Tackling Tricky UCAS References

By Becky Kleanthous  · Dec 13th 2021

Do you remember the time when you were young and foolish, and your boss did something innocuous to annoy you, so you photocopied a thousand photos of your derrière and pasted them all over the walls of the office?


There’s a relief to be had on the other side of the coin: as a grown-up and fully responsible, respectable (ahem) teacher, you might need to write a reference. And fortunately, you’re unlikely to every have to write a recommendation for someone who has been so outrageous, and that’s truly a blessing. But it’s highly likely that you’ll be called upon, at some point, to write another kind of difficult reference. Obstacles can take one form or another, usually due to no fault of the student, and you want to support them and endorse them as best you can. It can be daunting trying to figure out where to start with a task like this, so sit down and read through this guide to tackling those tricky references.

Scenario A: the unknown student

“Yes, Miss!”
“Yes, Miss!”
“Alice…? Alice? Who the fudge is Alice?” (Little joke for teachers of a certain age, there)

OK, well, by the end of the lesson you’ve ascertained that Alice is new to the school / has transferred classes / is an undercover Ofsted inspector, and you’re somehow expected to write her reference for her UCAS application in the next couple of weeks. Panic stations! Other than drawing a crude sketch of her face with a scrawled note underneath, what can you do?

Take time to chat one-to-one with the student: there’s no better source of information than right from the horse’s mouth. What and where would they like to study, and why? What have they enjoyed in this subject? What do they aspire to in the future? How do they use their time outside of lessons? What would they identify as their main strengths? Not only will this help you get cracking on the reference, but it’ll reassure the student as well. After all: would you want someone writing you a reference when they had only known you for three minutes?

Still with your detective hat on, talk to their past teachers. They might have more pieces of the jigsaw to help you fit together a fuller picture.

Don’t take off that deerstalker yet! How about calling their employer, volunteer coordinator, or previous school to get some extra positive views to build up that recommendation?

Don’t take shortcuts. Being lazy and writing a short account based on the little amount you know is no help at all to that student. An admissions tutor might look at a tiny reference and wonder what’s so terrible about the student that such huge swathes of information have been omitted. Just do the groundwork so you can say as much as you would for your more long-term students.

If all else fails then there’s always the plan B, to submit a place-holder reference. If you can’t complete enough detective work from the steps above, then write as much as you can at this point with the covering information that it’s a temporary reference. This way, a few months down the line, you can update the unis with a more thorough account.

Scenario B: the underachiever

Whether it’s Lily’s laid-back approach to life, Sian’s nervous breakdown over taking on too many subjects and activities, or Nish’s difficult year with turbulence at home, there are dozens of reasons why students might not be fulfilling their potential. It doesn’t mean they should be left by the wayside; in fact, their references might need even more TLC than usual, in order to compensate for the disappointing-looking grades on their application forms.

The important thing is to focus on the positives. Lily’s blasé attitude towards Sociology means that she doesn’t get stressed under pressure, and she does show great enthusiasm in other areas, such as organising social events and fundraisers for the college. Sian might have crumbled under the weight of her timetable, but she shows great ambition and dedication (not to mention a natural talent in Music). Nish’s attention has been elsewhere this year, and who can blame him, but he’s maintained good attendance and collaborated very effectively on group tasks. Steer away from the problems and steer into the students’ strengths, interests, activities and goals to provide a more rounded picture than the grades alone could provide.

Do take into account all the reasons that students may be underperforming. Don’t be tempted to glance down your mark-sheet, scowl at any grades that aren’t meeting targets, and resentfully dash off some quick, (or worse: passive-aggressive) account. This is a person with a future, and you could be the difference between them being able to follow one path or another. We’ve all had off-days, off-weeks, months or even years (a wise philosopher once said as much in the soundtrack of ‘Friends’) and it’s important to be kind, human and reasonable when considering how they’ve coped under the circumstances. Do the best service you can in recommending this student.

In some cases, it might be appropriate to mention mitigating circumstances, but do speak to the student about this before you include anything personal. A short line addressing this year’s dip in grades due to a period of illness or a bereavement is going to put things in context for the admissions officer, who is likely to be forgiving of such a situation.

Scenario C: the enigmatic degree programme

Dylan is just the nicest kid and you’re more than happy to write his reference, of course you are, and - oh. But what’s this? He’s studying… what? You’ve spent two years doing algebra with him but now you need to comment on his ability to study Jams of the Sixteenth Century, or Futurology of Textiles. You can find yourself in this predicament, writing outside your academic expertise, if you’re someone’s favourite teacher, a personal tutor or a form teacher. Take a deep breath. It can be done.

Familiarise yourself with the course that they’re interested in. Visit a couple of websites for their university choices and read the outline or syllabus to get a feel for what’s involved in terms of content and skills. Many skills are transferrable; Dylan’s accuracy in algebra makes him a safe pair of hands producing futuristic algorithms and measuring textiles. Plus, his careful note-taking and revision timetabling would be useful in any subject.

Have a one-to-one talk with the student to find out more about their choice. What interests them about that programme? What do they want to do after the course? Why are they interested in that particular university? What skills do they think they might need?

Find out what you can from your colleagues: talk to the Food Tech and History department for Jams of the Sixteenth Century, for example. They should be able to give you a pretty good idea of what makes a good cookery student or history student, and you can cross-reference this information with what you know about Dylan from your own experience.

So, be flattered that your students - even the tricky ones - have asked you to write their references. It means they trust you: certainly more than you would have trusted your old boss to endorse your capabilities! The key to writing references in difficult situations is to do as much research as you possibly can, and always embrace the positives.

It’s worth taking a little extra time over these applications to ensure that you do them justice, and even though they might be a little slower than some of the other references, it’s no more difficult in terms of the skills required. Bet your creaky knees wouldn’t manage that now, eh!

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