The Academic Reference

The reference is a crucial supporting document in the university application process.

Read our guide to producing an effective and useful reference

The Basics

  • 4000 characters or 47 lines of text.
  • It is an online application but you are encouraged to contact universities directly if you need advice. We can only discuss individual applications if you have the permission of the applicant.
  • When you upload your reference to the UCAS website remember to save regularly as there is a 35 minute inactivity log out.
  • If the student has completed qualifications other than A-levels it is useful to provide some course content information, especially for English and Maths.

Quick Tips


  • Liaise with the applicant so that the reference is bespoke to the individual and the courses they are applying for.
  • Check entry requirements for the courses being applied for.
  • Ask each subject tutor to contribute and have one person collate the reference.
  • Support claims made in the personal statement by the applicant.
  • Mention if the applicant has completed a WP scheme such as Realising Opportunities.


  • Use generic stock phrases.
  • Write it like a report (eg: ‘could do better’, ‘is often negatively influenced by friends’…). 
  • Mention specific universities.
  • Be negative.
  • Raise weaknesses or personal issues unless well documented and discussed with the applicant in advance.

Suggested Structure

1. Contextual information about the school

  • How many students are in the sixth form or year level? What percentage go on to HE?
  • Is there a high proportion of WP students?
  • Has there been any disruption to provision?

2. Academic performance

  • Comment on the subjects that have been studied and how the applicant performed in relation to others eg: ‘In the top 10% of the school’.
  • Be realistic about predicted grades and put them into context eg: ‘should easily achieve’, ‘if they work hard…’

3. Special or Mitigating Circumstances

  • If there has been anything which has impacted on achievement you can only disclose it if you have their permission.
  • Ensure exam boards are also aware of any issues.

4. Extra-curricular activities

  • What has the applicant done to further their understanding of the courses they have applied for? 
  • Has the applicant undertaken additional projects or placements to make them a better student or future professional?

5. Suitability for the course

  • Clearly indicate if you DO recommend the applicant as any ambiguity may suggest that you do not.
  • Include commentary about suitability for higher education, the subject area and/or future career

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