the teacher generally means a better reference for the student.
It’s important for students to remember that a teacher is not obliged to write a Letter of Recommendation. Students should be respectful in their requests to teachers, and be ready to help teachers access the information they need in a timely manner.
The best LORs will evidence that the student has appropriate experiences, skills and enthusiasm for the specific schools to which the student is applying. Generally, the same LOR is used to apply for multiple schools, so the recommender shouldn’t mention a particular potential school by name, but it’s sensible for the student to guide the recommender as to what about the student should be emphasised.
Cable Jackson is an incoming student at the University of Denver in Colorado. He is an avid mountain biker and a casual photographer. In the last seven years, he has been part of the international community living in South East Asia and Europe. Cable has been attending international schools where his mum works in college counselling. He developed an interest in sharing his experiences of the often daunting US admission process in the international community where many students had never been through the process.