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For teachers

Ucas reference writing: a beginner’s guide

Discovering that you're responsible for writing a Ucas reference, holding a student's future in your hands, can be daunting. This guide takes you through the basics.

So what do you really need to know to make sure you give your students the best chance of success?

More on Ucas reference writing: tackling common reference challenges

Ucas reference basics

In 4,000 characters, you'll need to provide your professional opinion on a student's potential, commitment and suitability for their chosen course.

You might be expected to include some background information about the candidate and the school or college. And the final essential ingredient? Accurate predicted grades.

Who reads the reference?

A student's Ucas application and reference will be read by admissions tutors, or possibly filtered by admissions assistants at the university. Admissions tutors often have an academic or professional background in their subject.

Psychology admissions tutor Dr Sahar Nadeem Hamid at Glyndŵr University, explains:
At our department the reference plays a very important role when making a decision as it differentiates between students with similar marks and qualifications. Dr Sahar Nadeem Hamid - Admissions Tutor For Psychology At Glyndŵr University

Write the reference as if the student will read it. Regardless of your school or college's policy on letting students see their own references, they can always request a copy from Ucas once the application has been submitted.

What to include in a Ucas reference

You should cover some or all of the following:
  • Post-16 academic performance
  • Potential for success at university
  • Suitability for subject or career path
  • Comments on approach to studies: attitude, motivation and commitment
  • Predicted grades 
  • Relevant skills and qualities
  • Achievements, experiences and interests that relate to the chosen course
  • Any special circumstances 
  • Any factors that might affect performance (but obtain consent before including information on health or disabilities)
  • Endorsement of the applicant.

​Take your time

You'll need to spend some time on this, not just on gathering evidence and checking a student's performance and approach to their education, but also in talking to the student about their choices, future plans and any relevant extra-curricular activities.

Recording evidence from early in Year 12 is helpful, particularly if teaching staff later leave an institution.

​Make your Ucas reference specific

Much like the personal statement, making the reference specific avoids the generic statements that tell university staff so little. Back up your statements with evidence to add weight to what you're saying, and avoid unsubstantiated claims.

Comparisons are helpful as they allow admissions staff to get a sense of a student in relation to their peers, e.g. 'in the top three for biology this year'; or 'one of the strongest students of music I have ever taught'.

Easy to read

Most admissions tutors get to be skilled speed-readers and can whizz through an application in no time. You can make their lives easier by writing clearly and concisely, so try to avoid sentences that drag on too long. It might sound obvious, but use paragraphs to make key points easier to pick out.

Teachers: explore more of our resources to help your students

What to avoid

It seems that everyone involved in writing references is agreed on one thing: avoid making errors with a student's name or gender, typically seen when referees cut and paste the content. Not only is this poor practice, but it implies to the admissions tutor that you might be writing the same thing about everyone, which rather misses the point of providing a reference at all. 

Using a template creates a similar effect. If you have lots of references to write, you may end up following some kind of pattern, but setting a very rigid template can make for some very uninspiring references.

School rules

Each school or college has a slightly different process for the way information is compiled and collated. For A-levels, you might expect each subject teacher to contribute, while BTEC students might have a reference written by one subject leader with contribution from other tutors. It is common for one person to pull the whole thing together.

Most institutions will have an opening statement to explain a little about the school or college and the curriculum on offer. Try to avoid a rambling introduction which then leaves little room for reflection on the student.

According to Cath Burke and Sally Freeman, who both lead on midwifery admissions at Sheffield Hallam University:
We're not interested in a detailed outline of the course undertaken or in general statements about the school or college, we want to know about the student. Cath Burke And Sally Freeman - Midwifery Admissions At Sheffield Hallam University

Involving the students

The best Ucas references aren't written in isolation; they are based on discussion with the student about their strengths, their plans and their achievements. You'll need to read the student's Ucas application, paying particular attention to the personal statement.

The reference and statement should be congruent but not repetitive. Don't waste the limited space available.

Advice for new referees

Debra Rostern, Assistant Head of Post 16 at Penistone Grammar School, has some sound advice for staff new to reference writing.
  • Work in conjunction with the student to ensure that the whole application is coherent.
  • Ensure that predicted grades are shared with students to give the opportunity for negotiating these grades. This also encourages students to be both aspirational and realistic in their university choices.
  • If predicted grades are not consistent with achievement then ensure evidence of improvement is included.
  • Ensure the reference covers all choices and does not mention a particular institution. 
  • Comments should be positive and supportive of the student. This is not a report on progress. Use concrete examples which show that you know the individual student.
  • Write in a manner you are comfortable with, but make sure that it is readable and clear with good grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Next: how to tackle common Ucas reference writing challenges