Our guide to writing UCAS references

We have compiled some tips to help you write the perfect reference as well as a series of direct quotes from our Admissions Tutors.

Quick Tips

  • Provide contextual information about the school
  • Use generic stock phrases as it makes the reference seem impersonal
  • Comment if predicted grades or recently confirmed grades are not a true reflection of the student's potential
  • Refer to re-sits unless to explain mitigating circumstances or to highlight a positive outcome
  • Chat to the student so that you know which courses they are applying to, what extracurricular activities they have participated in and what their personal statement contains
  • Mention a specific university
  • Check university websites and UCAS Entry Profiles to see if there are any specific requirements
  • Raise weaknesses unless they are well documented.  Students can request to see your reference and lodge a formal complaint if they deem it unfair
  • Ask each subject tutor to write a few sentences regarding the student and then have one person amalgamate it into one seamless statement
  • Write it like a report (e.g. 'Could do better...' 'Is unduly influenced by friends...')
  • Mention mitigating circumstances (also make sure the exam board are aware)
  • Be verbose. Remember you are limited to 4,000 characters or 47 lines.
  • Clearly indicate if you DO recommend the student for the course as any ambiguity may suggest that you do not.
  • Be negative.

Suggested Structure

  • Contextual information about the profile of the school
  • Academic performance post 16
  • Special or mitigating circumstances
  • Personality and extra-curricular activities
  • Suitability for the course


Predicted Grades

Be honest with your students! Students need to be realistic when looking at course requirements.  Many universities make conditional offers to students based, in part, on their predicted grades and so it is important that these grades are achievable by the student. Students who have over-estimated grades often miss their conditional offer requirements and then have the stress of entering Clearing.  Students who exceed their offers can go into Adjustment but many top universities have limited places available.

For more detailed information about references please read the UCAS guidelines.


What our admissions tutors think

Here is a selection of suggestions direct from our admissions tutors:


“It may seem like an obvious point to make, but many references are plain and generic and could have been written about anyone.  I have also seen the occasional one where the teacher has forgotten to change the name of the student from the last time they used the reference.”  Dr Daniel Attenborough (Law)


“Include something on how well this student might be suited to studying in HE (not just in academic terms but in terms of independence, organisation, etc.). Try to avoid repetition/overlap with personal statement – the reference should ‘add value’ to the application.” Dr Patrick White (Sociology)


“Do check the information on the school that goes above the reference is correct (e.g. the number going on to higher education etc). Frequently this information is muddled (e.g. the school has 100 people in the sixth form and sends 230 to higher education each year). Don’t use a reference template for students and forget to change their gender to the correct one ‘Samantha has performed very well in English. He always….’” Dr Kate Loveman (English)


“Detailed prediction for each subject is good. ‘If they work hard could achieve a B’ ‘should easily achieve a B’ – this gives a stronger feel for the likely grades. References that talk about the course not the student are not so useful.” Dawn Wedd (Economics)


“The things we really want from teachers are the following: 
1. An honest appraisal of the applicant's ability and likely grades.
2. A brief description of the applicant's personality.
3. Some information on the applicant's enthusiasm for the subject and their attitude toward work.
4. Some comments on the applicant's ability to work independently and their ability to work as part of a group.” Dr Merv Roy (Physics)


“The reference has an important role in providing a sense of the student and their academic potential when we have concerns/questions about other parts of the application. The main problem is when predicted grades are missing from UCAS forms - sometimes references present the predicted grades within them, and this can be really helpful” Dr Ranjana Das (Media and Communications)


“I like to see a paragraph from each of the subject teachers about the student’s particular aptitudes in their subject… although I don’t tend to find things of the ilk “Jane got 113/120 UMS in her Unit X exam….” especially illuminating if it doesn’t make clear why this marks this student out as particularly good” Alex Mack (Interdisciplinary Science)

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