How to Write a UCAS Reference

The UCAS reference is an important part of every student’s university application, so it’s important to make sure it is as effective as possible. Each reference should be on an individual student and focus on the information most relevant to their chosen course and individual circumstances. This guide explains why it is so important to get the reference right, key facts about UCAS references, what universities are looking for in a reference, and what you should include.

Why is it so important to get the reference right?

  • A student’s reference is one of the factors universities will use to decide who to offer places to.
  • The reference is the only part of a student’s application that they do not write themselves and universities rely on it in order to gauge their real potential.
  • References will be read and, just like other elements of their application, may be scored to assess whether the applicant has the necessary skills and academic ability to study their chosen course.

Key facts about UCAS references

  • References can be up to 4,000 characters (or 47 lines) in length.
  • You will need to write your reference in English. If your student’s first language isn’t English, you will need to comment on their ability to write and speak in English, and indicate if their studies were taught in English.
  • The reference will be comprised of 3 main sections:
    – Section 1. Information on the school/college
    – Section 2. Their suitability for the chosen courses, including:
    The student’s academic performance in their post-16 education
    Their potential for academic success in higher education
    Why the course they have chosen is suited to them
    Any personal qualities which will benefit them at university such as skills, aptitude, enthusiasm
    What they can bring to the university, such as extra-curricular activities and interests
    – Section 3. Predicted grades (listed separately).

What are universities looking for in a reference?

  • Universities are looking for a reference that is written by a member of staff who knows the applicant and their performance well.
  • Universities will want to see that you have placed the student and their actual/predicted results in context, including any extenuating circumstances or contextual factors that may have impacted their results.
  • Your reference should also support the student’s personal statement and give an honest, fair and relevant assessment of their potential to succeed at degree-level in their chosen subject.

What should you include in your reference?

The most important part of your reference is your assessment of the student’s suitability for the course/s they have chosen to apply for. Consider including the following points when planning what to write in your reference:

  • Your student’s existing achievement and details of their performance from subject teachers, with particular reference to subjects that are relevant to the courses they are applying to. If they have performed particularly well in their GCSEs or consistently in any subjects throughout their education, make sure to include them as well, as some universities value this information highly.
  • Their motivation, commitment and enthusiasm towards their chosen course/s or subject area. If they have pursued their interests in the subject in school, such as through an EPQ or a school club, or outside of school, such as in a competition, make sure to include this in your reference.
  • Any relevant skills achievements, whether certificated or not. For example, if your student has developed any transferable skills through the subjects they have studied, or earned an award for a particular skill (such as the English Speaking Board or Arts Award), then it’s helpful to include this.
  • General evidence of their potential, aside from their predicted grades. You will be required to provide predicted grades for your student in a separate section, however if your student has shown great potential to succeed in their specific subject or at degree-level more generally, then universities will want to know about it here.
  • Relevant work experience, such as work placements and voluntary work, whether the school has been directly involved or not. All students are advised to include details of any experiences in their personal statement, so you may not need to go into great detail, however vouching for this experience and observing how your student learnt from their time volunteering or on a placement can be powerful.
  • Your student’s proposed career plan and, where relevant, their suitability for training for a particular profession. This is particularly important for subjects that have a specific career progression, such as Medicine, as universities will want to know that your student is fully committed to the subject and capable of pursuing a successful career after graduating.
  • Any factors, such as personal circumstances, that may have affected or might affect their academic performance. If you know or suspect that your student may not achieve the grades they are predicted or may even exceed their predicted grades for any reason, you should include this in your reference. This will allow universities to make the most fair and informed decision about their application and take any contextual factors into consideration.

More tips on writing your reference

  • If possible, we highly recommend that you work closely with your student/s so that you are aware of their strengths and their goals. Most importantly, read your student’s whole application so that you know what they have already included and can avoid repeating information that they have already shared. This means that you will be able to add the most possible value to their application with the characters that you have.
  • You should also not make reference to any specific universities that your student is applying to. We give the same advice to students when writing their personal statements*. This is because both their personal statement and your reference, along with the rest of their UCAS application, will be sent to all five of their university choices. You will not have the option to tailor your reference to each university, so you should keep it subject-specific, rather than course or university-specific, and focus on the student’s abilities, achievements and circumstances.

Note that all students applying to university for 2023, 2024 or 2025 will still be required to submit a UCAS personal statement as normal. However, from January 2025 onwards (October 2024, for Oxbridge applicants), there will be changes to the UCAS application process and students will no longer be required to write a personal statement. Instead, all applicants will answer a series of shorter, more tailored questions provided by UCAS.

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