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.
  • There are 3 sections for the reference: a general statement about the school or college, information on any extenuating circumstances that may have impacted the applicant (optional) and other supportive information on the applicant (optional).
  • 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.

For the University of Liverpool, while the supportive information section is optional, we would like referees to use this section to make the reference bespoke to the applicant. You may wish to support what the applicant has said in their personal statement, mention if they have completed a WP scheme such as Realising Opportunities or provide context to their academic performance and predicted grades.  For independent applicants and for applicants who are resitting qualifications or who have taken a gap year before applying, we would expect the referee to refer to the applicant’s circumstances in the reference. If the reference doesn’t include text in the supportive information section, we may contact the referee to ask for a brief statement on the applicant.

The UCAS website has resources to support referees, which you may find helpful to refer to when writing your reference. Changes to undergraduate references for 2024 entry | Undergraduate | UCAS).

Quick Tips

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. Extenuating 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.

3. Supportive Information

  • 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…’.
  • 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?
  • 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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