When writing a UCAS Reference, the focus is on a student’s suitability for a particular course - but US applicants usually aren’t applying to a specific course. This guide will explain how to frame Letters of Recommendation for US universities.
The College Board (who run the SAT, among other tests) descries the role of the teacher recommendation as an ‘honest appraisal… of a student’s academic performance and intellectual promise'.
Here are three important things to bear in mind:
- The Teacher LOR should demonstrate the student’s abilities and performance in the classroom.
- It’s good to include specific stories from the student’s time in the teacher’s class because anecdotes provide important colour.
- The whole thing should not exceed a page.
Teacher Letter of Recommendation vs Counselor Letter of Recommendation
The Counselor Letter of Recommendation is a very important part of a student’s application and is often said to carry more weight than a Teacher Recommendation. For more details, check out our article on Counselor Letters of Recommendation, but in short a Counselor Recommendation provides a more general overview of the student within the student’s learning community. This includes covering extracurricular activities, as well as the student’s character (they might comment on the student’s integrity, honesty, etc.)
Fitting the teacher to the recommendation
Each student should discuss with you what aspects of themselves they feel should be emphasised in the LORs. Part of this is about the student thinking through how their own strengths can be best matched to the characteristics the schools to which they are applying look for - and then making sure that you and the other teacher recommenders are clear on this as well.
If a teacher feels they can’t write a letter that meets a particular student’s needs, the teacher and/or student should talk to the counselor to reach a solution. Sometimes this means finding another recommender. However if a student is applying for a programme that heavily features subject matter particular to a given teacher’s expertise, that teacher really needs to provide a recommendation.
It’s a student’s responsibility to provide you with the information you need. The student can do this 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.
Having specific examples at hand before starting the letter of recommendation is essential. Ideally, you will have been given the information you need several weeks before the LOR is due.
Key things to include
Describe the student compared to the rest of their learning community.
Examples of context:
It is worth noting that, as the only boy in the class, there was fairly stringent opposition to his thoughts at times. He was a very willing contributor to class discussion and brought a wealth of historical knowledge in particular to the table.
Arriving from an American High school, where literature had been studied broadly and with an emphasis on cultural context, Christian struggled at first with the rigorous demands of the IB course, particularly in providing the detailed commentary required when reading previously unseen works. He had a strong vocabulary and a good level of perception but began as possibly the weakest performing student in the class. By the end of the year he became one of the highest achieving pupils.
The ‘show don’t tell’ rule applies in Teacher LORs. It’s important to provide anecdotal evidence of a student's interest and engagement in classes.
Anecdotes don’t have to be epic in scale. A recommendation could discuss how the student dedicated themselves to overcoming the challenges of the course by scheduling appointments with teachers and changing habits in the classroom. If the student approached a task in an individual and innovative manner, this could speak volumes about their character.
Here is part of reference that offers few examples:
Valery has worked consistently and demonstrated that he is a talented and committed student who always tries his best. He can work effectively with other students to realize his artistic intentions, and can give and receive feedback. He reflects on his own work and approaches and makes good choices. Valery creates roles that are effective for the audience, and has a flair for performance. Valery can work across a range of styles and eagerly explores unfamiliar approaches, concepts and ideas.
Conversely, Teacher LORs with specific examples allow the reader to draw their own conclusions through tangible events. The Admission Officer, who must defend the application during admission committee meetings, will draw on the examples provided in the teacher reference. Here’s an extract from a LOR which offers good, concrete examples:
Juan has been known to become so involved in philosophical debates (a memorable occasion was a discussion of Marx’s “The Fetishism of Commodities”) that he stayed after class to keep the conversation going. Having witnessed his passionate participation in the Model United Nations in The Hague, it was not surprising to learn that Juan had been selected by Radio One in Belgium to participate in a discussion between international students about the recent American elections. As he spoke, Juan’s grasp of concepts like down-ballot results and populist movements contrasted strongly with the more predictable remarks of his peers. Clearly he had taken the time to understand the election.
Describing the syllabus
A Teacher LOR does not need to describe the syllabus if it's a well known qualification like an A-level or International Baccalaureate - most admissions officers are familiar with these curricula. In addition admission committees will get a sense of academic skill sets through standardised testing like SAT, ACT or TOEFL.
However if a student’s test scores vary significantly from what might be expected given their academic grades, it would be important to elaborate on this.
Teaching in US universities tends to be more discussion based than in universities in other countries. Therefore the universities want to know how the student contributes to the classroom environment. In your Teacher LOR you should consider the question: will the student be part of the dialogue of an active learning community?
US universities have a stronger eye than most universities in other countries for curating a university community. Therefore, during the admissions process admissions tutors are trying to figure out what kind of person a student will be and how they will contribute to campus life.
US Universities are accustomed to students who contribute to the school community in a plethora of ways. Here’s an extract from a Teacher LOR:
I have rarely seen anything like this student’s tenacity during the group 4 project. His aim was to use lemons to drive a remote control car. By the end of the second project day he was still enhancing his set-up and had used a large amount of lemons in series and parallel to obtain the correct electric voltage and current. Many other students would have given up.
In your Teacher LOR you should consider the questions: will the student be an active member of a learning community? Will the student become a valued roommate, classmate or club member?