Writing a positive and tailored UCAS reference

One of the key factors in successful UCAS reference writing is to focus on positives rather than negatives.

So, as a referee, how can you make sure this happens?

Have a conversation

A vital ingredient of a good UCAS application is the synergy between the personal statement and the reference. So this message is aimed at both students and teachers – the best references will complement the personal statement, without repeating any of it.

Here are some points to discuss with your students:

  • Any key selection criteria for their chosen course that they want you to factor into the reference.
  • Extra-curricular activities or extenuating circumstances that you might not be aware of.
  • Anything students can't fit in their statement that you could include in the reference.

A personal and individual approach

To ensure admissions tutors get the right impression about your students, here are some tips from university staff on how to do just that.

  • Ensure there is enough ‘meat on the bone’ in subject references to differentiate between applicants (see more tips below).
  • Be course-specific — focus on their suitability and potential for the courses they're applying for and name the course in the reference.
  • Information about extra-curricular activities are useful, but not in excessive detail, unless it's directly relevant to the course.
  • It's OK to repeat some information from one student to the next, but it's the student's individual academic skills that are of interest.
  • Show that you know the student well — focus on their academic performance and transferable skills.
  • Show that the applicant is someone they will want to teach — demonstrate their academic progression, motivation and achievements.
  • Use objective comparison or ranking — if the applicant is in the top 10% of the year group for chemistry, say so.
  • Detail any challenges students have overcome, such as juggling their workload with part-time work, peer mentoring or volunteering.
  • Include any widening participation activities they have taken part in.
  • For professional courses (like medicine, nursing or social work) do endorse the student's suitability for the profession itself, not just 'Emma is interested in the healthcare field'.

Focus on the positives

Universities like to read references that are honest but that also focus on strengths, not weaknesses. Rob Evans, Head of Admissions at University of Sussex, says that he is looking for 'reasons to make an offer, rather than to reject'.  

When you edit the reference, consider how to accentuate the applicant's strengths. You could arrange individual subject reports in order of relevance to the course applied for, or in order of success, with the student's 'best' subjects appearing first - or a combination of both.

Sometimes it pays to leave out a subject that has no bearing on the student's application, or to reduce it to one or two lines. There is no rule that says they must all appear in the reference.

However, it's not a good tactic to leave out lower grade subjects altogether. Universities will be quick to realise that the reference has one less subject than peers at the same college or school. And, an E in maths might actually be worthwhile later in life, so it's best to include a couple of lines about what the student gained from studying it.

Putting ‘meat on the bone’

Universities want to see evidence of an applicant's clear potential for undergraduate study. This is the kind of content that could really help to make your student stand out above others. Think about:

  • Do they demonstrate intellectual curiosity and the ability to question?
  • Do they demonstrate critical thinking skills?
  • How willing are they to read, think or debate beyond the syllabus or prescribed materials?
  • How much enthusiasm do they show for learning?
  • How well do they communicate?
  • How interested are they in evidence-based discussion?
  • How willing are they to be self-critical?
  • How motivated are they to achieve and drive their own learning?
  • How capable are they of getting work done to a high quality?
  • How well do they work with their peers in group situations?
  • How well do they follow instruction?
  • Could you give examples of particular contributions they have made in class?

Make it specific to your student's work

Mentioning a specific piece of excellent work in a subject reference can be an effective way to bring a reference to life. Wherever it's justified, always seek to highlight a student's strengths by describing something from their portfolio or coursework that has made a good impact.

For me the best quality references start with really good quality subject comments. It helps if the tutor then writing the reference knows the student well, but actually if you have good detailed subject comments with lots of concrete relevant examples to use, you can pull together a strong reference even if you don't have much personal knowledge of the student.

Melanie Moorhouse, Head of Careers, St. Clare’s, Oxford