Make Your UCAS Reference Personal and Positive

Becky Kleanthous  · Dec 13th 2021

There are many things you might want to say about Millie Thompson if given the opportunity: she’s consistently late to class, eats Jammy Dodgers during the register and interrupts almost every sentence that comes out of your mouth.


The place to vent all of these grievances, of course, is that most sacred of places: the staffroom. When it comes to writing a reference for her UCAS application, it’s important that you keep things positive. Didn’t she once offer you one of those biscuits? Well there you go, then. That’s basically your first paragraph sorted already.

The purpose of a UCAS reference

When a teacher provides a reference, the aim is to recommend your learner as a prospective student of the course at the university they’ve gone for. This includes picking up on skills they have acquired during their time studying with you, their areas of interest, their positive qualities in the classroom and their contributions to wider community. They will have tried to cover these bases in their own personal statement, but you can both corroborate their claims, but also fill in the gaps, adding information that possibly only a teacher could, were they the highest ranking performer in the class this year? Or perhaps you’ve noticed that they are excellent at leading group work and collaborative tasks? Maybe they were the only one in the whole class last year who didn’t laugh when you taught for a full hour with a trail of toilet roll stuck to your shoe? It’s all-important in piecing together the jigsaw puzzle of who they are and where they’re going.

Why you should write positively

Nobody is perfect. Just imagine if next time you applied for a job, your current employer focused on a list of reasons why you wouldn’t be right for the role. Sure, your manner of dressing is wacky, your use of technology is behind the rest of the department, and you have never once volunteered to lead a trip or Duke of Edinburgh expedition. No school would hire you if all that was the content of your reference. But how about the fact that your students are always engaged in your lessons, your timekeeping is impeccable, and you’re diligent in following school assessment policies? It would be wrong to overlook those significant strengths in favour of sharing a few gripes.

The same goes for your students. Don’t dwell on minor (or even major) transgressions, because this is a huge opportunity for your learners and this application process affects their whole future. Be honest, be fair, and be kind. One grumpy moment writing a poor reference would have an exponentially detrimental effect on that person’s life. Everyone deserves a chance to start again, to leave behind past mistakes, and to do better. Young people develop so rapidly, with natural peaks and troughs in attitude and behaviour, so it may not be representative or reasonable to commit to paper what might have only been a blip in their path to greatness.

Universities are interested in what the student can - not can’t - offer. They want to know what their potential is, not isn’t. If the grades on the application form are weak and the reference praises their smart appearance and passion for volleyball, then the admissions tutor for a History degree can probably make their own inferences from this, or at least invite the student in for interview to decide for themselves.

Your student has asked you for a reference because they trust you, and they believe that you’ve got their best interests at heart. This isn’t a school report or a pep talk about knuckling down for exams, so save the nitpicking, and instead, big up their attributes and achievements. You, at some point, have benefited from a leg-up from someone, and here’s your chance to do the same for the next generation.

How you can write positively

That’s the ‘why’, but the ‘how’ can be harder to manage, at times. Here’s a list of practical suggestions for making your reference personal and positive.

  • Don’t lie, obviously. Not only is it unethical, but it could jeopardise the student’s entire application. Just don’t do it.
  • Do omit minor issues if they aren’t relevant to the course application. James’s repeated inability to bring his PE kit for the last three years, or his failure in the Spanish exam, doesn’t have any direct bearing on his ability to study Maths at university level.
  • Don’t omit important information, though. If James is below target in Maths, you can’t just leave out his grades and hope they won’t notice. It’s a Maths application, after all. Talk to him first; maybe there are mitigating circumstances that you can mention, or you could focus on what he’s achieved so far in the course (on-target in the algebra component, or an excellent oral presentation in front of the class).
  • Consider how you present disappointing information if you can’t leave it out completely. Here’s one idea: when listing grades in subjects, it makes sense to begin with the strongest achievements so that they are foregrounded. With information that’s more complex than just grades, if it’s necessary to share some negative information (e.g. Holly is re-sitting Geography because she went to Ibiza for six months last year), then try the ‘sandwich’ approach, cushioning it on both sides with a positive: “In the first year of study, Holly showed great enthusiasm for learning and fully committed herself to the programme. Although a long period of absence affected her attainment last year, she is demonstrating great dedication and interest in her resits this year, and I am confident that she will achieve highly.” This allows you to be honest about the situation without emphasising the negative.
  • Think about how the student fits in - not just studying the course, but entering their chosen profession at the end. What would make Sam an excellent physiotherapist? Tell them!
  • Do get details from the students themselves - find out about their extra curricular activities, any mitigating circumstances in their life or studies, and the course requirements for where they are applying. All of this allows you to tailor the reference towards what they need, and not just write a lot of fluffy compliments which might slightly miss the mark. If you’re going to write it, might as well write it properly.
  • Use ranking where possible, as it’s really helpful to help strangers contextualise your perspective. Maybe this student was in the top three achievers last term, or perhaps they’ve been the most organised person in terms of meeting deadlines?
  • Identify areas where the student has impressed you, and not just academically. It could be that they manage to coordinate their time effectively between study and amateur dramatics, or possibly that they have shown maturity and responsibility through some kind of pastoral responsibility such as prefect or mentor.
  • Focus on their strengths. What makes this student appealing to teach? See the list below for a non-exhaustive list of ideas. The idea is to get the admissions teacher to realise that this student would be a great addition to their new cohort.

Personal is paramount

Everything you write should be specific to that student. Admissions officers can’t glean anything useful from huge chunks of generic information about the college course, or vague and unsupported claims about skills and qualities. For a reference to be positive, it has to be personal. Be specific about the student’s learning experience; don’t just give an outline of your syllabus or the institution’s background. Personal and specific evidence is what makes a reference meaningful. Here are things you can be positive about…

  • Are they academically able?
  • Are they an enthusiastic learner?
  • Are they well organised?
  • Are they punctual for class and assignment submissions?
  • Are they patient?
  • Do they ask interesting questions?
  • Are they self-driven?
  • Are they confident?
  • Are they always looking to improve?
  • Do they work effectively in a team?
  • Do they make thorough notes?
  • Can they think critically?
  • Are they successful in explaining their ideas?
  • Do they have an eye for detail?
  • Is quality of work important to them?
  • Do they push discussions forward?
  • Do they contribute to a positive learning environment?
  • Do they go beyond the requirements of the course and homework?
  • Have they shown initiative?
  • Are they a creative thinker?
  • Do they ask questions?
  • Do they do their best?
  • What specific examples could you give to support any of the claims above?

Even the fact that your student is applying to university is a promising sign, so if you’re really struggling, then start there. Talk to the student, focus on their strengths, and be specific by supporting the claims that you make about their character and abilities. Your role is to give your students a leg-up onto the next big thing, and to get them out of your classroom so they can go and drop their Jammy Dodger crumbs all over someone else’s carpet.

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