Writing UCAS references: International Baccalaureate students

Writing a UCAS reference for a student taking the International Baccalaureate may feel daunting, due to its sheer breadth of subjects. But with the right approach, this can be used to your advantage.

In many ways, you will approach an International Baccalaureate (IB) reference by following general advice on writing references. Start by familiarising yourself with our common challenges to writing references.

So many subjects – so little space

With the IB, it's almost certain that some of the subjects won't be especially relevant.

However, to showcase to admissions tutors the extra breadth and well-roundedness they'll get from an IB student, it is important to include something about each subject in the reference.

The challenge of IB references is that students have three higher level subjects, three standard level subjects, Theory of Knowledge, an Extended Essay and usually a good range of extra-curricular achievement too. That's a lot to fit into a reference. 

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

Students take responsibility

Giving students ownership to identify the most relevant subjects means that teachers can be asked to write more for those students for whom their subject is most useful. This will provide admissions tutors with more concrete examples and degree-specific skill evidence.
According to Melanie Moorhouse, this student ownership is crucial. Even the most experienced tutors and reference writers can't be expected to know the detail of every degree course, so she advises to ask students to produce information for their subject teachers and their tutor explaining the following information:

  • What they're applying for.
  • What admissions tutors are looking for.
  • The skills and/or parts of the syllabus they think are most relevant for each subject teacher to comment on.
  • Any relevant contextual information from their previous school.
  • Anything extra-curricular they feel should be included.

This gives students who have engaged well with the research process a chance to maximise the quality of their reference. Teachers of the less relevant subjects can then focus on other important things such as independent work, overcoming challenges or teamwork.

Top five tips for structuring the reference

1. Start with an overview of the student, making reference to the school or educational system they've transferred from.

2. Focus on the most relevant subjects which are often, but not always, their Higher Level (HL) subjects. It is not always the case that the structure should automatically be HL subjects followed by Standard Level (SL) subjects. Admissions tutors can see the level of each subject in the Education section of the Ucas form and SL subjects are a large part of the IB, providing important and relevant skills.

3. Use concrete examples as much as possible, avoiding the overuse of superlatives and intensifiers that state rather than demonstrate.

4. Mention all subjects, but with the less relevant having much less space and focusing more on transferable skills.

5. Include relevant extra-curricular content in the main paragraphs and any less relevant content in a concluding paragraph that summarises their contribution to college or community life. 

Keeping references specific and concrete

In subject comments, teachers should focus on giving concrete examples and useful adjectives. Include any relevant extra-curricular activities that feed into the classroom as well as specific assignments or topics.

For us a good reference makes it clear that we know what the student is applying for and what’s important for the admissions tutor to know about in order to make an informed decision. It gives lots of concrete examples to support the professional judgement of our teachers, as well as conveying the challenges and rigour of the IB and how these have helped prepare the student for university life.  

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