How to secure effective reference letters


Universities typically require reference letters from a counsellor and/or a teacher. Each serves a different purpose. The counselor’s reference provides background on the student’s personal growth and role within the high school community. On the other hand, the teacher’s reference describes the student as learner; it should be about what the student is like in class.

The most effective letters paint a clear portrait of the student by focusing on specific strengths and qualities. As is the case with a student’s personal statement, strong reference letters provide proof by sharing specific stories. It is also important that these not only to speak to a student’s past achievement but also to indicate confidence in the student’s trajectory.

Counsellor’s letters should:

  1. Provide a sense for the student’s strength of character and interpersonal skills as well as the student’s post-secondary readiness and goals.
    • What is the student known for at the school? What are some of the student’s key contributions to the high school community?
    • How rigorous is the student’s curriculum? Is there a change in the student’s academic achievement? If so, what does it mean? Provide a sense of how the student performs relative to peers.
    • Include examples to prove what is said about the student. Stories help show they know the student well thereby giving the letter more weight.

  2. Contextualize the student’s achievements. Explain the meaning of the student’s personal, academic, or extra-curricular accomplishment at school.
    • Explain the time commitment required by the activities in which the student participated at the school. Describe how competitive it is to participate in the student’s activities/programs. Is the club, team, or group renowned/selective?
    • Provide a sense of the academic environment at the school. (e.g. competitiveness, innovation, strength, etc.) What does the student’s academic achievement mean at the school?
    • It is useful to provide measurements for the student’s achievement(s). Referencing the number of years the counselor has been an educator provides further context. Counselors should aim to differentiate the student from others by ranking how the student compares with others they’ve known as a counselor.
    • The high school years are a period of great change for many students. The reference letter should share thoughts on how the student has developed since starting high school.



    To ensure your counselling staff are able to provide a meaning reference letter, it’s important for the student to get to know them. This way you can avoid receiving generic recommendations. The following are some things that should not go into a reference letter:

    • A list of the student’s activities and achievements. You will provide this information in other parts of the application.
    • Quantitative details such as grades or the number of years the student has been involved in each activity. Again, you will provide this in your application(s).




    Teacher’s reference letters shed light on your intellectual and personal qualities. As a consequence, the best letters are provided by teachers who know you well. Some teachers find it useful to partner with the student as a way to generate detail. Some common ways to partner are:

    1. Provide copies of application materials to identify what the audience requires
    2. Supply a copy of your resume, a writing sample, a graded paper or list of achievements
    3. Provide a copy of your transcript in order to help the teacher put your academic achievement in context
    4. Meet with the teacher to discuss what is motivating you to apply for a particular university and/or program, and so the teacher can learn more about long-term goals as well as strengths and weaknesses

    Teacher’s reference letters should:

    1. Give context to your relationship with the student. Committees are interested to know how the teacher came to know the student and how long s/he has known the student. If the teacher also knows you through extra-curricular activities, this should be noted. It can also be effective to succinctly describe the student’s curriculum, and the type of students involved in the class/classes in which the teacher taught you. This provides a nice segue for a comparison to other students.
    2. Enhance her/his credibility. Very briefly – remember the teacher is trying to raise a student’s profile – describe how long s/he has been teaching. If the teacher was a university professor, this should be noted in the letter with a comment on how much s/he would like to have the student in her/his class. It should state why. If the student is interested in a profession in which the teacher holds a designation, by citing this background in reference to the student’s potential helps the student.

    The strength of a reference letter depends on the evidence provided. The following are some of the best ways a teacher may present the student’s accomplishments:

    1. Compare the student others, especially classmates. How often does the student display a high level of curiosity or intellectual drive?
    2. Comment on the student’s role in the classroom. Does the student contribute to class discussion? How well does the student work with others? Comment on teamwork and social confidence.
    3. Quote from a paper the student wrote or describe the student’s qualitative work.

    VerveSmith helps students find universities and programs that match their aspirations, and to develop an admissions application strategy. For additional help, contact us.

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