Information, advice and guidance

Writing Effective UCAS References

It’s already that time of year again. The time when you and your students prepare to submit UCAS applications. Undoubtedly, you will now be thinking about all of those UCAS references you will be writing, to help give your students the best chance of securing a place at their university of choice. This blog will help to guide you through the process and give you some top tips on supporting your students’ applications.

Why do universities value UCAS references?

Where I work at Durham University, UCAS references can often be crucial in determining whether or not we make an offer to an applicant. Durham receives a high volume of applications and often has to make difficult decisions about very similar candidates. Providing an understanding of an applicant’s achievements within their education and home context is important. Often the reference can be the one thing that sets an applicant apart from another. We really rely on teachers, as educational professionals, to provide informed assessments of applicants.

Contextual Information

You should always begin the reference with some contextual information about your school or college. The most useful is information that we will not know from the UCAS form. For example, the proportion of students eligible for free school meals, the percentage who progress to Oxbridge or Russel Group universities, any resource or timetabling constraints – ones which might limit a student’s choice in subjects to study, and your typical provision. Now the big question! Should you include a URL with this information? The answer is – you can, but please be aware that not all universities will open it. It’s therefore really important that you put the most relevant contextual information in the reference, it should only take a few lines. You can then include a link, but it means those that don’t open it will have the key information.


There is no set structure to a reference, however, like with the personal statement, we would always recommend that it has a split of being 80% focussed on academic information and 20% extra-curricular information. Also, again like with the personal statement, the word limit is 4000 characters or 47 lines. The reference should include: 

> Background on the school and the applicant​ 
> Information on their academic performance at post-16​ 
> Subject by subject reports (with the most relevant subject first)​ 
> Information on their suitability for the course and higher education​ 
> Information on their extra-curricular activities and personality (relevant information)

Subject information should include: 

> Comments on the applicant’s academic performance at post-16​ 
> Performance in relation to their peers​ – this is really helpful to us 
> Any achievements and interest in specific modules​ 
> Academic qualities and skills ​ 
> The student’s potential for academic success at university​ 
> Super-curricular activities​ (extra activities directly related to their course of study) 
> Any explanations for predicted grades​ 
> The student’s suitability for their chosen course

Top Tips

To finish here are some top tips when writing references: 

> Provide a fair picture of the applicant​ 
> Explain any changes in their performance. We will question a big jump from GSCE achievement to A Level predictions 
> Include any mitigating circumstances – with the agreement of the applicant​ 
> Include if your school does not offer particular subjects​, especially if it has affected that particular applicant 
> Make sure the style of writing is consistent throughout​ 
> Provide evidence that the applicant is suited to the course​ 
> Build a picture of the student, including their approach to study​ 
> Include any involvement in outreach activities​ 
> Extract and combine information from subject teachers e.g. ‘several teachers..’​ 
> Involve the applicant in the process

You can watch our short Reference Writing Top Tips video on YouTube and you can also sign up to Durham University’s teacher mailing list or get in touch if you have further questions on

Finally, good luck and thank you! 

Other useful links

Advancing Access resource - Academic reference writing - top tips 
Advancing Access webinar - Writing effective UCAS references 


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