Where to Start with Writing that UCAS Reference

Becky Kleanthous  · Feb 16th 2022

Job titles are funny things, aren’t they? Particularly the ‘t-word’ that none of us like to drop into introductions. I mean, you and I know what ‘teacher’ means.


'Teacher’ means educator / counsellor / cleaner / researcher / interior designer / team-building leader / probation officer / data analyst / public speaker / fundraiser / writer. But does the wider public have the same appreciation for the depth and breadth of our day-to-day existence?

Many of us have even taken to adopting alternative identities at social events: undertakers, debt collectors, pole dancers, anything really - anything but teacher. Because those classroom hours each day don’t even begin to touch the sides of the job description. Once you’ve planned your lessons, taught them, marked the work generated, attended department meetings, phoned parents, chased up Jack’s missing lunch money, put up a new wall display and written the end of term results, you can take your classroom hours and multiply by ten to get a truer reflection of your workload.

So here’s your ultimate, fluff-proof guide to writing a UCAS reference to give your students the recommendation they deserve. Sorry, comrades: drink another cup of coffee and make a promise to yourself that you’ll catch up on some sleep in August.

What is a UCAS reference?

Every university applicant needs a reference from a teacher (as well as calculating their UCAS Tariff Points). If you’re tasked with the role, you’ll need to outline (with honesty) their predicted grades and describe the student’s suitability for the course, based on your professional experience with them, their skills, achievements and potential. You might also need to paint the scene of their school or college scene a little bit, to give the admissions officers some context.

The reference serves to colour in the lines of the application, as grades can only give so much information. Between your recommendation and the student’s own personal statement, the admissions officers or assistants can develop a fuller picture of the applicant. It’s therefore a very important document, as it can be the distinguishing factor - for better or worse - between two competing applicants with identical grades.

Oh, and all of this within 4000 characters. Not that you’ll be wanting to reproduce War and Peace anyway, of course.

How to prepare

You can’t just sit down on your lunch break and dash off a short paragraph about how Kayleigh’s hilarious interpretation of King Lear had you all in stitches. You’ll need to do a little groundwork for this.

If you’re a consummate professional, you might even be documenting key details of achievements and strengths throughout the students’ time in further education (because if you needed to leave the role or even had long-term sick leave, it would be extremely difficult for a teacher in a new post to write a meaningful reference without that prior knowledge).

Consult your mark-book and the data recorded by other teachers to get a rounded picture of the student’s attainment.

Do have a chat with your student to find out what their hopes, plans and goals are, why they’re applying for this course, and what they’ve been doing with their time lately (clubs, instruments, sports, volunteering, part-time work etc.) You should also ask for a copy of their personal statement, as it will highlight important areas that you can support or elaborate on, and also reveal areas where you might be able to fill in the gaps. Whilst it’s not a team effort between you and the student to write the reference, do take the time to go through it with them: the reference will be better for it, and the student will feel more confident and encouraged if they know that someone is taking the time to recommend them wholeheartedly. (By the way, there’s no obligation for you to show the reference to the student, but they can ask UCAS to see a copy.)

How to write it

The way you convey the information is as important as the information itself.

  • This isn’t the place to reflect on slow progress or to exercise some old vendetta. References should be positive and supportive of students. (See our article on conquering difficult references if this feels near-impossible.)
  • It’s important to be specific and evidence all the claims you make about your student (don't go mentioning a gap year if you don't know if they're taking one!). It’s meaningless and unconvincing to say someone is diligent or enthusiastic without supporting those statements with examples. Perhaps Ruth demonstrated diligence by submitting every single assignment early this year. Maybe Ciaran showed his enthusiasm by starting a Modern Languages club at lunchtimes.
  • Another way to be specific is to rank or compare students. Statements which help contextualise your recommendations may include things like, “Beatriz achieved the highest score in the Year 11 Geography mock exam” or “Nikolas has been one of the most committed members of the drama club, with high attendance and participation”.
  • Don’t get thesaurus-happy in an attempt to sound clever. You’re a teacher. You’re clever. This is not about you. Use plain English so that the admissions officer doesn’t miss any praise that might otherwise be camouflaged in synonyms. They’ll be reading lots and they’ll be reading fast, so make it easy.
  • Similarly, enjoy your waffle with syrup and bacon but keep it out of the reference. If you’ve run out of things to say, stop writing!
  • Surely it goes without saying, but do get all details correct. Grades should be accurate and double-checked, and name spellings should be accurate. Sloppiness with details (or overly-templated references) will detract from the power of the recommendation, as it’ll seem careless and uninvested, even if they've enjoyed having the student at their recent university open day.

We do also go a little more in-depth with writing UCAS references here as well.

What to mention

Well that’s how to write it, but what exactly needs to be included? Here’s a list of possible content to cover:

  • Academic attainment, specifically post-16
  • Suitability for the career and subject they’ve chosen
  • Your assessment of their potential at university (academic, social, time-management…)
  • Contributions to the school or wider community (clubs, participation in trips, volunteering, leading assembly, contributing to school newspaper, part-time jobs, prefect, mentor…) and how it specifically demonstrates the personal qualities needed for their course.
  • Particular interests, hobbies, enthusiasms and areas of expertise.
  • Any skills or attributes that you’ve valued and / or will help them during higher education (motivation, attitude, commitment, talent, perseverance, compassion…)
  • Achievements (sports medals, musical certificates, dramatic productions, published writing, photography competitions, charity fundraising…)
  • Special circumstances that they have overcome, e.g. a bereavement, a change in schools etc.
  • Any mitigating factors if their predicted grades are lower than expected, and specific reasons that you believe they can fulfil or exceed potential later down the line.
  • Anything you think might affect their ability to study at university (this is covered in more detail in our article on writing difficult references). Remember it’s essential to gain consent to include anything here about health or disability.
  • A brief description of the academic setting. A student’s achievements will be more visible if you share the challenging backdrop that they’ve toiled against, or, conversely, a prestigious school or college may want to highlight their achievements to emphasise the student’s readiness for an elite university. Either way, keep it focused and small, and don’t waste much valuable character-space on it. Save your words for endorsing the student specifically!

It seems a lot, and it is really, but repeat after me: “Let’s not fluff it for Jack.” And anyway, you’ve just read more than 8000 characters, so you just need to go and produce half that quantity in the form of a stellar reference. Leave out the fluff and go for gold! Jack’s lunch money depends on it.

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