Letters of Recommendation: 5 Facts That International Applicants Need to Know

By Ryan Hickey, Managing Editor of Petersons & EssayEdge

Between cultural differences, language barriers and differing educational systems, international applicants face many challenges when applying to universities in the USA. One of the most difficult aspects of completing your application package as an international student is the letters of recommendation. Your recommenders need to help the admissions officers gain a better understanding of who you are so that you can increase your chances of receiving an offer of acceptance. Follow these tips to get the best letters into your application package.

1. Choose people who really know you as a person—not the recommender with the most impressive title.

Without a doubt, the most common mistake that we see international students make regarding letters of recommendation is choosing recommenders with fancy titles who don’t really know them. Don’t ask the director of your school to write a letter of recommendation for you unless the director knows you well. If the director only knows you from your transcript, then they won’t be able to write a persuasive letter. Instead, ask for letters from people who see you frequently. They will be able to include meaningful anecdotes that speak to your character and potential.

2. Go for quality over quantity.

The second most typical pitfall that international students make is trying to include too many recommendations. Two strong letters are better than five so-so ones. If you are going to include more than two, make sure that you have a specific reason. This could be that you want different people to show different aspects of your personality to the admissions officer. For example, you might want one teacher to write about your strong academics, another to focus on your teamwork skills and another to discuss your extracurricular activities. The worst choice is to send multiple letters of recommendation that are all similar in content. Each letter should provide a unique perspective of you.  

3. Use samples for inspiration.

The kind of recommendation letters that will work well in your home country might not be effective in the country where you are applying to school. Because of this, you might want to research some examples online for your recommender to use as a guide when writing your letter. Highlight what you think are the strengths of the examples and explain to your recommender why you would like for your letter to have the same qualities. If you don’t want to suggest examples, you can use the samples yourself to help convey the structure and content that the letter needs to have to be effective for your application.

4. If you need to, you can use a translator.

Your best recommender might not speak the target language of your chosen school abroad. However, this does not mean that you can’t ask that person to write a letter for you. Depending on the school, you might be able to translate the letter yourself or there might be a translator at your school who can take care of this for you. Very rarely, a school will ask that you have any document that is translated apostilled, which means that the document will have to be officially translated by your government. Therefore, ask your target school what you will need to do if you need to use a translator for your letters of recommendation.

5. Proofread your letters.

Just because your recommender is from a different country doesn’t mean it’s OK to have grammatical, punctuation or spelling errors. Usually, your recommender will allow you to see the letter and make proofreading changes as long as you don’t change the content. You’ll need to let them see the finalized version of the letter so they can approve the version that you will send to the school. If not, you might ask if another teacher or a school administrator can take a second look at the letter before you submit it. 

About the Author

Ryan Hickey is the Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and is an expert in many aspects of college, graduate and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants.