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Learn how to write a UCAS reference and help your students reach their goals

It can feel like there's a lot riding on your reference. So it's only natural to feel a little bit of pressure – especially if you're new to writing them.

But we know how important your students' futures are to you and that's why we're here to help.

This section looks at the guidelines, structure and advice on writing tailored, eye-catching references for your students.

A quick overview 

As a referee, you’re giving university admissions officers an informed and academic assessment of your students’ suitability for further study. You'll help determine the type of student that might join a course, highlighting any achievements in their studies to date.

But there are certain things officers are looking for. They're relying on the reference to provide an honest account of a student’s potential, assessing how prepared they are for the challenges of higher education. So here's a quick overview to get you started.

4,000 characters

Being concise is key. Like the UCAS personal statement, you'll only have 4,000 characters and 47 lines to include subject and tutor references.

Watch for the timeout

The submission page on UCAS will timeout after 35 minutes, so make sure you click save regularly. We recommend drafting the reference in a word processor to then copy over.

Know your audience

It's hard to pin-point exactly who might read your reference. But it's usually an academic member of staff, a subject admissions tutor or a central admissions officer. Who knows – it could even be all 3.

Predicted grades

No need to include them in your writing – they go in a separate box to your reference. Universities know that there’s no guarantee of accuracy, so try to be balanced about predicted grades if they don’t match a student’s previous level of achievement. 


Reference writing structure

Whether you’re new to the job or a veteran, these guidelines on structure with examples will help you condense your writing.

Important COVID-19 guidance – 2021 cohort

We've outlined a general structure to follow below – but we recommend checking out the latest guidance from UCAS for new updates on any contextual and circumstantial information to include in your reference in light of COVID-19.

5% – contextual information on your school college

  • Set the scene
  • If appropriate, share contextual information about your COVID-19 response, particularly if there are any specific consequences beyond those impacting other schools and colleges

Good example

'Maple Academy offers A level and BTEC programmes to 200 students from the local area. Our students come from a wide variety of backgrounds and many receive some form of income support. All students doing A levels are encouraged to undertake the Extended Project Qualification in Year 13. Approximately 40% of students progress on to HE.'

10% – special circumstances, with a focus on the positives

  • Mention any extenuating circumstances related to your student
  • If applicable, share context as to why there's a disparity between grades achieved and predicted grades, focussing on the positives

Good example

'John broke his arm in a sporting accident in the early part of Year 13 but, despite being in pain, he still achieved 100% attendance and positively contributed in class discussions and activities.'

40% – subject reports

  • Focus on the most relevant subject first

  • Highlight academic suitability and any skills developed

  • Provide any context around your student's educational pathway

  • Mention any skills and qualities they've demonstrated in class 

  • Leave out a subject that isn't relevant to your student's application, or keep it short to a couple of lines. There is no rule that says that all subjects need to appear in the reference.

Good example

'In Economics, John is a conscientious and highly motivated pupil who is firmly focused on achieving success. He has impressed with his scholarly, enquiring approach and quiet determination throughout the course (grade A achieved) and he is already excelling as he reads widely beyond the confines of the syllabus. In class, he is always attentive and his contributions to discussions are carefully considered, insightful and accurate. He has an excellent grasp of even the most complex issues studied and he can develop effective, coherent arguments supported by carefully selected diagrammatical analysis. He enjoys data interpretation and analysis and he makes full use of all available information when making judgements.'

Bad example

'John is motivated towards his studies and shows initiative when working on assignments. John is an attentive student in class. John is good at data interpretation and developing coherent arguments.'

The key differences

In the good example, the writer is specific to the chosen subject and doesn't generalise. They clearly provide evidence of John’s skills, enthusiasm and engagement within the subject area. Sweeping statements are avoided and it's been tailored to the student’s chosen degree.

5% – concluding statement

  • Aim for a powerful finishing line
  • Summarise your writing with one last endorsement, reflecting John's potential and how he'll thrive at university

Good example

'John's overall commitment to his studies, determination to improve and willingness to go beyond the curriculum mean that he will thrive in higher education, and be a conscientious and dedicated undergraduate at your university.'

Find out more in our CPD webinar

How to write a standout UCAS reference

CPD webinar

Get more details on how a reference is structured, see examples of what each section should include, and find answers to some of your important questions.

Key takeaways from the CPD webinar

What to include:

  • Academic achievements – now and future, including subject specific performance
  • Course suitability, reflecting their passion, motivation and drive for the course and career
  • Relevant skills, experience and extra curricular enrichment activities
  • Mitigating factors affecting the student or circumstantial information that warrant special consideration 

Don't forget to:

  • Read your student's application to understand their intended options, such as course and career
  • Use the maximum 4,000 characters, or 47 lines of text – including spaces and blank lines
  • Check your school or college's qualification provision on determining predicted grades

5 essential tips

Writing a character reference for UCAS means giving a holistic view of an applicant. You're adding incredible value to an application, supporting your student’s personal statement and their future. Keep these 5 things in mind as you write:

1. Avoid using a template

References need to inspire. Admissions staff can easily spot copy and paste paragraphs. Make sure what you write is unique to the individual student.

2. Get to know your student

Understanding a student's goals and experiences and reading their personal statement will bring the reference to life. Ensure things like their name and gender are consistent and correct throughout. 

3. Take your time

Taking your time to get your reference right can be vital in some cases. Spend time proofing and cross-referencing things you've written.

4. Don't be repetitive

If tutors all refer to the same qualities or skills, summarise these into 1 paragraph so that there’s no repetition. For example: ‘all Jane’s tutors agree that…’.

Don’t repeat information covered in the student’s personal statement. But expand on any points where they haven’t given enough evidence. For example: ‘In John's personal statement, John says 'X', but in addition to this...'.

5. Use detail for all the right things

Go into detail where you can. Include specific evidence of a students' suitability to a course rather than providing general comments, or focussing on your relationship with the student.

That means concentrating on your students' academic achievements, special circumstances, future aspirations, relevant skills and their course suitability.