How To Write A Conservatoire Reference: No More Stress!


If you’re asked to write a reference for a conservatoire applicant, the chances are that they’re applying through UCAS in the UK, or directly to specialist schools in the US, such as Berklee College of Music. Each system has their own guidelines, with some institutions requiring both academic and practical references or sometimes just broader letters of recommendation.

So how do you write a conservatoire reference?

You should write a conservatoire reference by ensuring that you include commentary and opinion of your first-hand experience of the applicant’s ability in their specialism. Include informed opinion of their suitability for higher study and professional practice, as well as their academic potential.

That sounds like a lot, but basically, universities and colleges want to know if the applicant is of a good enough standard to be called for audition, and if they have the potential to achieve highly on the course.

Your role is to help the applicant secure that audition, and to give the judging panel confidence in their capability and commitment.

Here’s my snapshot guide to how to write a stress-free conservatoire reference…

1 Writing a Practical Conservatoire Reference

If you’ve been asked to write a practical reference for a conservatoire applicant, then the chances are that you are a class music, art, drama or dance teacher, a 1:1 peripatetic teacher, band leader, coach or head of a relevant academic department. It’s possible that you might be a club leader, or someone that the applicant has undertaken work experience or placements with, but you should have enough of a history with them that you feel comfortable in commenting on their practical progress and potential.

You may not be part of an academic establishment, like a school or college, so you may not have access to the systems and guidance they use. You should feel confident about contacting the applicant’s school for help and advice if you need it.

Sometimes, not being a member of staff at the applicant’s school can be quite valuable, as it means that you’re likely to have a unique relationship with the student and can write about them from a very different perspective. That’s great for admissions teams, who will get a rounded picture of the applicant.

If you don’t feel qualified to write the reference, then don’t. Instead, work with the applicant to help them identify the most appropriate referee, and help support them through the process.

What to Include in a Practical Reference:

  • A very brief personal introduction that gives contextual information to support your qualifications, experience and authority in the field.
  • A very brief explanation of your relationship to the applicant, the length of time you’ve known them and in what capacity.
  • The applicant’s practical, theoretical and artistic abilities in their specialism. This should be based on your direct experience and observation of their progress over a period of time.
  • The applicant’s commitment to their specialism outside of the classroom. What do you know of their wider experience in their specialism, opportunities taken or challenges overcome?
  • The applicant’s attitude to work and their level of discipline and application. How motivated are they?
  • Your opinion of their innate talent and capability, with examples.
  • The applicant’s key achievements, their experience and their potential for working professionally in their intended field.

If you want to find out more about writing awesome college references, then check out my 7 quick tips right here.

2 Writing an Academic Conservatoire Reference

It’s possible that you’ll find yourself writing an academic reference for a conservatoire applicant, and that your knowledge of their arts specialism is limited. That’s fine. Someone else will cover their practical reference, so your focus can be on outlining their more traditional academic potential.

However, your academic reference or letter of recommendation needs to be slightly different to a more conventional application…

Elements to Include in an Academic Reference

As with the majority of academic references, you should include:

  • A summary of the applicant’s academic progress, achievements and potential including their strengths, areas that they find challenging and obstacles they’ve overcome.
  • Their attitude towards learning, motivation, and meeting academic goals.
  • Their transferable skills.
  • Contributions to the wider life of the school or college.
  • Their potential value to the university and their suitability in general for study at degree level and beyond.
  • Their ranking within their cohort for core subjects.
  • Details of how the school or college has generated pending or predicted results data.

Additional elements for Conservatoire References

  • The degree and scope of the applicant’s engagement with their arts specialism at school (if you know).
  • Comment by teachers relevant to the application (if they are not providing the practical reference).
  • The candidate’s history in their specialism as well as your justified opinion of their potential to succeed in this field.

You can find my in-depth article on how to write university references here, or click on the image below…

3 How do References Work on UCAS Conservatoires?

I’m often asked this question, and it’s true that the conservatoire system in the UK can seem a bit complicated. Here’s how it works in a nutshell…

Students can apply for up to six courses in the conservatoire system, which is different to the standard undergraduate number of five. Applications can also begin much earlier than most other degree courses, so it’s possible that you’ll be asked to complete a reference late in the previous academic year, or at the very beginning of the current one.

Applicants can choose their referees, although this is usually done in consultation with their school. UCAS requires both practical and academic references, but these must come from different sources. Don’t write both, as this is likely to delay their application.

How do I Submit a UCAS Conservatoire Reference?

You’ll need to supply your email, and details of how to upload the reference will be sent to you via UCAS. You should not pass the reference directly to the applicant to upload, as they will not be able to do this.

You can show the applicant your reference in advance if you would like, and its good practice to liaise with the member of staff at their school who is coordinating the application or providing the academic reference (if that’s not you). That way you can check that, between you, everything relevant is included.

The applicant will then be notified that your references have been uploaded (they won’t be able to see them), and their application will move forwards.

If you’re not confident about the quality of your writing, and want to make sure that your reference or letter of recommendation is as expert, accurate and compelling as it can be, then why not use Grammarly to help? It’s a great option for improving all kinds of academic writing, and the free version is super-powerful. You can find out more here, or hit the banner below.

Good luck with your reference writing, and don’t forget to contact me if you’d like some 1-1 support. You’ve got this! D

Research and content verified by Personal Statement Planet.

David Hallen

I've worked in the Further Education and University Admissions sector for nearly 20 years as a teacher, department head, Head of Sixth Form, UCAS Admissions Advisor, UK Centre Lead and freelance personal statement advisor, editor and writer. And now I'm here for you...

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