UCAS reference writing: Common challenges

Whether you're writing your first or your 500th, some UCAS references will be trickier to put together than others. This guide tackles some of the typical issues.
If you already know the basics of reference writing, then it's time to move on to some of the challenges. Here are three of the most common issues that you might face as a referee – and how to deal with them.

How to write a reference for a student who isn't doing well academically

This is a quandary that many referees face: the difficulty of writing a positive reference for someone who has had a bumpy start to sixth form, whose attitude is questionable or who hasn't coped well with their studies.

Our tips? Aim for a holistic approach concentrating on the positives and drawing out all the student's strengths, not just their academic achievements.

So, you might highlight effort if attainment is poor; introduce extra-curricular activities, if relevant; mention any challenges they've faced away from education (with their permission); and, for improving students, illustrate how far they've come and the progress made.

How to write a reference for a student you don't know very well

You may find that you have to write about a student that you don’t know very well. Perhaps a student is very shy or on a one-year course, or maybe you're picking up a new class. Either way, it is possible to address this:

1. Talk to the student

Find out what they would like you to include, what they would want an admissions tutor to know or what they feel they have achieved.

2. See where else you could gather information

Perhaps they volunteer in a setting relevant to their chosen course, or perhaps they are quiet at school but more confident at work. You could quote other people who can comment on their suitability or their skills.

3. Talk to your colleagues

Teaching or support staff may have additional information that you could include; perhaps a student has opened up to a colleague who can add a bit more depth to the reference.

4. Consider whether a temporary reference would be appropriate

If you support students on a one-year course, it is acceptable to write a temporary reference outlining what you have learned about a student and then send a full reference direct to the universities in the spring.

5. Avoid keeping it brief

It might be tempting to write a short reference if you feel you have little to say about a candidate, but tread carefully with this. Sometimes what's left unsaid can be as important as what is said.

When little is written about a student’s skills or qualities it can count negatively as it would appear that the student has not shown these skills previously.

Dr Sahar Nadeem Hamid, Admissions Tutor For Psychology At Glyndŵr University

How to write a reference for a student's application to study a subject you're unfamiliar with

It's fairly likely that you'll know something about degree courses linked to your subject, but it's much harder if a student decides to opt for something a little, or very, different.

When applying for a vocational course, the personal qualities of the applicant are of great importance and, hence, the referee should have a good insight into the profession and its demands. Admissions tutors look for evidence of the personal qualities needed and these need to be commented upon.

Rachel Bentley, Careers Adviser At Sheffield College

So, if you're a childcare tutor and your student decides to apply for psychology, or you're a personal tutor whose student applies for a course you know little about, what then? 

1. Talk to the student

Your student should have researched the course thoroughly to determine whether it is a suitable choice. Discuss what they've learned from their research, which skills and qualities they believe they need to demonstrate and, if it's a vocational course, what insights they've developed into the profession.

2. Talk to your colleagues

If you feel you need more information, you could approach a colleague who has closer links with the subject, or try a careers adviser at your institution.

3. Do a bit of background research yourself

Find out more by looking up courses on the UCAS search tool for detailed information on course outlines and subject requirements. More on Ucas references: top tips for successful reference writing