Writing a reference for a mature student

If you’re not a teacher or a careers adviser, and have been asked to write a reference for someone you know who wants to apply to university, here's how.

Why have you been asked to write a reference? 

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

  • You know the applicant in a professional capacity (not as a family member or a close friend). 
  • You have a good understanding or specialism in the subject or course they’re applying for. 
  • You’re able to describe the applicant’s ambitions, work ethic, and insight into their personal strengths, and can describe their suitability for their chosen course.
  • You’re able to highlight any interests or activities outside of work which evidence the applicant’s motivation, leadership, or positive impact – particularly if they're related to the course the applicant is applying for.  

Where do I start? 

Talk with the applicant, and find out what they feel is important to include. Common themes can include:

  • what motivates them
  • academic achievements  not just grades, but specific successes as well 
  • reasons why they want to return to study  it’s good to align with what’s in their personal statement
  • their commitment and enthusiasm to the subject
  • skills used as a volunteer, especially if they’re related to the area of study 

What would be useful for the university to know about them? 

  • Their ambitions (e.g.for their career after university).
  •  Their reasons for returning to study – is this a personal goal, a career change, or skills development?
  • Their suitability for the course/subject.
  • Any relevant skills or qualities they will bring to their studies. 

What should I include to maximise their chances of an offer? 

  • Keep in mind that you're writing a character reference, so try to give a holistic view of the applicant.
  • A positive endorsement of the applicant, with any real life examples of why you can recommend them for their chosen course.

What shouldn’t I include? 

  • 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. 
  • You don't need to give much detail about your relationship with the applicant. There is a limited number of characters you can use, so be concise, and to the point. First and foremost, admissions staff want to hear about the applicant, and why they would be suitable for the course they are applying to.

More information

Once the applicant submits details of the referee, you’ll receive an email link from UCAS  directing you to a secure page where you’ll be asked to sign in using details provided in the email. 

Including spaces and blank lines an undergraduate reference allows you to use up to 4,000 characters

The easiest way to write a statement is to use a word processing program first, and then copy and paste the text into the submission window. For security reasons, there is a timer on the submission window, so you could potentially lose any unsaved progress if you do not complete the reference within the allocated time. 

More information about writing undergraduate references