Choosing References for College Admissions

Instructor: Dana Dance-Schissel

Dana teaches social sciences at the college level and English and psychology at the high school level. She has master's degrees in applied, clinical and community psychology.

Most colleges require references as a part of the application process. This lesson will explore how to choose references and will end with a short quiz to test what you have learned.

The College Application Process

Have you ever completed a college application? If so, you know how very lengthy the process can be. Many documents are required beyond the actual application. These include things like transcripts, essays, personal statements, and references.

References are individuals who are willing to recommend you as a qualified student. The reference may be required to write a letter of recommendation for you, and this becomes a very important part of the application review process. Sometimes references are required to submit a review of your qualities and abilities. You want to make sure to choose the right people to help you shine! Let's walk through this process with a student named Sally.

Sally has decided that she wants to attend City University. She loves books and thinks that she wants to major in English literature. City University requires three references, or people willing to tell them why they should accept Sally as a student. How should Sally go about finding three people who will serve as references for her?

Choosing the Right People

Sally wants to show City University that she is a good student and a well-rounded person. However, Sally also wants to show the admissions advisors that she would be a good fit for their English literature program. Should Sally ask her parents to serve as references? How about her best friend?

While these examples may tell City University how great Sally is, they do not seem to be the best choices. References should be people who know you well in an educational, extracurricular, professional, or unique personal setting, so friends and family usually will not work. Sally should consider asking teachers, coaches, supervisors, or mentors that she has worked with and that she feels will be willing and able to serve as strong references in her quest of attending City University. Let's look a bit closer at the types of references Sally should gather.

Types of References


Sally wants to study English literature. Let's assume that she did well in English throughout high school. Sally should ask an English teacher to serve as an academic reference because this person will be able to explain why Sally would be a good choice for the English literature major. Sally may have done well in other courses as well, but her desire to be accepted as an English student at City University will be supported by a teacher who has seen her academic progress in this area.

When considering who to ask for an academic reference, you should consider what you want to study. Choose a teacher who knows you well and can speak to your strengths. Try to select someone who will be able to speak to your ability to succeed in that field, whether it be science, English, math, theater, etc.

What if Sally had not selected a major? Many students have absolutely no clue what they want to study. No problem! Simply select an academic reference from a class that you did well in. Again, this will show the admissions representative that you are strong academically.


Believe it or not, college is not all about academics! There are countless clubs, teams, and groups that need motivated and qualified students. Let's say that Sally has been a member of the student government in her high school for two years. She should find a reference that is well aware of Sally's involvement in the student government to speak on her behalf.

With extracurricular references, you should select people who can speak to your knack for strong qualities, such as leadership, physical talent, and spirit. These types of traits can be valuable in many different roles and position. This type of reference shows admissions officers that there is much more to you than simply academics.


So far, Sally has a reference who will tell the admissions officers that she is an excellent English student and another who can explain Sally's talents in student government. Sally may want to focus on her part-time job at the local fast food restaurant for her third reference.

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