How to Write a UCAS Reference [Updated for 2023 Applicants]

A good UCAS Reference can affect whether a student is accepted to a UK university. Read our complete guide to collating & writing the UCAS Reference.

The UCAS reference sits alongside a student’s personal statement as an essential component of a UK university application. It’s the only part of the UCAS application which the student won’t have any control over. Universities cite the UCAS reference as a deciding factor which affects whether a student gains a place on their chosen course or not; it could also have an impact on whether a university offers a student a conditional or unconditional place.

Much like students, teaching and guidance staff will have to prepare and write a reference within a given time frame.

With the reference being such a vital component of a student’s UCAS application, there’s an understandable pressure on teachers and counsellors to get it right – especially when you have multiple students and you want to ensure that everyone gets an equal share of your time. Even trickier can be fitting all your school has to say in just 4,000 characters (or 47 lines... sound familiar? It's identical to the limit your students have to stick to with their personal statements).

So what are the essential components for every UCAS reference, and how can you ensure you’re portraying your students in the best possible way?

Free Resource: References vs Recommendations Cheat Sheet

Have students applying to multiple countries? Stay up to date with updated conventions with this easy comparison between UK Reference Letter and US Letters of Recommendation. Includes tips, tricks, and annotated examples!

Who writes the UCAS reference?

It’s important to remember that the UK reference is different from the letter of recommendation sent to US universities. A UCAS reference is not written by an individual, it is designed to function as one voice from the school.

Generally, subject teachers will contribute to a UCAS reference, then final edits will be done by the Head of Sixth Form, school counsellor, or Head of Department.

What do universities look for in a reference letter?

There is no one answer to this question, and different universities will have varying criteria for what they are looking for in a school’s reference for a student. However, in its own literature regarding the UCAS reference, University of Manchester Director of Admissions Michael Sanders writes:

The UCAS Academic Reference plays a very important role in our decision making process. We use it to assess not only the student’s current achievements but also their future potential.

If you want to give universities an overall picture of both a student’s current performance and their post-secondary path, then it’s useful to talk about the following:

  • The student’s ability to write well-structured essays and create a reasoned argument.
  • The ability to participate in class discussions.
  • Excellent time management and organisational skills.
  • Reliability, punctuality and the ability to hit deadlines.
  • Confidence, enthusiasm, great communication skills, leadership potential & teamwork ability.

What are the essential components of a UCAS reference?

UCAS has a number of components which it recommends secondary schools include when submitting a reference in support of a student’s university application. First and foremost, a UCAS reference needs to include essential information which will support the rest of the student’s application. This includes:

  • A summary of your student’s post-16 academic performance, including their current and past academic achievements in their relevant classes.
  • Why they’re suited to their chosen subject/degree course, including a description of the key skills and aptitudes they possess.
  • Any other relevant work experience, achievements or extracurricular activities which you feel may support your students’ application.
  • Commenting on their motivation and commitment to their curricular and extracurricular activities.
  • Why you think they will be successful in their chosen university/career path.
  • Where appropriate (and with the student’s consent), include any other relevant contextual information about a student which a university needs to know, or which might warrant special consideration; e.g. disability, chronic illness, adverse personal circumstances.  

Tip: Remember you can comment on their strengths & aptitudes even if they’re not applying to study a subject you teach. 

How to write the best UCAS reference for your students

As well as including the criteria we’ve mentioned above, there are a number of tips and strategies which can be useful as you structure and plan your reference, ensuring you use your available time efficiently and that your reference is an accurate reflection of a student’s merits and achievements.

Talk to your students

This sounds like a fairly straightforward piece of advice – however if you’re a teacher or counsellor with a large group of students, setting aside quality time with every student to discuss their UCAS application might be difficult. It therefore goes without saying that, the more manageable your student numbers, the easier it will be to have a meaningful dialogue with your student about their application.

Talking to your students as much as possible means your reference forms part of an application which is coherent and well-structured. It’s also important to have an honest and open dialogue with students and parents about predicted grades, ensuring that you are offering students realistic and positive advice as you guide them through their application.

Tip: If you find yourself in the position of having to prioritise students for any reason, then your best course of action is to talk to the students who are applying to study your particular subject discipline at university. 

Read the Personal Statement

Obviously, your reference should be tailored to a given student’s application; the best way to ensure you understand each student’s individual aspirations and application is to read the personal statement.

Reviewing and understanding what a student has to say about themselves in their personal statement is an excellent means of ensuring that your own reference complements the student’s application, without your insights and comments seeming repetitive. It can also guide and better structure what you write in your own reference.

Tip: It’s also worth noting that the UCAS reference should not repeat any information given in the student’s own application, unless you are commenting on it.

Show, don't tell

Like your student’s personal statement, the UCAS reference needs to make a coherent argument about why you feel a student’s aptitudes, skills and experiences mean they are suited to this particular university course. This means that you should illustrate examples to back up your reference.

For example, rather than saying that a student is “proactive”, think of an example from their curricular or extracurricular activities to help illustrate your point. For every positive statement you make about a student, think about a specific example you can point to which demonstrates that particular attitude, characteristic or behaviour.

Example Reference – Chemistry

Jasmine has strong analytical skills and is able to operate with complex multi-step thinking. This has been evident in her work on mole calculations, where she is precise and careful, fully understanding the reason that being detail-oriented is so important.

Don't cut corners

Given the time pressures we’ve already outlined, it’s important that any references aren’t rushed or written without proper planning. Likewise, if you are dealing with a high volume of student applications, it’s important to tailor each reference to the relevant student, and not rely on any particular template, or use similar language for any two students.

Describe your students' potential

Admissions tutors will be looking at a student’s potential in a university setting, so it’s crucial to include this in any given reference. It’s important to talk about why you think they’ll thrive in that chosen university environment, and on that particular programme of study. 

Example Reference – History

Eduardo works independently, tries very hard and is always eager to improve, seeking one to one feedback on his written work. I am confident that he is equipped with all the skills required to thrive in an undergraduate environment. 

Be honest

Whilst it’s important you should offer the most positive account of your students as you possibly can, it’s also important to be honest about your students strengths and weaknesses. If a student is frequently late, cutting class, or being rude, then you’re duty bound as an educator to mention this in your reference.

Discussing mitigating circumstances

As we mentioned previously, a student’s grades may have affected by external circumstances, which a UCAS reference might have to take into account. Disclosing a student's personal circumstances, however, can be a delicate subject. Where appropriate, it's always worth checking with the student first to ensure that they're comfortable with it. Here are some examples:

Illness, accident or disability

This can be something which is chronic and long-term, or something which has impacted the student during their studies. 

It's worth knowing that students in the UK are under no obligation to disclose a disability - and neither is their school or counsellor.

If a student is conflicted about revealing a disability to a university, or isn't sure they're comfortable with the school revealing it, it can be worth inviting them to look over their university's disability provisions: there is usually a wealth of support available which they'll be able to a access if they do decide to disclose a disability. 

Illness or death of a family member

Family bereavement will, of course, have a huge impact on a student, especially if they are also having to think about forthcoming exams and their higher education prospects.

Home life problems

This can include any other ongoing issues which may be impacting an applicant’s studies, e.g. parents going through a divorce, financial issues, family mental health issues; these are all factors which could make a student’s home environment not conducive to study.

Student is the first in their family to go to university

This can impact a student’s application, as their parents may not be in a position to advise them or, in some cases, even encourage them in their application.

Teaching and learning challenges

These could include factors such as high turn-over of staff, unusually large class sizes or problems with timetables, which have resulted in a student having to study remotely.

COVID-19 updates for 2022-23 applicants

If COVID-19 has affected your school for the third year running, UCAS still stand by last year's published guidance on how to include this in the UCAS reference.

As with the previous two years, UCAS is allowing reference writers to provide more contextual information about the effect that COVID-19 has had on their schools and students. This can include: 

  • Contextual information about your school and its experience of COVID-19
  • Any extenuating circumstances relating to COVID-19 which might have affected a student’s performance

In this next section, we’ll go into each point in more detail…

Contextual information about your school's experience of COVID-19

If teaching at your schools was negatively impacted by COVID-19, you should mention this in the UCAS reference. However, UCAS advises that you only include this if your centre has encountered consequences additional to those experienced by all schools and colleges.

This could include:

  • Teaching time lost due to COVID-19
  • How remote learning was delivered to your students
  • Any disruption to your normal university application process
  • Any impact on the information used to determine predicted grades, e.g. the cancellation of internal assessments

Tip: If you don't want this information to cut into your 4000-character limit, UCAS is allowing you to create a web page and put the URL address in the reference instead.

Extenuating circumstances relating to COVID-19

Similar to the “discussing mitigating circumstances” section above, you should make sure to include any circumstances relating to COVID-19 that might have affected an individual student’s performance.

A few examples are:

  • Whether the student or a close family member was affected by illness or bereavement
  • Anxiety caused by COVID-19 (e.g. economic uncertainty in their household)
  • Any barriers which prevented students from engaging with remote learning
  • Any relevant information about the students' home learning environment (e.g. access to technology, support of family members/carers)

If you do choose to put more focus on COVID-19 rather than writing a traditional reference, don't worry - UCAS is assuring that it will not negatively impact your students’ applications.

But whichever approach you choose to take, it's important that you submit your reference with the rest of the student's application, in time for the January 26 deadline.

To learn more about how to pen the perfect UCAS reference and help your students stand out from the crowd, download our free cheat sheet. 

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Thank you for such a helpful and informative article! One of the best pieces of information about writing the UCAS reference for students. Especially amazing a tip to be honest.

Tuesday 19th January 2021

wow this is so interesting article thanks for sharing sir

Tuesday 25th January 2022