A school and college guide to writing UCAS university application references for students
The recent changes to qualifications have given even more importance to the UCAS reference and their role in a student’s application. Here, I will provide some top tips for school and college staff who are asked to support a students application with a reference.
We encourage that where possible the reference is written by more than one member of staff, usually a combination of subject/module tutors and a personal tutor.
The reference should cover the following sections:
- Information on the school/college and the stance on qualification reform (this can be a link to this information hosted on your website) – this should be written by Senior Management and goes at the top of every reference (guidance can be found on the UCAS website)
- Any mitigating circumstances – Personal Tutor
- Summary profile of the student – Personal Tutor
- Information about the student’s academic performance across their subjects / modules – Subject Tutor(s)
- Extracurricular activities / interests / work experience – Personal Tutor
- Recommending the student for higher education – Personal Tutor
My subject paragraphs top tips
1. Mention performance in individual modules or course components and contextualise these against the other students in the class to place the student into context.
2. Let us know if the student copes well with sticking to deadlines and managing their workload, the quality of their work and anything else that is positive about their performance in your subject.
3. Include if the student has done anything else in support of their application related to your subject e.g. asks for extra reading, projects they have undertaken.
4. If you are the subject most closely related to the student’s degree choice, let us know about their motivation and commitment to the subject as well.
You should be able to select these from a drop down list or type them into a box at the top of the reference – if you can’t, the student has likely not completed their education section correctly!
Whilst we understand it is difficult to always provide accurate predicted grades, we encourage this to be as thorough a process as possible. Some schools and colleges do internal exams at the end of Year 12 and beginning of Year 13 and look at predicted grades on entry to sixth form in order to come up with the fairest predicted grade possible, to avoid too much over inflating or under predicting.
Always let us know if a student has any particular circumstances affecting their performance in a subject (e.g. a tutor is absent, personal circumstances) in case these can be taken into consideration.
It goes without saying (though happens more often than you might think) that the reference should be checked to ensure the student’s name is correct throughout (in case of any copy and pasting) and appropriate for their chosen subject. You should also aim for the reference to be positive throughout.
Personal Tutors / UCAS Coordinators should make sure that subject paragraphs don’t have too much repetition – you may need to re-write to say ‘All of XX’s tutors say that ….’
All references should aim to end by recommending the student for higher education, or if this is really not possible, then wishing the student best of luck with their application.
Make it a two way process
Our top reference recommendation is to encourage the student to provide as much information as possible. We encourage tutors to have a meeting with the student to understand their chosen degree choice, where they are applying and the entry requirements, and to find out what they have done in preparation for their application and their extra activities. This opens the conversation for discussion about applying to appropriate universities based on predicted grades, but also gives the tutor accurate information from the student which supports their application. By law, students can ask to see a copy of their reference, so getting the student to help write their reference also supports their UCAS journey.
We recommend you set a deadline for references amongst your sixth form staff to give the UCAS team time to check each reference and to potentially compile several paragraphs together.
Our final tip is to write a reference for every student even if they tell you they are 100%, definitely NOT going to university. This not only saves mad dash reference writing in January for anyone who changes their mind, but means the reference can be used for job or apprenticeship applications instead. We also encourage references are not written into UCAS but are saved somewhere locally – these can then be used in future years when an ex-student contacts you asking for a reference (especially useful if their tutor at the time has moved on).