US University Teacher References

Guides / USA

For many students attending schools in the UK with aspirations to apply to the United States, an often overlooked part of the process is making sure that your school know what to do. There are clearly some paperwork submission requirements, but one of the crucial elements of this process is what the school writes about you.

If your school, or your teachers, are new to US applications, they can sometimes try to submit a UCAS-style reference which is not typically what US universities want to see. Students will likely have to provide three references: one will be an overview reference (known as the ‘counselor reference’), while two will be from teachers.

These can sometimes baffle UK teachers, as they are used to focusing on short, academically-focused subject references, which are then built into a UCAS reference. A US-style teacher reference should be different, and needs to focus on what it is like to teach the student, day-in, day-out.

Here are some tips for teachers. The reference should:

  • be more personal, less about academia and more about the student in your class;

  • demonstrate how the teacher knows the student;

  • talk about the student’s impact on you as a teacher: how they interact with peers, their work ethic, time management etc.;

  • include examples or anecdotes of positive moments from the student’s time in the class, to illustrate wider points;

  • comment on any notable achievements of the student that relate to this subject.

My key advice to any teacher asked to write a reference letter is to imagine that you are having a conversation with a colleague who is going to teach this student next year: what are the key, positive things that they should know.

If you’d like to see some examples, the Harvard Club of the UK have a good set here.

These videos, one I did for Unifrog and one from Vanderbilt University, give a great overview: