7 Quick Tips For Writing Awesome College References


When you’re asked to be an academic referee for a college applicant, it’s important to remember that you’re playing a key role in their future. Your reference can make or break an applicant’s chances of being accepted into the program of their choice, so it’s crucial to provide a positive and well-written letter.

But what exactly makes an awesome college reference?

Awesome college references illustrate the candidate’s academic and practical suitability for a particular course of study. They reinforce the positive aspects of their educational career, outline their key skills and talk honestly about the applicant’s potential.

In this post, I’ll give you 7 quick tips for writing compelling reference letters that will stand out. If you’d like a more detailed overview, why not check out my in-depth post on writing university references?

1 Understand What a College Reference Is

A college reference, also known as an academic reference, recommendation letter or just plain old referee feedback, is written by someone with knowledge about the applicant and their work.

In the US, college references are often referred to as letters of recommendation, and are uploaded to the Common App platform by recommenders (the reference writer or person recommending the student). For UK applications, UCAS is the most common platform, and references are usually completed by school staff or, for mature students, nominated referees.

It’s important to bear in mind that many colleges in the US and around the world operate their own direct upload systems for references, so check with the applicant and make sure you know which system you are writing for.

Is a Reference That Important?

References are often one of the most important factors colleges use to decide who to offer degree places to, so being asked to provide one is a significant responsibility. They can come in a range of formats, from tick-box options or short answers to targeted questions, right the way up to full-length essays.

The important thing to remember is that you should be honest, balanced and positive throughout!

2 Details to Include in a College Reference

When writing an academic reference for a university applicant, you should include the following information:

  • Your name and contact information
  • The name of the institution to which the applicant is applying
  • The program that the applicant is interested in
  • How well you know the applicant and how long you have known them
  • Your relationship with the applicant (such as teacher/student, supervisor/intern)
  • Your assessment of the applicant’s academic skills, abilities and strengths
  • Any relevant information about the applicant that is not included in their application materials (like extracurricular activities or volunteer work)

This list may seem long, but it is important for you to provide all of this information so that the admissions committee has a better understanding of who they are considering admitting into their program!

Colleges are increasingly allowing flexibility in who can write a reference, as this extract from the University of Michigan indicates…

3 Use Guidance Notes in Your College Reference

When writing an academic reference for a college applicant, it’s important to make sure that you address the specific requirements of any particular guidance notes. It might sound obvious, but if you don’t include everything that is being asked for, you’re likely to limit the applicant’s chances.

So, make sure you’re aware of each institution’s requirements; some institutions have very strict guidelines on what they expect from you, whereas others do not – so it is important to make sure you meet their criteria.

If possible, try and get a copy of the university’s admissions policies and procedures before starting your application process: this way, you will know what is expected from you before sending out your letters.

If there are any special requests including photographs (e.g. passport photo or headshot) or other documentation required then send these separately along with your draft academic reference letter; this will help ensure that everything goes smoothly!

What Kinds of Details are Included?

Here are some examples of guidance notes that you may come across, and the level of detail you might need to offer in your letter of recommendation:

  • Specific dates during which you knew or taught the applicant
  • The degree to which you have been impressed by their application of academic theory
  • Your personal experience of having seen the outcome of their practical or academic skill
  • Your opinion of their potential, based upon a specific example from your recent interactions
  • The applicant’s knowledge of and interest in current affairs
  • The impact that travel and culture may have had on their development

The issue here is that you need to make sure that you have tangible examples to give, rather than just writing something generic.

So instead of…

Try…

Just make sure you read the criteria thoroughly and take note of the specific demands!

4 Be Positive Throughout the College Reference

Your job as a referee is to highlight the applicant’s best qualities and skills. You shouldn’t write anything negative about the student or criticise them in any way. A reference should be positive, so that it helps a university applicant to achieve their goals, not hinder them by being written negatively.

It is not the role of the referee to purposefully point out the negatives, but equally, you shouldn’t say that something is a positive if it really isn’t. In its own way, omitting a negative speaks for itself, and admissions teams are well-experienced at spotting the things that haven’t been included, and understanding why.

If you do feel it necessary to include negatives, then try to phrase them as opportunities for growth, support or discovery, as the table below indicates…

NegativePositive
This person is unlikely to cope academically at universityThis person will find university education a challenge, and will benefit from academic support to succeed
This person is disorganised and tends to miss deadlinesThis person will benefit from the close supervision of a tutor in order to achieve their best
This person isn’t really sure what to study at college so they’ve picked something at randomThe broader college experience will present this person with the ideal opportunity to discover their passion
How to Phrase Negatives Positively

5 Use the Right Language in a College Reference

When writing an academic reference for a university application, you need to keep your letter short and to the point. You should use clear, direct language that is easy for an admissions officer at a university or college to understand. You should also avoid using any jargon or technical terms unless they are necessary for explaining something about the applicant’s academic achievements or potential future study.

Don’t use informal language, slang or vocabulary that is rooted in a particular dialect or culture, even if you feel it reflects the applicant well. If you don’t use language that is commonly understandable, you’re unlikely to benefit the applicant.

If you’re not used to writing in this kind of style, then it might be useful to use software like Grammarly. It’s a great way to check your spelling, punctuation and grammar, and an excellent tool for keeping your writing concise.

You can check out the free version here, or hit the banner below for more information.

6 Academic Elements in a College Reference

Even if the applicant is intending to read for a practical or creative subject, the foundation of your recommendation should still be rooted in their academic capabilities. A degree is an academic qualification, regardless of discipline, and colleges will be keen to see evidence that the applicant is likely to be able to meet the demands of the course.

When talking about the applicant’s academic achievements, be as specific as possible. Use numbers and examples to back up your statements. For example, if you’re writing about how well they did in an exam or piece of coursework, use percentages and grades where possible.

If you can, try to include some positive comments from other teachers or mentors for extra impact. This will show that not only does the applicant have good academic results, but also that they are well-liked by their peers and colleagues.

If you aren’t given any guidelines, then here’s a checklist of the kinds of things to include…

Academic Elements to Include

  • How well do they know their intended subject?
  • Have they achieved any notable successes in their studies?
  • What kind of attitude do they have towards learning and education?
  • Are they capable of researching beyond the taught curriculum?
  • Do they maintain an active interest in a range of academic debates?
  • Are they good at working independently?
  • Are they good at applying theory in practice?
  • What level of transferable skills do they have?
  • Do they have any other talents or interests?
  • How likely are they to succeed in a university environment?

7 What not to Include in a College Reference

Very often, you’ll be given guidelines for the things to include in a college reference, but it’s unusual to be told exactly what to avoid including. However, knowing what to avoid can help you maximise the words available to you and give the applicant the best chance of success.

Do not waste time including the applicant’s qualifications, education or employment history. They will have had the opportunity to include these elements elsewhere in the application, and you’ll just be repeating what they’ve already written.

Do not write about the applicant’s personal life or character traits. This is the kind of content that the applicant will cover in their personal statement. However, if you feel that there are mitigating circumstances relating to their academic progress, or that their progress at college would be affected by the absence of a piece of information, then it may be worth including.

You must always check with the applicant and get their approval first, however. Under normal circumstances, it’s best to stick to discussing the student’s academic achievements, skills, and potential.

Do not use clichéd phrases such as “Sally is a hard-working, conscientious individual.” It’s much better to talk about specific qualities that you have noticed and how the applicant would benefit from studying at university.

Do not inflate, exaggerate or include falsehoods about the suitability of the applicant. It can be tempting to ‘give them a boost’, especially if you feel they really deserve a place on a particular course. Ultimately, falsehoods will do more harm than good, especially if an applicant ends up on a course that they struggle to complete.

Do not copy references from one candidate to another. Most admissions platforms employ highly effective plagiarism technology, for references as well as personal statements, and you may end up delaying or even ruining the application if your reference isn’t original and pertinent to the individual.


I really hope this article has given you a quick snapshot guide to the reference writing, and that you feel better equipped to put together an awesome college recommendation.

Don’t forget to check out my detailed post here for more info. Good luck with your reference writing, and please do contact me if you’d like some 1-1 support. You’ve got this! D

Research and content verified by Personal Statement Planet.

David Hallen

I've worked in the Further Education and University Admissions sector for nearly 20 years as a teacher, department head, Head of Sixth Form, UCAS Admissions Advisor, UK Centre Lead and freelance personal statement advisor, editor and writer. And now I'm here for you...

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