Writing undergraduate references for independent applicants

If you have been asked to write a reference for an independent applicant who is not currently attending school or college, please read through the advice below before starting.

If you’re a teacher, counsellor or tutor of an applicant in full-time education at school or college, please also refer to the guidance for UCAS registered centres

And take a look at our reference processes and terminology

Why have you been asked to write a reference?

Applicants who apply independently must ask for a reference from someone who knows them in an academic or professional capacity. It must not be a family member, friend, partner, or ex-partner, and they must not write it themselves.

Typically, you'll fit into one of the following categories: 

  • You know the applicant in a professional or academic capacity (not as a family member or a close friend). 
  • You have a good understanding of/specialism in the subject or course they’re applying for. 
  • You can comment on their suitability for their chosen course.
  • You’re able to comment on the applicant’s career ambitions, work ethic, and insight into their personal strengths.

We ask applicants to make sure they have the agreement of their chosen referee before entering their details into their application.  

The UCAS reference is the only part of the application not written by the applicant. You won’t be able to read the whole application so we advise you to speak with the applicant to check which courses they've applied for, if you don’t already know. Avoid direct reference to any particular university or college, because at this stage they cannot see where else an applicant has applied.

When writing a reference for any applicant, including those outside the UK, please remember that, under the Data Protection Act, the applicant can ask for a copy of the reference and any other personal information we have about them.

What should you include in the reference?

The UCAS reference is split into three sections. What you include will depend on how you know the applicant, and how familiar you are with their plans and experience.

We recommended you speak to the applicant to understand any specific requirements and find out what they feel is important to include before you write the reference.  

Many universities and colleges provide details of the selection criteria and attributes they are looking for in their prospectuses, websites, or specific course entry requirements. If you know which courses they're applying for, this will be a helpful starting point, particularly if you're writing a reference for a course in an area you are unfamiliar with. It’s good to align the reference with what’s in their personal statement.

Common themes can include:

  • academic achievements – not just grades, but specific successes as well 
  • reasons why they want to return to study – maybe a personal goal, a career change, or skills development  
  • their commitment and enthusiasm to the chosen course or subject
  • skills used as a volunteer, especially if they’re related to the area of study 

Remember: Avoid mentioning any specific university, as the applicant may be applying to more than one, and the reference will be sent to all of them. 

A standard employment reference, detailing dates of attendance, is generally not accepted as a reference for the UCAS application process.

As a referee you may not be able to provide any additional information in sections 2 or 3. We encourage you to speak to the applicant about their application before writing the reference. 

If you cannot provide any additional information, ticking ‘no information to enter’ for this section will highlight to universities and colleges that no information has been supplied under these headings.

How to complete the reference?

If you’ve been asked to be a referee for an independent applicant you’ll receive an email from us with a password, which allows you to input and submit your reference into the UCAS online reference system. The applicant cannot submit their application to UCAS until a reference has been submitted online by their chosen referee.

The easiest way to write a reference is to use a word processing program first, and then copy and paste copy it into the boxes when you sign in to the system.

A few things to be aware of 

  • You must complete the reference in one session, as we're unable to save incomplete references. The system will time-out and close after 35 minutes of inactivity and you may lose your work if you do not submit within that time.
  • Make sure you use the 'Preview' option to check it carefully before you submit it. Once the reference has been submitted no further amendments can be made. We'll email you a copy of your reference to confirm it has been received by us. 
  • There is a maximum of 3,800 characters within the reference. 
  • You cannot use bold, italics or underlining in the reference. If you do, they will be removed when your reference is pasted into the application and saved.
  • References are shared with universities and colleges with all line-breaks and formatting removed. Please rest assured that your reference will appear on our records and be forwarded to universities and colleges exactly as you provided it.

Predicted grades

  • If the applicant has any pending qualifications (still being completed) these will be listed in the reference and you will be asked to provide predicted grades for each. 
  • If the applicant does not have any pending qualifications you will not be asked for predicted grades.
  • If you're unable to provide predicted grades, please tick the box 'I am unable to provide any predicted grades'. An email will be sent to the applicant to let them know.

Referee independent applicant 2024 sign in

Additional information

  • All references must be written in English. You will need to write in English, unless the applicant is applying to Welsh universities or colleges and the rest of their application is completed in Welsh – in which case the reference may, of course, be written in Welsh. 
  • When writing a reference for any applicant, including those outside the UK, under the Data Protection Act 2018 the applicant can ask for a copy of the reference and any other personal information we have about them