How to provide a reference for an applicant to higher education.

Writing references

Practical advice on writing informative references, and four referees tell us how to successfully manage the process.

This is what you need to know to write a UCAS undergraduate reference. We also have specific guidance on writing UCAS Conservatoires, UCAS Postgraduate, and UCAS Teacher Training references.

New: Updated guidance for references not started or submitted for 29 January deadline, 2021 entry cohort   

13 November 2020

Due to the ongoing disruption caused by COVID-19, we have worked with the Undergraduate Advisory Group, the Secondary Education Advisory Group, and Association of School and College Leaders, to understand the most important features of the reference and update guidance on reference writing  for those of you who require more flexibility.

We understand the difficulties you may be facing, with likely constraints both in time and resource, in producing references due to the impact of COVID-19.

Therefore, if you are still to complete your references, and do not feel that you can do so within the usual timeframes, you can concentrate on:

  • contextual information about your centre, to include information about your centre’s experience of COVID-19 
  • any extenuating circumstances related to the individual applicant that might have affected their performance.   
UCAS references for your 2021 cohort
UCAS reference guide Important Optional

Contextual information about your COVID-19 response, particularly if your centre has encountered any specific consequences which are beyond those impacting all schools and colleges.


Contextual information about your school.


Extenuating circumstances related to applicant. 

Give context if there is a disparity between grades achieved, e.g. at GCSE and predicted grades, such as:
  • their post-16 academic performance and trajectory 
  • preparedness for chosen subject 
  • student achievements in context with their peers where relevant 
Detailed applicant information including:
  • suitability of chosen subject/career path with contributions from subject tutors/teachers  
  • skills and qualities like aptitude and enthusiasm   
  • achievements, work experience, and extracurricular activities   

It is strongly recommended that applicants applying for professional courses e.g. teaching, nursing, social work, and allied health professions receive a full and detailed reference as usual.

Universities and colleges are being asked, when assessing and comparing applicants this year, to remember that the capacity of an applicant’s adviser to produce a full and detailed reference is not an indicator of that applicant’s potential.   

What to include

Contextual information about your centre could include:

  • information about your school which may affect performance, such as significant staff changes, or damage to buildings  
  • specific reference to COVID-19, such as:  
    • the amount of teaching time that was lost overall, and what alternative provision for remote education was delivered to students  
    • any disruption to your normal university application processes  
    • any impact on the information used to determine predicted grades, for example, the cancellation of internal assessments  

This information could be in the reference itself or, as previously suggested, create a web page with the information and put the URL address in the reference.

Note: The UCAS reference doesn’t accept hyperlinks so you will need to write the URL (web page address) in full. If it is easier, you could use a (free) service to shorten links such as (one of many).

Extenuating circumstances related to the individual could include:

  • individual circumstances – e.g. mature student, disability, serious, acute or chronic illness, significant adverse personal circumstances (with applicant consent) 
  • context as to why there is a disparity between grades achieved e.g. at GCSE and predicted grades, where applicable.
  • specific reference to COVID-19, including:  
    • whether the student or a close family member was affected by illness or bereavement  
    • significant anxiety caused by COVID-19, relating to loss of job or other economic uncertainty in the household
    • how individual students engaged with online provision, and whether there were any barriers – technical or environmental – which prevented or impeded this  
    • any relevant information about the student’s home learning environment (e.g. access to technology, space to work at home, access to other learning resources, support of family members or carers)  

If you have already completed, or are close to completing your full and detailed references as usual, please carry on and submit your applications as normal. The alternative mentioned above is to give you and your colleagues flexibility and choice, if you need it.

Applicants will not be disadvantaged with either approach, and we have engaged with universities and colleges to ensure they are prepared for this option. Universities and colleges may contact the referee if further information is required, and of course if there are any changes or updates after submission, please do continue to liaise with the university and colleges concerned.

Please note, this guidance is only for your 2021 cohort of applicants. We will continue to consult with both you and the sector to understand the ongoing impact of COVID-19 and any potential future changes to the reference process.  

If you are new to writing references, please see our full guidance

Other important information to include:

Give context if there is a disparity between grades achieved e.g. at GCSE and predicted grades, such as 

  • their post-16 academic performance and trajectory 
  • preparedness for chosen subject 
  • student achievements in context with their peers, where relevant 

Optional information to include about centre

In the reference section, you will want to focus on the individual student, but we recognise that the wider context of the school or college can also offer context to the application.

This information could be in the reference itself, or as previously suggested, on a web page specifically created – put the URL in the reference. The  web page, ‘Information for university and college admissions teams’ could include:

  • any policies or processes used for predicting grades (e.g. internal assessments). This is an opportunity to articulate any policy about not predicting grades for qualifications where the school or college feels the assessment method or qualification structure is not suited to predictions (such as the Extended Project) – read our guidance and support for advisers when making predicted grades
  • your qualification provision, such as if you offer AS levels, what vocational qualifications you offer, or your position on bypassing qualifications as part of Curriculum for Excellence. It is also helpful to explain your rationale: for example, whether this was influenced by funding, or due to the pedagogical preference of the school for particular study methods
  • any other background information on the context of the school, e.g. performance, catchment area, intake, etc.

Optional information to include about the applicant

Detailed application information including:

  • suitability of their chosen subject and career path, plus their attitude, motivation, and commitment with contributions from subject tutors/teachers
  • skills and qualities like aptitude and enthusiasm, plus current or past achievements that will help with their chosen subject area
  • achievements, work experience, and extracurricular activities that relate to their chosen course(s)
  • if the student has undertaken any activities in preparation for higher education, such as widening participation and access outreach programmes, Gifted and Talented initiatives or Partnerships for Progression

Don’t forget, the reference is not your only opportunity to provide information about your students, and the web page mentioned above does not replace direct engagement with universities and colleges. Universities and colleges welcome further dialogue with referees, and would urge schools and colleges to inform them of any changes to the applicant’s profile or circumstances that occur after the point of application.


You can use up to 4,000 characters or 47 lines of text (including spaces and blank lines) – whichever comes first.

  • 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
  • If you’re writing a reference for an international applicant, please write in English. If their first language isn’t English, please comment on their ability to write and speak in English, and indicate if any of their studies were taught in English.
  • When writing a reference for any applicant, including those outside the UK, please remember that – 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.

  • We recommend you write in a word processor first and then copy and paste into the online application (but watch out for the character and line count – the word-processor might get different values because it doesn’t count tabs or paragraphs).

  • When you add into the online application, click ‘save’ regularly because it will time out after 35 minutes of inactivity.

  • You can use some European characters in the reference.

  • We recommend you save a copy of each reference you write for your records.

  • Avoid repeating any of the information they’ve given in their application, unless you want to comment on it, and avoid mentioning any particular university or college.

References for independent applicants

Applicants who apply independently, rather than linked to a school or college, must ask for a reference from someone who isn’t a family member, friend, partner or ex-partner, and they can’t write it themselves. We ask them to make sure they have the agreement of their chosen referee before entering their details into their application.

If you’ve been asked to be a referee an independent applicant:

  • you’ll receive an email from us with a password, which will allow you to input and submit your reference
  • it’s best to read the whole application so you understand their intended career path, chosen courses, and preferred places of study

What you will include in the reference will depend on how you know the applicant, and how familiar you are with their plans and experience. It’s a good idea to speak to them about their application before you write the reference. 

Here are some ideas about what you could include about the applicant:

  • the context of your relationship
  • how prepared they are for university or college
  • their suitability for their chosen subject and career path
  • your experience of their attitude and motivation
  • the skills and qualities they’ve demonstrated
  • any achievements, work experience, volunteering, extracurricular activities or interests relevant to their chosen subject, or that demonstrate their personal or academic qualities
  • any activities they may have taken in preparation for higher education, such as widening participation and access outreach programmes, Gifted and Talented initiatives, or Partnerships for Progression
  • with their consent, the impact of any individual extenuating circumstances you feel are relevant
  • any individual extenuating circumstances regarding COVID-19, such as being affected by illness or bereavement, or any significant anxiety
  • any context around the applicant’s educational pathway and choices to date, and in particular why they may have undertaken their education outside a more traditional setting

Referee independent applicant sign in 2021

Other considerations

  • If the applicant is on an access course, foundation course or other one-year course, you might not have known them long enough to write a full reference. In this case, please say so and explain that you’re providing a temporary reference (including as much detail as you can) and confirm you will provide a complete reference next spring. All supplementary references should be sent directly to all the chosen course providers, and should quote the applicant’s Personal ID.
  • If the applicant is recertificating their maths or further maths AS or A level, you should explain that they’re recertificating rather than resitting the exam. Students taking AS or A level maths or further maths are advised by awarding organisations to recertificate these qualifications at the end of the course, so that the best combination of grades is awarded. So this would mean AS maths would be listed as both a completed and pending qualification.
  • Science A levels in England will have an additional grade that provides an indication of an applicant’s practical ability. In Wales and Northern Ireland, the assessment of practical skills will remain part of the overall grade and students will not receive an additional grade. Find out more in our Science practical – quick guide.
  • If a student differs from the typical school or college profile, explain how – this is especially important if you have provided details about the context of your school or college which shows. 

Predicted grades

As part of the reference, you will be asked to provide predicted grades for those qualifications entered as ‘pending’ – please see further specific guidance

If you are a referee and work in the school the applicant is applying from, the application will be available in the adviser portal, please see how to input the reference in the adviser portal.