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Duke University
Duke University
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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


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Letters of Recommendation for International Students

Cultural differences, language barriers, and divergent educational systems are just a few of the notable obstructions that international students face when applying to U.S. colleges and universities. These challenges only exacerbate the stress and anxiety of the college application process. One of the most challenging tasks for international students can be securing strong letters of recommendation. Read on to learn how to optimize your letters of recommendation as an international student.

Why Letters of Recommendation are Important

Letters of recommendation play a critical role in the college application process because they help humanize an applicant in a way that grades and test scores cannot. These letters demonstrate to a prospective college both the type of student the applicant is in the classroom and, often, what motivates the applicant outside of school.


Much like college essays, letters of recommendation allow admissions officials to see the personal strengths an applicant brings to the table. However, unlike college essays, which provide students with the opportunity to advocate for themselves, letters of recommendation require others to advocate for the applicant. Letters of recommendation demonstrate the confidence the recommendation writer has in the candidate. Importantly, these letters often reveal qualities and attributes that do not appear in a student’s college essay or in other application materials.


Convinced of the importance of recommendation letters? Read A Step-by-Step Guide to Your Recommendation Letters to learn strategies to secure strong advocacy for your admission to your dream school.

How Letters of Recommendation Affect the Application Process

As noted above, recommendation letters offer a three-dimensional illustration of a student in a way that grades and test scores cannot. Through these letters, the admissions committee will get a sense of how you work, your capacity for learning new things, how you react to challenges, and how you interact with your peers.


Consider a student who struggled with trigonometry, working extremely hard to earn a B. What framing would a strong letter of recommendation provide for this information? (A) The student is above average at trigonometry? Or (B) The student was challenged, worked hard, sought extra help, and persevered to earn an above-average grade? The answer is simple: B. Version B tells a reader far more about the applicant’s mindset and the positive attributes that the student will bring to the challenges of the college experience.


As colleges continue to focus on enrolling diverse and dynamic students who love learning, letters of recommendation become increasingly important. Perhaps more than any other section of a college application, letters of recommendation indicate how a student will fit in on campus and what they’ll offer to the school’s community.


If you’re interested in learning more about the importance of letters of recommendation, read our in-depth article How Important are Letters of Recommendation?

How International Students Can Acquire Recommendation Letters

Stay ahead of schedule: As an international student, you face additional hurdles to acquiring letters of recommendation, such as the potential need for translation. These hurdles can make make the whole process take longer than you might expect, so ask for your letter writers well in advance of all application deadlines. This allows time for your letter writer to create a thoughtful and impactful letter while leaving plenty of time for any additional steps that need to be taken before submission.


Give an Example: One of the best strategies you can adopt as an international students when seeking letters of recommendation is to give your letter writers a few examples of strong letters of recommendation. Cultural differences can influence the content of a letter; teachers from other countries sometimes are unsure what U.S. admissions officers expect from these letters. Examples help to clarify the type and depth of information that should be included and ensure a letter’s effectiveness.


Choose Wisely: When choosing your letter of recommendation writer, your first priority should be finding a writer who knows you personally. You should prioritize this personal connection over other considerations, like a potential recommender’s impressive title or profile. Focusing on finding a recommender with a personal connection to you will help ensure that the admissions committee gets an original, robust, believable illustration of how you study, work, interact, and grow.


Offer a Resume: The best letters of recommendation often expand on something shown in another section of the college application. Giving your recommender a short resume or profile can help the person writing your letter of recommendation make a more compelling case for your admission or add depth and context to an achievement or attribute you hope to highlight.


Quality First: International students should focus on quality of recommendation letters over quantity. College admissions officials will read between hundreds and thousands of letters in one application cycle; if your first letter isn’t impressive, there is no guarantee that an admissions officer will read a second or third letter. Know how many letters the institution you’re applying to requires (and who they require them from) and reach out to your best advocates for their support.


Translate: Language can be a barrier for many students applying to U.S. schools from non-English speaking countries. This holds true for letters of recommendation. You should reach out to the institutions you’re applying to for advice on how to proceed. Some schools will allow students to translate the letter themselves or will allow the recommender translate it; other schools may translate it themselves.


Curious about your chances of acceptance to your dream school? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!

Short Bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.