How to Write Your Reference letter
UK Application Guide
7. Reference Letter
Your reference letter, or “teacher’s recommendation”, is a part of your application that you cannot control the content yourself. However, what you can do is to maximize your chances for a more successful reference letter, in two ways:
- Pick a suitable writer for your reference letter
- Help the writer formulate the contents of the letter by providing information, both about your personal profile and about the university and programme that you are applying for
Length of the reference letter
The reference letter can be up to 4000 characters (including spaces) long, just like your Personal Statement. This equates to roughly 600 words.
Purpose of the reference letter
UCAS describes the reference letter in the following way:
“UCAS references are designed to provide universities and colleges with an informed and academic assessment of an applicant’s suitability for further study. It is the only part of the application that the applicants do not write themselves.”
Contents of the reference letter
A good reference letter should include the following information:
- Academic performance in high school
- Potential for success in university
- How the student’s profile suits the programme/school applied for
- Personal qualities that are of value in a university environment
- How the student can contribute to the university environment outside of the classroom
Choosing the right teacher
British high school teachers have a lot of experience writing reference letters since all their students need a letter for their university application. Additionally, most of them are English native speakers with good resources at hand to assist them in writing their letters. In other countries, however, teachers lack all these advantages. To ensure yourself of a strong letter, you need to provide this assistance to your teacher. Following is a list of helpful tools to increase your chances of a strong reference letter:
- If your teacher prefers writing in their native language, make sure to arrange for proper translation of the letter. Perhaps ask your English teacher to translate it? The universities understand that foreign teachers sometimes lack the necessary skills, and thus do not require perfect English in your reference letter (as opposed to your Personal Statement).
- Choose a teacher who knows you well and who can provide a detailed description of your good qualities, preferably with the help of concrete examples. This will strengthen the credibility of the letter and give the admissions committees evidence of your good qualities.
- Make sure that the teacher understands which content the universities are expecting from the letter. Perhaps even show the teacher the list below.
- It may be tempting to have some famous person write your letter. Avoid this unless the person knows you well. The important thing here is what the person says about you, not what he/she has achieved himself.
- Make sure that the teacher actually wants to write your reference letter. It will require a bit of extra effort from the teacher, and if he/she has a lot to do, it might affect the quality of your letter. In this case it might be wise to ask someone else.
- The relationship between you and the chosen teacher must be good, and the teacher should have seen some of your work. Enthusiasm, or lack thereof, will shine through in a strong reference letter.
- Picking a teacher within a relevant academic field is preferable. Ask your mathematics teacher to help you if you’re applying for a mathematics degree. This may be helpful, but not required.
Advice for the teacher:
- Your task is to give the admissions committee an idea of your student’s potential to excel in the given academic field. Thus, you need a good understanding of the student’s abilities and the contents of the programme applied to. Think about your student’s strengths, and read up on the programme on the university’s website.
- Remember to mainly focus on the academic abilities of your student. Things worth mentioning may be: subject related knowledge, analytical thinking, communicative abilities, study technique, team working skills, discipline, independent learning and thinking etc.
- Avoid exaggerated praise of your student, as this will impact the credibility of your letter. To keep your approvals on a reasonable level, you may mention how the degree can help the student develop. However, avoid any possible negative comments.
- Make sure to read your student’s own Personal Statement (application letter). The reference letter need not reflect everything mentioned in the Personal Statement, but the two letters should be compatible. Together, they must paint a complete picture of the student, his/her most prominent academic and personal qualities and aptness for the university programme in question.
- Do comment on the student’s high level of English.
- Initiate the letter by mentioning your relation to the student. By mentioning how long you’ve known each other, which classes you’ve taught the student in and how often you’ve met, you gain trustworthiness as a reference.
The official instructions for teachers can be found on UCAS’ website: