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Reference Letters

US flag with students

Selecting Referees - Preparing Your Referees

US postgraduate programmes and many scholarship programmes will require two to three letters of reference. Read on for more information about selecting your referees and preparing them to write their letters.

Selecting Referees

Universities or programmes may provide some loose guidelines for selecting referees (such as at least two of the letters being from a university lecturer or for MBA applications, from an employer). However, it will ultimately be your responsibility to choose your referees and to liaise with them about submitting their letters.

Choose well. Letters of reference should highlight your:

If appropriate, the letter may fill-in any gaps or may explain discrepancies in grades.

We encourage you to choose your referees carefully, asking only those lecturers, employers or individuals who know you well and can enthusiastically recommend you. A great letter probably won’t get you in, but it can't hurt your application.

Keep the selection criteria of the department or scholarship programme in mind as you select referees. Some PhD programmes for example may wish to see three academic referees, whereas a scholarship programme may be interested in your extracurriculars or an MBA programme in your work experience. If possible, select referees who can each speak about you in and outside of the classroom. If this is not possible, select referees that will compliment each other (i.e., one strong academic referee focusing on your academic background and potential, one strong professional referee or referee who knows you from an extracurricular activity, and one academic referee who also knows you outside the classroom).

You may wish to consult Fulbright's handouts on choosing a referee and notes to help guide referees. EducationUSA also provides a downloadable handout, 10 Tips for Recommendation Letters.

Preparing Your Referees

It is in your best interest to prepare your referees to write your letter. Invest time in this. On a practical level, you should inform them of:

It is your responsibility as the applicant to check in with your referees regularly about their progress and the timely submission of their letter.

We encourage students to meet with their referees well in advance of the deadline to discuss their letter. Your aim in this meeting is to make it as easy as possible for them to write an informed letter. During this meeting you may wish to share with the referee your:

Above all, encourage referees to avoid being restrained and too modest. American referees tend to write in an enthusiastic tone, using very positive and descriptive language. Thus, it is important that your referees keep the audience in mind and be aware of the fact that a standard UK reference may not be a sufficient complement to your US university application. We encourage you to look at our sample reference and share with your referees this webpage as well as our handout on writing reference letters for postgraduate admissions.

As a final note, on your application form you will have the option to waive the right to see a copy of the letter. This is recommended by US universities and our office, as it ensures the authenticity of the letter.