We take you through what you need to do if you've been asked to write a reference for a UCAS Undergraduate applicant.

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).

Providing references

As a referee, you’re aiming to give universities and colleges an informed and academic assessment of an applicant’s suitability for further study.
  • You’ll either receive an email from us, or if you work in the school the applicant is applying from, the application will be available in the adviser portal.
  • Read the whole application so you understand their intended career path, chosen courses and preferred places of study.
  • Qualification reform – in the changing qualification landscape, an applicant’s reference will play an increasingly important role in providing unis and colleges with information on the applicant's qualifications. To help you when writing references, SPA’s National Expert Think Tank (NETT) on curriculum and qualification reforms has created  guidance for school and college references (142.23 KB)

How to provide the reference

First, you'll need to sign in.


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

  • 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.

What to include

  • Their post-16 academic performance and their potential for success in higher education.
  • Why they’re suited to their chosen subject and career path, plus their attitude, motivation and commitment.
  • 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).
  • Any commitments (like January AS assessments) that might prevent interview attendance on a particular day.
  • Any contextual information which might warrant special consideration. This could include individual circumstances – e.g. mature student, disability, widening participation activities, or information about your school which may affect performance, such as significant staff changes, or damage to buildings.
  • Any mitigating factors that might affect their performance, for example serious, acute or chronic illness, or significant adverse personal circumstances (with applicant consent).
  • 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.

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, such as the size and type of school or college, typical numbers of students progressing to higher education, information about the catchment area and intake.

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 https://bitly.com/ (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.


  • 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.
  • If you teach the applicant now or taught them previously, please give details and describe how they compare with others in their class.
  • 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 (1.15 MB).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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

For any applicants currently studying or awaiting results, you’ll need to add their predicted grades (if there are any).

Read our guidance and support for advisers when making predicted grades

Writing a reference for an International Baccalaureate student

Writing a UCAS reference for a student taking the International Baccalaureate may feel daunting, so our guidance will help guide you through.

Writing a reference for International Baccalaureate students

Writing references for students taking BTECs and vocational courses

Guidance on what to consider when writing a reference for a student taking a vocational course.

Writing a reference for BTEC and vocational students

Common challenges

A guide to some of the common issues faced when writing references.

UCAS reference writing: common challenges

Writing a positive and tailored reference

How to focus on the positives to create a successful reference.

Writing a positive and tailored UCAS reference