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.

If you have been asked to provide a reference for an applicant to higher education, we have information in this area to help you.

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.

When writing a reference, you should remember that – under the terms of the Data Protection Act 2018 – applicants can ask for copies of their references and any other personal information that we have about them.

We ask applicants to make sure they have the agreement of their chosen referees before they enter their details. We also ask them not to choose family members, friends, partners or ex-partners as referees. If this describes your relationship with the applicant, please don't agree to be a referee. The applicant is not permitted to write their own reference. If subsequently we find any of the above to be the case, the application may be cancelled.

The process for providing a reference differs depending on the type of study, so click the relevant area below for specific, tailored advice.

New for 2021 entry – explaining the impact of coronavirus

We’ll continue to update and enhance this guidance, to give you as much support as possible for writing student references in the 2021 application cycle.

As a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in 2020, the vast majority of applicants for the 2021 entry cycle will have experienced some form of disruption to their formal education. While some of the impact will be felt equally across all students, some students may also have been affected to a greater degree due to their individual circumstances.

The reference is an ideal place to identify to university and college admissions staff the impact of COVID-19 on your students. To ensure you can include enough detail in the space that’s available in the reference (4,000 characters or 47 lines of text), we recommend schools and colleges publish information about any centre-specific impact on a dedicated web page, ‘information for university and college admissions teams’ and include the address for the webpage where it can be found. This might include:

  • 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

The reference can then cover any circumstances specific to an individual student in more detail. Examples of such circumstances could include:

  • whether the student or a close family member was affected by illness or bereavement

  • 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).​

Let admissions staff know about the school or college background

In the references 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 valuable context to the application. To enable you to give the university or college more information about the background of your school or college – and any context that may be relevant for all applicants that year, we recommend you create a web page, ‘information for university and college admissions teams’ that outlines this information. This 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 qualification 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 impact at centre-level of the COVID-19 pandemic (see above for suggestions)

  • any other background information on the context of the school, e.g. performance, catchment area, intake, etc.

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

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 higher education providers. Providers 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.

Undergraduate references

Are you a referee for an undergraduate applicant applying through UCAS?

Conservatoires references

Are you a referee for a performing arts applicant applying through UCAS Conservatoires?

Teacher training references

Are you a referee for a postgraduate teacher training applicant applying through UCAS Teacher Training?

Postgraduate references

Are you a referee for a postgraduate applicant?

Writing a reference for a mature student

Are you a referee for a mature student applying through UCAS?

Writing a reference for a mature student

Top tips for writing a UCAS reference

Expert suggestions for writing a great reference, including help with tackling some common challenges.

Top tips for writing a UCAS reference

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