Writing good UCAS references: Predicted grades and background information

Unsure about what background information to include on a UCAS reference, or what to say about predicted grades? Our guide helps you navigate the information.

Background information about your school or college

It may seem like obvious information to you, but there’s a lot to be gained from providing some background about your institution. This only needs to be a few lines, concisely addressing key points like the kind of study programmes most students are taking or the catchment area they come from.

This is made more important with ongoing curriculum reforms and changes in the post-16 funding landscape. Admissions staff recognise that this could impact some students' options – but it is necessary for teachers to highlight these restrictions in their reference.

King's College London, for example, says it is aware that some schools will be unable to offer a fourth subject. In such cases, it says it will waive their requirement for this, on the following grounds:

A statement must be included in the first few lines of the UCAS reference to inform us of the school's policy in this regard.

King's College London

University of Cambridge's admissions goal is 'to select the best students regardless of their educational regime and that no student is disadvantaged'. It also asks schools and colleges to address any policy issues in the UCAS reference that means applicants cannot present externally moderated Year 12 AS results or their choices are restricted by the limited availability of subjects.

Do be aware that some admissions tutors may not want this information as they believe it wastes valuable space. Clearly, some judgement needs to be applied, along with a good understanding of the course and institution's guidelines.

How to deal with mitigating circumstances

Universities definitely want to know if there are extenuating circumstances that might impact on an applicant's achievement. Follow this best practice advice:

  • Mention any disability, illness, family circumstances, bereavement, change of school or anything else that has affected progress, provided the applicant gives permission.
  • Wherever possible, make sure you include this information in your reference – the worst time to bring it up is on results day!
  • Add this to your list of what to discuss with students before you start your reference.
  • If the circumstances occur after the application has been sent, write to the universities affected at the earliest opportunity.

Avoiding the pitfalls of predicted grades

This has always been an area that causes concern and occasional friction, with some schools being more likely to 'over predict' than others.

While over-predicting doesn’t do anyone any favours, the phased introduction of qualification reform means it is even harder for schools and universities to make accurate judgments. Universities are very sensitive to this – many recognise that predicting might be harder, and are likely to show understanding.

However, it is important for the reference and predicted grades to be in sync with each other:

  • Be aware of any anomalies in predicted grades and make sure they are explained.
  • For example, if your student achieved a grade C in GCSE French and is predicted a grade A in A-level French, detail how has this transformation been achieved.
  • Avoid any mismatch between predicted grades and the adjectives used in the body of the reference. If your applicant's performance is described as 'exceptional' but the predicted grade is a C, it won’t tally and may end up making your student look worse rather than better.

Contradictions and inconsistencies

Just like personal statements, reference-writing is more an art than a science. There will sometimes be nuances and contradictions in universities' advice and there will often be inconsistencies in the quality of support referees receive from colleagues, too.

However, the bottom line is that a good quality reference can kill two birds with one stone. It should help the applicant achieve a place on a suitable course, by providing accurate and useful information that also supports admissions tutors in their decision-making process.