Most universities will ask you for at least one reference, written by a careers advisor, headteacher, housemaster, etc. This reference is similar to UCAS, although it should not focus on a particular course, but rather suitability in general for higher education. It is ‘all about’ you and should address academic performance, extra-curricular activities and personal qualities. (We’ve provided some guidelines below.)
Additionally, most schools will ask for at least one academic reference, sometimes more. The academic reference should come from a teacher who has taught you for at least a year and, if possible, in a core academic subject—English, history, foreign language, maths or sciences. Some schools such as MIT will demand a maths/science referee and a humanities referee.
These references, unlike the counsellor reference, should focus on the student’s performance in class: academic ability, performance, ability to work independently and as a member of the group, how the student deals with setbacks, etc. While it is fine to mention outside activities if the teacher is aware, it is not the focus.
References are very important and it is crucial you make sure your referee knows the drill. While some admissions officers appreciate British understatement, you are competing for a place against American students whose references will tend to be flagrantly positive, so it is wise to give the person you ask some guidance.
Here are some guidelines you should share with the person who is writing your ‘counsellor’ reference.
Top tips for referees: What to include in your student recommendations
Be assertively affirmative! US referees focus tightly on achievements and blur less desirable qualities. Make a list with your student of all the main reasons they wish to study in the US and draw upon it.
If necessary, explain discrepancies in grades, i.e. those due to ill health or personal problems. This will make the student’s own explanation more credible.
Include all extra-curricular activities. Admissions officers badly want students who will contribute to campus life, not just excel in a main topic of study. Five As at AS Level are great but that position in the school orchestra could prove just as valuable.
Highlight the student’s personality. Many applicants with less than perfect marks have been accepted by top-rated institutions because they will contribute to the diversity of the student body, be a team-player or an enthusiastic member of campus.
Try to offer a class ranking. Most US high schools assign their students to various percentiles based on academic ability. You can be inventive and selective: for example, a student in the top 40% of their year-group may be in the top 3% for their favourite subject. Consider using the ranking in the last GCSE year if students leaving have made the AS rankings a steeper slope to climb. (In other words, when students finish GCSEs, fewer from the group progress to sixth form - the cream rises to the top, so competition increases significantly. The student could have been number 10 in a class of 100, but then if only the top 20 progress to A-Level, he might find himself at the 50% mark versus the 10% mark).
Don't hold back. US referees often use highly descriptive, dramatic language. Paint an honest portrait in full colour. In the US a reference is viewed as a marketing tool. You should try to do the same.
Examples of references
In order to demonstrate some of the (not so) subtle differences between references, the Fulbright Commission has created a student-written summary of their qualifications and activities, together with two supporting references, one UK-style, the other US-style.
Each takes its national style to the extreme, but we hope they will show you a way to make your reference more US-friendly.
Joe Normal has GCSE results of A* in English Literature; A in English Language and History; B in Maths, Science, Art and IT; C in French and Music; D in D&T. At AS he has A in English Literature, B in History, C in Art and Biology. He is predicted A in English Literature, B in History, C in Art at A2.
Joe plays football for his school team. Last year he played in the city finals, where his team lost the championship. He plays the clarinet in the school wind band. His work group in GCSE Science won a regional award for their energy-efficient car design.
Over the summer holidays he participated in a week-long art workshop organized by his school for local children. He recently completed his silver Duke of Edinburgh Award, hoping to take the Gold before leaving school. He won a Promising Young Writers Award for a short story written as part of his GCSE coursework.
The US universities he is applying to (majoring in English) are Middlebury, Harvard, NYU, Mount Holyoke, College of William and Mary, and Northeastern.
Example of a UK-style reference
Joe Normal is a very likeable student with a solid future ahead of him. He interacts well with his classmates and seems to be quite popular among his peers.
Academically, he achieves decent marks and has good relationships with his teachers, although he could be more focused on deadlines. He should have a great future in the study and application of English, which is by far his favourite subject, and the field he is most gifted in.
Joe demonstrates a certain willingness to participate in school events such as music concerts, and recently supervised a group of six young children engaged in various art-based activities on one of our summer schemes. His work with the Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme also proves his ability to overcome challenges.
I would have no reservations in recommending Joe for your institution, and am sure he will become a considerable academic asset.
Example of a US-style reference
It has been an absolute pleasure to work with Joe Normal, who ranks among the top 10% of students within his A level classes.
He is the best student in a competitive and enthusiastic English class, and has even won a publisher’s Young Writers Award for one of the pieces he produced. His passion for the subject shines through, as does his commitment to learning in an academic setting.
Joe stands out as a popular team player, both in his school work and extra-curricular activities, taking his soccer team to the city championships, and winning a science award for a group project on environmental awareness. While working towards his Duke of Edinburgh Silver Award he endured a two-day mountaineering expedition, returning with much praise for the challenge, and is anticipating another such trek for his soon-to-be-completed Gold Award.
He is keen to participate by playing his clarinet at regular wind band concerts, and has recently taken time out of his school holiday to volunteer with the art department, supervising workshops for local children.
Joe’s teachers speak highly of him, and all predict he will be extremely successful in a US institution, where his academic talents can continue to flourish, and his love of adventure will be greatly rewarded. I do not hesitate to give my strongest recommendation that he join ‘………’ University and am certain you will be rewarded with an exemplary new student.