Writing an Effective University Reference – Guidance for Teachers


A reference forms the final part of a learner’s UCAS application and provides useful context to enable admissions tutors to make a rounded assessment of an applicant’s merits, both academic and personal. Here, we have condensed some of the key questions you may have into a handy factsheet with links to further reading.

Who Should Write a Learner’s Reference?

The staff member who writes the reference should be someone who knows the learner well and can comment accurately on their motivations and potential to succeed at higher-level study. This could be a form tutor, subject teacher or head of sixth form. The referee may want to collect additional information and views from other staff members who know the learner well, such as A level subject tutors, to ensure their commentary is well-rounded.

Is There Anything I Should Do Before I Start?

It may sound obvious, but it’s really important to read a learner’s personal statement and application before writing a reference, to ensure that you fully understand why they are applying for a certain course and how this fits in with their personal goals. This also helps you to avoid repeating information from the learner’s own personal statement and enables you to focus your limited word count elsewhere. It might be useful to have a brief chat with the learner about their intentions, experiences and aspirations in order to bring the reference to life.

In guidance from Imperial College London, it states that admissions tutors are looking for the best students to fill their courses: – ‘those with the appropriate level of academic ability, the motivation and skills to thrive on the course and a genuine interest in the course.’ It may be useful to keep this in mind while writing.

As with learners’ personal statements, it’s usually best to write the reference in a word processor and then copy and paste it over to the UCAS application once completed, as the website times out after 35 minutes of inactivity. You should also remember that, under the terms of the Data Protection Act 2018, applicants can ask UCAS for copies of their reference, so it is important not to write anything that you wouldn’t want the learner to read.

How Should I Structure a Reference?

UCAS references are subject to the same length restrictions as a candidate’s personal statement: 47 lines or 4000 characters. It is important therefore to make sure that the reference is clear, concise and well- structured in order to maximise its impact.

Some of the key information to include within a reference is outlined in the next section, but these resources from the University of Leicester and the University of Exeter provide some good examples of how to structure your writing. Leicester’s guidance also includes some useful contributions by their own admissions tutors, which outline some of the key features they look for (and some to avoid!).

What Should I Include in a Reference?

Contextual information regarding the school can be helpful for admissions tutors but should be limited to three or four lines at the most, as the reference should predominantly focus on the learners. UCAS suggests that referees could include a weblink to a specific page on the school’s website which outlines this information.

When discussing a learner’s academic performance, it is generally recommended to start with the subjects most relevant to the course that the learner wishes to pursue. Guidance on the UCAS website suggests that not all subjects need be mentioned, or covered in the same level of detail, if they are not particularly relevant to the rest of the application. However, they do highlight that leaving out subjects in which the learner has performed less well will be spotted by admissions tutors, so it is best to still reference what the learner has gained from this rather than omit them entirely.

If you have any specific examples of areas in which a learner has excelled, such as a particularly detailed piece of coursework, this is the place to include them. It would also be useful to list ways in which they have developed academic skills that will help them to excel in university study; this article illustrates a number of examples to help you.

Predicted grades are entered separately, but if you feel these do not represent the learner’s true potential or there are discrepancies between AS results and A level predictions, you should address this here. The final page of the University of Exeter’s guidance may help you to consider your response.

If a learner has faced challenging circumstances, such as health issues or caring responsibilities, which have affected their academic performance or engagement with education, the reference is a good place to disclose these; however, you should always ensure you have the learner’s permission before disclosing any sensitive information, and ensure you aren’t simply repeating information that a learner has referenced in their personal statement.

It can be useful to include extra-curricular activities to demonstrate additional skills that the learner has gained and provide a more well-rounded insight into a prospective student, but admissions tutors suggest that, unless there is direct relevance to the course they are applying for, this can be kept brief. Finally, ensure that your closing line outlines the learner’s suitability for the course, and reflects on their potential to thrive in a higher education setting.

Where Can I Find Additional Information to Help Me?

UCAS has some comprehensive guidance available to support you in writing effective references, including a dedicated webpage with links to support the writing of references for both standard undergraduate courses and those for specialist institutions, such as conservatoires. They also have several useful posts elsewhere on their website, including this short and snappy guidance from a UCAS expert and this article on how to write a positive reference which showcases your learner’s strengths.

If you have a learner who is applying to Oxford or Cambridge, there is no need to specifically tailor your reference towards them but you may find some of their guidance useful. Cambridge provides a summary of key considerations on their website, where you can also download a highly detailed guide specifically aimed at teachers and HE advisors.

Need More Help?

Have you had any more questions from learners that you’d like a helping hand to answer? If you do, don’t forget that we’re here to help! Just drop an email to your local hub or contact us here and we’ll do our best to find the answer for you.