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Rebecca Hambery Schools Content Writer

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 and updates happening often, such as the changes made for the 2024 cycle, 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).

Tip: For the 2025 UCAS update, the final character count for a reference will be spread throughout all three sections like it was this year. Don’t worry, we’ll talk in more detail about the changes further down!

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?

As important deadlines for UK university applications grow closer, we at BridgeU have put together a guide, outlining some of the strategies and techniques to help your students to write a personal statement which is both engaging and truly individual.

Free Resource: References vs Recommendations Cheat Sheet

Do you have students applying to multiple countries? Stay up to date with conventions with this easy comparison between a UK Reference Letter and a US Letter 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.

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

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.
  • In Section Two (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.  
  • Any other relevant work experience, achievements or extracurricular activities which you feel may support your students’ application can go in Section Three.
  • 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.

Will the UCAS Reference changes Still Apply in 2025?

For 2025, the UCAS reference will continue to be separated into three sections. They also now recommend that references be written in a concise style. This means you can write in bullet-point style if needed, as long as you check that the formatting can be read easily before submitting your response. 

In the long run, these changes will provide counsellors, like yourself, with more time to help students with other aspects of their applications.

Section One: Enter a general statement about your school 

This section is mandatory for applications being sent through a registered centre. Ideally, you should include information related to the following…

  • The background of your school. This can include details about academic achievements and student demographics.
  • Any information about your school that could’ve impacted students’ performance, such as building construction or staff changes.
  • The policies or processes your school uses for predicting students’ grades. This is helpful if you would like to talk about any grades or scores that you feel aren’t represented well by predictions.

Section Two: Enter any information about extenuating circumstances 

Section two is an optional space for you to provide any information about circumstances that have impacted a student’s predicted or achieved grades. 

The goal is to, with your student’s permission, provide context for any inconsistencies between their performance and predicted results.

This can be broken down into two categories…

  • Personal Situation – If a student has a disability, chronic illness, injury, or any other personal situation that could lead to inconsistencies in their grades.
  • Wider context – If there’s a reason for a difference in their grades from earlier school or college levels (such as GCSEs or Scottish National 4/5), you can provide additional information about that too. This helps universities understand why a student’s performance might not have followed the usual pattern.

Section Three: Outline any other circumstances

This is an optional section where you can give more information about your student’s circumstances that the university should be aware of if it wasn’t covered in the previous section. 

So, if there’s anything you feel is important to mention that isn’t related to your student’s grades or coursework, this is the best place to put it. 

This is also a good place to talk about extracurricular activities your student is involved in or if they have particularly high grades in a certain subject. Additionally, if your student will need support from the university during the application process or while studying there, you can talk about the systems your school has put in place to help them.

General tips for writing a high-quality UCAS reference

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 use similar language for any two students. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t provide concise answers, though. To accommodate busy counsellors, UCAS now recommends that referees stick to a more simple style when writing their references. 

These guidelines were introduced in the 2024 update to help make references easier to sort through and also give counsellors some time back to work with their students on other aspects of their application journey.

Tip: UCAS now allows references to be submitted in bullet-point style. Remember, if the bullet point symbol disrupts your formatting, you’re not required to use it.

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.

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 that can be useful as you structure and plan your reference throughout the three available sections, ensuring you use your available time efficiently and that your reference is an accurate reflection of a student’s merits and achievements.

Provide information about the school

In Section One, you’re asked to provide a general statement about your school. This is where you will want to provide more detail on your school’s rankings, the type of school, and a general overview of your school’s curriculum. 

But don’t worry if you’re writing references for a lot of students this year! 

UCAS added a school profile template for schools registered as UCAS centres, so you won’t have to write a new general statement for each student.

Example Reference – General statement

The BridgeU International School is an international school based in Marrakech, with approximately 1,077 students on roll, of which 150 students are in Post 16 education. Our students take Cambridge IGCSE until the age 16, before taking the IBDP in Sixth Form.

Discussing mitigating circumstances

Sometimes a student’s grades have been affected by external circumstances, which a UCAS reference might have to take into account. You can use Section Two to detail anything the student went through during their time in school that would’ve impacted their studies. 

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. Make sure your student understands this information is discussed to help provide universities with context about their performance and grades.

As you’re reading through the different examples, it might be confusing to try and figure out where different circumstances fit into the new three-section format.

So, keep in mind that Section Two provides space to let universities know about any situations that have directly affected a student’s performance. And in Section Three, there’s space to discuss any accommodations your school has provided during these circumstances and ways that the university can support your student going forward.

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 access if they do decide to disclose a disability.

Example Reference – Disability

Akemi has dyslexia and at first really struggled to communicate, however her confidence progressed well; always finding the way to convey the messages exchanged. (UCAS)

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.

It’s important to take into account that students facing these situations may have increased stress and responsibilities. By including any information you feel is relevant to their studies, you can ensure your student has access to the necessary support during their applications.

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.

Example Reference – Disability

Outside of school, Munroe takes on significant responsibilities within his family by supporting his mum in caring for his three young siblings. It’s to his credit that he does this, but early in his IGCSE studies it did create pressure when he had competing deadlines for internally assessed work. He has been very open with us about balancing his home life and studies and we have been delighted to support him with flexibility on deadlines. (example adapted from UCAS)

A 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.

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.

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. In section three you can talk about why you think your student will thrive in that chosen university environment, and on that particular programme of study.

Example Reference – Biology

Rose is the strongest of a large cohort and an outstanding Biologist. Her wider reading and passion for the subject underpins her vast subject knowledge and she was involved in the Biology Olympiad, achieving a Silver Award. An exceptional chemist, she is one of the most able in the cohort, consistently placed in the top 5% in assessments. Practical skills within the sciences is of particular note, gaining high marks in her practical exam.

Her practical skills also benefited her in her recent study of aspirin which she completed to a very high standard. She used her highly developed manipulative skills to synthesise aspirin and then successfully analysed her sample using thin layer chromatography and NMR spectroscopy. (example from UCAS)

To learn more about how BridgeU can help you write and co-ordinate your students’ UCAS references, book a free demo below.

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