How to write UCAS Undergraduate references

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

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 Adviser Track.
  • 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.

Guidelines

  • 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 I.D.
  • 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 a learner’s practical ability. In Wales and Northern Ireland, the assessment of practical skills will remain part of the overall grade and learners 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 – the applicant can ask for a copy of the reference and any other personal information we have about them.

Further education staff

If you work at the school or college the applicant is from, it can be useful to include brief details about the school/college, but the reference should mainly focus on the applicant.

You could include:

  • the size and type of school/college and its year groups and classes
  • typical numbers and patterns of qualifications and progression to higher education
  • school policies such as certification of AS levels and catchment area context
  • any involvement the applicant has had in Widening Access, Gifted and Talented initiatives or Partnerships for Progression

If a student differs from the typical school profile, explain how.


Predicted grades

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

  • You’ll be able to do this in the ‘References’ section.
  • Make sure you’re honest and clear about any subjects applicants are having difficulty with – otherwise a combination of a low grade with a really positive reference could be confusing.
  • Mention any obstacles they’ve had to face, and their potential and motivation to reach higher grades as well, so that course providers have more than just grades to take into account.