US high school teachers and counselors are accustomed to and often even expected to write glowing letters of recommendation (LORs) to support students’ college applications. However, in the rest of the world, cultural norms about LORs vary dramatically, or don’t even exist.

Cultural Norms, Translation Issues

Julia Gooding

As independent educational consultants (IECs) advising students crossing borders for education, it is important that we educate ourselves about how varying cultural contexts and norms might impact our students requesting and receiving effective LORs. 

There are five key areas of the cultural context of your student and their high school that you may want to consider. First, the existence of recommendation letters. In most education systems, entrance into universities is largely, or even solely determined by high-stakes tests or final grades. A local teacher may therefore not understand what a LOR is, its role in admissions, or how to write one. This means they may likely mismatch the LOR content and tone with what the university considers helpful. 

Second, in non-English speaking countries’ local schools, teachers may not be fluent in English. If this is the case, the teacher could first compose a LOR in their primary language, arrange for an English translation, and submit a bilingual LOR. Third, if LORs are uncommon or nonexistent in a student’s school, teachers may be unaware of the concept of LOR ethics, such that teachers may ask students to draft the requested LOR on their behalf. 

Fourth, US culture is known for generously and effusively praising students. This is not the case in other cultures where praise is moderated or withheld altogether. Without LOR guidance and examples, teachers might use a brusque tone and only include factual information, like confirmation that the student was enrolled in their class. Finally, some cultures with “high power distances” (Geert Hofstede) will prioritize a LOR from a principal or a “high-ranking teacher.” It is our work to educate students and help them understand what elements of a LOR will and will not improve the strength of their applications. 

When we recognize differences and address misunderstandings, we can help our students better navigate and match the cultural contexts of the LOR writers (high school teachers and counselors) with the expectations of the receivers (universities).

Understanding the Systems

Teo Salgado

Outside of the United States, university admission is generally based solely on academic achievement. Eligibility is determined by assessing a combination of interim or final high school marks and university-specific or standardized test results. However, some universities may require additional elements as part of the admission application, such as a statement of purpose, interview, or portfolio. These may be used to determine whether or not a student possesses the qualities and/or academic potential desired by an academic program or institution. Increasingly, and likely in response to increased competition for available spaces, counselors and teachers are invited to write reference letters or to complete referee reports in support of admission applications. Before your students ask counselors or teachers to write letters, it’s useful for them to research the content and format required by universities and/or programs on their list. 

A Case Study

Sarah Loring de Garcia

“Gonzalo” is a Mexican student who was interested in applying to bioengineering programs in the US and the UK. He attended a high school directly affiliated with one of Mexico’s most prestigious universities. As a “feeder” school, over 95 percent of students at Gonzalo’s high school go directly from the high school to the university. A handful of students at Gonzalo’s school complete the full IB diploma program, as Gonzalo did; these tend to be the students most interested in applying elsewhere. University advising from the school is essentially nonexistent.

Gonzalo needed three LORs for his US universities (two teachers + one school official) and a referral for UCAS. These would all have to be very different from the typical Mexican LOR, which simply states that the student attends the school and is expected to graduate in good standing. I needed to work with Gonzalo to ensure that he could request his LORs, devise a “blueprint” for a letter within that request, and pass along resources to his LOR writers to give them the support they need. He shared all of his communications with me so I could support him (and through him, his LOR writers) throughout this process.

Initially, Gonzalo asked me if he should request an additional LOR from the governor of our state. He had volunteered on his campaign and had briefly met the governor twice. Though this type of LOR may be impressive or helpful in some cultures, I advised Gonzalo against this plan as it would not provide information that is helpful to his application in either the US or the UK.

For the US, Gonzalo asked his math and biology teachers for LORs, and his IB coordinator as the school official. Gonzalo drafted emails using the Khan Academy example (see resources), requesting and offering a “blueprint” for his LORs. When his biology teacher replied asking him to write his own letter that she would sign and submit, Gonzalo responded that it wasn’t allowed. He referred the teacher back to the blueprint, while also offering to provide more information as needed. The teacher admitted that she didn’t feel comfortable writing in English, so with my support, Gonzalo responded that she could ask any trusted English speaker to translate her LOR, and then upload both the translation and the original as pages one and two, respectively.

For the UK, Gonzalo needed a single referral/LOR from “someone who knows you academically and can talk about your work ethic, interaction with other students, and your suitability for higher education or a future career,” as the UCAS website prescribes. Gonzalo asked his math teacher to write this letter, but also wanted his biology teacher’s thoughts included, so he asked her to share her US LOR with the math teacher. At Gonzalo’s request, we held a quick virtual meeting with the math teacher to review the expectations for a UCAS referral. Gonzalo was then able to successfully submit his applications, with appropriate LORs, to the engineering programs of interest in both the US and the UK.


For students:
For teachers and school officials:

By Julia Gooding, EdM, IECA (ME), One Sky Education; Teo Salgado, MA, IECA Associate (Canada), VerveSmith, Ltd.; and Sarah Loring de Garcia, MSEd, CEP, IECA (Mexico)