Writing UCAS references: BTEC and vocational students

So, what do you need to consider when writing a reference for a student taking a vocational course?

The basic rules about reference writing still apply regardless of the qualification taken. However, there are a number of additional points to consider.

How well will admissions tutors know the qualification?

Admissions tutors are likely to be familiar with A levels as the majority of applicants are studying these, but they might know less about BTEC and vocational qualifications.

It may help to briefly explain what the qualification entails including the course content and how it is taught and assessed. This is particularly important in light of curriculum and qualification changes, so make sure the admissions tutor knows what's new.

Since admissions tutors generally want to hear more about the student than the course itself, how can you keep them happy but also make sure they are well-informed?

A good approach is to relate comments to the individual. For example: 'Matt has performed particularly well on the research project and work experience offered to him as part of the CACHE Diploma'.

This helps to avoid the long, generic opening statements that admissions tutors are less fond of.

Applying to an academic degree from a BTEC or vocational course

Whatever students have studied so far, they are now applying to a university degree with academic content, so it's vital that references focus on the student's academic abilities and achievements.

Admissions tutors need assurance that the applicant will succeed at this level and they might have questions, such as:

  • How prepared is the student for the style of degree to which they're applying?
  • Will they cope with exams?
  • Could a student cope with extended writing or exams on their degree if they haven't done much of this during their current studies?

Try to pre-empt these concerns and address them in your reference, with clear examples to highlight the student's capabilities. Emphasise the academic features of their current and previous studies and identify how the student has coped.

So, if your student has had to carry out a research project, spell out its scope, range and word count, as well as demonstrating how the student approached it.

Provide details of any independent study, exams or substantial written assignments; anything that will reassure an admissions tutor that your student is well-prepared.

A vocational background shouldn't hold students back. A number of universities identify BTEC students and support them to make a successful transition to their undergraduate degree.

Applying to a university course related to the BTEC/vocational qualification

A BTEC or vocational student might have a bit of an advantage when applying to a degree course that relates to their prior study. They've already demonstrated an understanding of, and commitment to, the subject. They may have had relevant work experience.

You could argue that this makes them a safe bet, someone who understands what they're applying for. Make sure you highlight this in the reference.

Applying to an unrelated course

It is more of a challenge for the referee when a student applies to an unrelated course. This is where you'll need to find out about your student's choices and any specific requirements. Consider their suitability for their new subject. What do they know about it? How have they demonstrated to you that this is the right choice for them?

Look at the skills and knowledge developed on the current course, drawing attention to aspects that will relate to the new subject area.

Highlight the benefits

Overall, stay positive and don’t forget that there are many selling points when it comes to writing a reference for a student on a BTEC/vocational course.

Many vocational courses include work placements, so comments on the success of these will be expected. It is good to see quotes from an employer here, too, as this adds kudos.

Rachel Bentley, Careers Adviser, Sheffield College

Make sure you highlight the things that make your student stand out: work experience; experience of live projects; development of a range of skills; or an insight into a particular subject or job area.