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How to get the Ucas reference you want

When applying to uni, you'll hear lots about personal statements: from who'll read it to what to avoid writing. But what about its invisible cousin, the reference?

Your Ucas reference might make the difference between an offer and a rejection from a university, so it's worth finding out more.

Contents:

Who writes your Ucas reference?

The reference should be written by someone who can comment on your academic ability. If you're still at school or college, it is likely that a tutor or head of sixth form will write it. Various staff can contribute, but one person tends to pull the whole thing together. 

If you've already left education, you can decide who to approach for a reference.

It is important to get your reference from the right person, someone who knows you well in the professional or academic sense and has evaluated your performance in the recent past. Dr Sahar Nadeem Hamid, Admissions Tutor For Psychology, Glyndŵr University

What will they include in your Ucas reference?

The reference writer or referee should comment fairly on your ability, attitude and approach to learning. Essentially, they're providing their judgement on your suitability for your chosen courses. 

They might also mention the skills you've developed from activities outside the classroom, so make sure they know all the great things you do: from mentoring younger students to blogging or building your own computer. 

You can't include predicted grades on your application, so your referee will list them in the reference. These predictions help the university staff to work out whether you will cope academically on the course.

Teachers: read our beginner's guide to writing a Ucas reference
Students: read our personal statement guide on what to include

Who'll see your Ucas reference?

The whole application will be read by admissions staff at your chosen universities. Sometimes a team of assistants filter the applications or it could be the admissions tutors themselves.

If you want to see what's been written about you in your reference before your application is sent off, speak to a teacher at your school about this.

Some institutions have a very open system where students are involved in the process and know exactly what's being written, while other schools are less collaborative.

You can ask to see a copy from Ucas, but you will have to pay a £10 fee and your application will already have been submitted by then.

Taking control of your Ucas reference

If you're not applying to university right away, think about what you can do to strengthen your application - maybe extra reading around your subject, volunteering or gaining some work experience. The good news is that this will help your reference too. 

Based on your research into courses and their requirements, what would you want an admissions tutor to know about you? Have a conversation with your tutor before they write the reference and make sure you get all your key points across.

Tackling problem areas

Life, both inside and outside your education, isn't always straightforward. Your reference can be a good place to deal with those tricky issues.

"I've faced challenges over the past years that I think university staff should take into account."

It is perfectly acceptable for a reference to include information about circumstances that may affect your performance: family bereavement, health problems and so on. When a referee is disclosing personal information about your health, they should obtain your consent first. 

"My tutor doesn't know me well."

You'll need to help them out. Ask for a conversation with your tutor to explain what you have to offer, in particular in relation to the subject and specific courses you're applying to. Sharing your personal statement (even an early draft) with them will help to ensure the two complement each other effectively.

If you've only just started a one-year course like an Access to HE or top-up qualification, your tutor can write a temporary reference and then send a full reference direct to the universities in the spring.

"My teacher and I don't get on."

This is a professional, educational reference, so even if you don’t see eye to eye, the reference should be fair. If you feel comfortable doing so, you could talk to your teacher about your concerns. You could even ask to see a copy of the reference.

"I've got lots of experience away from education that I think should be reflected in my reference."

Talk to your referee about this. Some students have substantial work or volunteering experience which is highly relevant to their chosen course. In some cases, your referee might quote relevant content from your employer to illustrate your suitability for the course.

"I've left school or college."

Contact your most recent place of study to see if they have your information or a draft reference on file. If you've left, you may prefer to apply as an individual. The reference will be the same, but the way your referee provides it will be slightly different.

"The teacher who knows me best has left."

If they're still in the profession and you can get in touch with them, it would still be appropriate for them to provide the reference for you. You'd need to apply as an individual. 

If you can't contact them, see if your details are still on file at school or college so that someone else can compile a reference for you. If it has been a number of years since you left and there is no information available, you may have to seek a reference elsewhere.

If you have particular problems finding a referee, speak to Ucas or seek advice from the universities you are applying to. They'll be able to tell you what else might be suitable.

"I'm not happy with the reference."

If you are permitted to see the reference before it is submitted and you're not happy with it, talk to your referee or head of sixth form. References tend not to be overly negative, but they should be fair.

Remember: this should be an account of your performance and potential, reflecting what you have achieved and the progress you have made. Staff will normally have evidence for their comments.

Final Ucas reference takeaways

Our final top tips for getting the reference you want:
  • Research what universities you're applying to are looking for: make sure you've identified the skills, experiences and academic attributes you need to demonstrate.
  • ​Consider your personal statement and reference in tandem: work with your referee to ensure both elements work together as a single, rounded application.
  • ​Keep in touch: speak to your referee throughout the process, to provide them with all the information they need.

Next: how to write a great personal statement

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