How To Write A University Reference: References Made Easy

If you’ve been asked to write a university reference, then congratulations – you’re about to provide an incredibly important element of that person’s application.

One that can often make the difference between them getting an achievable offer or not.

So, no pressure – it’s just their future in your hands!

And if you’re wondering exactly how to write a university reference, then this post is for you.

To write a university reference, you need to ensure that you know the applicant well, understand their relevant strengths and weaknesses and have the time to research and refine your writing. You should also include information on their skills, suitability, progress and potential.

So, if you’ve been asked to provide a university reference and are struggling to make a start, check out the following guide, suitable for all open reference requests (if no specific criteria are mentioned).

At the end of the post, you’ll find a completely free, downloadable university reference to help you get started…

What Is A University Reference?

Actually, although you might feel quite a lot of responsibility towards the person who has chosen you as their referee, if you write honestly, accurately and with their best interests at heart, you’ll do a great job.

Typically, a reference for university can be anywhere from 500 to 800 words long and is uploaded directly to the relevant platform directly by the referee. This could be to UCAS in the UK, the Common App in the US or third-party providers like China Admissions.

It’s read in conjunction with the candidate’s own personal statement and the rest of their application, which contains elements such as their educational history and personal details.

A university reference is used to help determine an applicant’s suitability for study in higher education. It’s used almost exclusively by admissions teams to form a rounded picture of a candidate’s potential for challenging academic study, their skills and experience, attitude and value.

Importantly, a university reference should paint a positive but realistic picture of the candidate, emphasise their key strengths and act as an endorsement without undue flattery… not always an easy balance to strike.

What Makes A Great Referee?

The best references are always those written by a referee that genuinely knows the candidate well and has a high level of understanding of their existing knowledge and suitability.

Great referees are also aware of the demands that a particular course of study will place on the applicant and can vouch for their ability to cope, academically and personally.

It’s worth mentioning that although there should be a good level of communication between the applicant and the referee, including sharing of factual details, discussion of potential courses and destinations, and mutual viewing of their personal statement (to avoid repetition and aid emphasis of strengths and experiences), a reference must be written solely by the referee.

Having written hundreds of references over the years, I found that it was always helpful to offer to share the reference with the applicant once it had been uploaded and delivered (and hence unable to be changed). 

That way, the applicant felt reassured about the contents but understood that they were not in a position to unduly influence the writing. Applicants can ask universities and third-party providers for access to their references once they have been uploaded, so if they really want to see them, they can.

Don’t let that concern you.

It’s much better to be open with applicants and their families, especially if there’s a chance that your reference might indicate that they may struggle to meet the demands of the course. As long as you stay focussed on the positives and have a good dialogue with the applicant, you’ll write a reference that will do them proud.

The UCAS Academic Reference plays a very important role in our decision-making process. We use it to assess not only the student’s current achievements but also their future potential.

Michael Sanders University of Manchester

How Do You Write A University Reference?

So, how do you write a reference for a university student? 

Before we get to the specific elements to include, let’s briefly look at where to start. Before you put pen to paper, it’s worth taking the time to make sure that you have access to the following:

Existing And Pending Qualifications

You won’t need to include these in your reference, but it will give you an excellent idea of how well the applicant is progressing academically, where their strengths and weaknesses are in lessons, and possibly where they show resilience and a strong work ethic to overcome challenges.

Most of all, you’ll get a better understanding of how suitable they may be for the kind of subject they’re interested in reading at university.

Background Information

You probably know the applicant in an academic capacity (you’re their teacher, advisor, counsellor, agent or tutor) or as a friend, acquaintance or employer.

Either way, there are bound to be areas of their life that you don’t know much about, from their upbringing to their interests.

Take the time to get to know about the aspects you’re not sure about, particularly in terms of how they might support the application.

Course, Campus And Subject Choices

If the applicant has already made choices about what they want to study and where, then a good referee will take some time to look at the course details and compare the demands of the course with the applicant’s strengths and ambitions.

It’s not down to you to advise for or against their choices, but being informed about them is vital because you’ll want to tailor your reference to suit the relevant course demands.

If someone’s applying to read Biology and you don’t mention that they deepened their understanding by taking an additional course in Organic Chemistry, or have a high level of practical ability in their lab work, then you’re not giving them every advantage.

Wider Knowledge And Interests

Make sure that you find out about the applicants’ wider reading and research, their hobbies and interests and their knowledge and experience related to the subject.

This can give you much more of an overview of their suitability than qualifications and grades.

If the applicant has a strong practical skillset, make sure you reference it. If they have made great progress in a hobby, it’s worth knowing about.

You may not write about how great their ballet dancing is, but knowing about it will reinforce your positive comments about their stamina and resilience.

The Applicant’s Strengths and Ambitions

It’s always worth asking the applicant what they consider to be their strengths and how they have developed and demonstrated these.

Having some tangible evidence to underpin your comments adds a real air of authenticity to any reference. Knowing their strengths also gives you the opportunity to avoid writing about their weaknesses.

You shouldn’t ever write about the things an applicant struggles with, academically or otherwise.

There’s no value in using space in your reference to discuss the things the applicant can’t do well. Focus on the positives, stay truthful and instead, if you must mention them, frame the weaknesses as positives.

Instead of the following, which has no place in a reference…

Why not try…

Or even better…just don’t mention her timekeeping at all!

Remember to use the reference as a celebration of the applicant’s strengths. If punctuality isn’t one of them, don’t include it in the reference!

A final point when it comes to preparation… it’s always worth making sure that you have access to some up-to-date editing software like Grammarly.

References often demand a low word count, and having room to include all your points effectively can require some concise writing and judicious editing.

It’s also reassuring to know that you’ve uploaded an important document like a reference without any errors in spelling, punctuation or grammar. Using a tool like Grammarly helps take the headache out of writing in an academic style, especially if you’re out of the habit (and it’s great for all sorts of other writing projects too).

You can check out the free version of Grammarly here or hit the banner above for more information.

What Do You Put In A University Reference?

OK, so you’ve done your research, you’ve had the conversations, you’ve read the personal statement. Excellent. Here are the key details you need when it comes to the specific contents to include in a university reference.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a combination of recommendations from admissions teams, service platforms and schools coupled with common sense from my own experience.

Post-16 Academic Performance

Most important of all, you must outline the applicant’s recent academic performance. Focus on the subjects they are studying in order of relevance to the subject they intend to read.

Remember, descriptions of what they’ve done aren’t very useful, but examples of how they’ve applied knowledge and skills, and the way that relates to the challenges they are likely to face in higher education, are vital.

You should also indicate how predicted (sometimes referred to as ‘pending’) grades have been generated if you have that information.

If you have access to the data, it’s very helpful to include specific grades from internal tests that might not appear elsewhere and to indicate ranking within a subject or year group.

It’s also recommended to indicate how the applicant’s education may have been impacted by COVID-19, online learning or other external factors beyond the control of the candidate.

Universities often like to see a link to an institution’s website containing this information in detail rather than see space used up in a reference.

Potential For Success At University

This relates to academic success – how academically capable is the candidate, how well prepared, what level of research skills do they have, how adept are they at independent study, and how quickly can they absorb and understand new theories?

Do they have the potential to flourish and thrive in an academic environment and to complete the course successfully? It also relates to the applicant’s personal qualities – do they have the potential to manage in a social context, in terms of solo living, emotionally and financially?

It’s important to any institution that the learner makes a success of the opportunity, educationally, personally and financially.

Suitability For Subject Or Career Path

Another important element that you must include is whether the candidate is suitable for the particular subject they have chosen to read.

Just because an applicant is passionate about a subject doesn’t mean they are necessarily talented or capable in that area, and it’s important that the reference makes this clear.

This is where your knowledge of and connection with the applicant will become so important, both in the process of guiding their decision-making and in understanding their motivations.

You just need to make it clear in the reference how suitable you feel that person is, and you can only do that if you’ve taken the time to understand the course content.

Remember, it’s not your job to judge, just to offer an informed opinion.

Attitude, Motivation And Commitment To Study

If you can give a first-hand account of the applicant’s attitude and dedication to study, then that will be of great value to the admissions teams, who are looking for ways to differentiate between candidates.

If they can see evidence that an applicant has a track record in positive attitudes towards education, and is a self-motivated, independent learner, then that is the kind of detail likely to make a real difference.

Have they:

  • Consistently arrived well prepared and eager to learn?
  • Engaged fully in the taught curriculum?
  • Revised fully and accurately, and in good time?
  • Made and kept accurate and well-referenced notes?
  • Read outside the confines of the subject?
  • Asked for additional work?
  • Taken opportunities to deepen knowledge when offered?
  • Created their own opportunities to further their understanding of the subject?
  • Asked questions in an active way rather than absorbing information passively?
  • Contributed to class discussion, debate, practical and group work?

You might not be able to judge all of these, but gathering feedback from a range of sources will help you form an overall picture. Remember, you should try to avoid describing and focus on actual examples that evaluate their progress.

So don’t write…

That doesn’t really tell the reader anything and isn’t helpful in comparing this candidate against another.

Instead, you could write…

This example basically says the same thing as the first one but gives the reader the context to understand the depth of this applicant’s connection to the subject beyond the demands of the fixed curriculum.

Subject-Specific Skills And Qualities

The more you can write about the kinds of subject-specific skills the candidate has, the more the reader will see a connection between the applicant and the course they are applying for.

Again, don’t inflate or invent, but give tangible examples of skills that underpin this field of study.

To identify these, look at the course descriptors for the subject the applicant is interested in studying and work out the skills that will be the most relevant.

Then clarify with the relevant subject teacher or with the applicant themselves which skills can be used as supportive examples.

Relevant Achievements, Experiences And Interests

Admissions teams are frequently faced with applicants who have nearly identical qualifications and predicted grades.

What makes the difference in an application is individuality and the unique achievement that proves a candidate’s suitability.

It’s important to identify the achievements and experiences that make the subject of your reference special, but you’re only going to be interested in the things that are relevant.

Examples might be…

  • Completing independent projects, EPQs or MOOCs
  • Entering school competitions
  • Entering national or international competitions
  • Participating in summer camps, festivals or academic workshops
  • Membership of and participation in relevant clubs, groups or societies
  • Travel and field trips
  • Visits to exhibitions, displays, lecture opportunities or museums

Relevant Work Experience, Internships Or Volunteering

If the applicant has taken part in work experience opportunities or worked or volunteered with organisations that have relevance to the application, then you should certainly make room to include these.

This could be anything from a weekend job or helping with a family business to self-employment, positions with recognised firms or time spent supporting charities or community causes.

As with some of the other points on this list, the key thing to focus on in the reference is the value of these experiences. What the applicant learned and how they are going to be able to apply that learning in a higher education setting is far more important than simply listing the things they’ve done.

Showing how the applicant is growing and developing and giving the reader the chance to see how that person is likely to be able to contribute positively to an educational community is critical.

Transferable Skills

This is often the area that causes the most confusion when it comes to writing a reference.

Often, referees are encouraged to mention that an applicant loves football or judo, or that they are a keen pianist or love to take photos whilst travelling.

The problem is that the reader doesn’t really care, as that kind of information doesn’t actually mean anything.

As a referee, you need to be able to tease out the relevant transferable skills and place the focus on how an interest or activity has given the applicant a greater range of skills than someone else competing for the same place.

Transferable skills are those which can be applied regardless of specialism. They’re sometimes called ‘life skills’ or ‘soft skills’, and when they can be evidenced, they are highly valued by universities.

Examples might include…

Time Management  Wellbeing  Stamina  Positivity  
Organisation  BudgetingResilience  Teamwork  
Empathy  Independence  Confidence  Leadership  
Listening Skills  Motivation  Patience  Ambition  
Transferable Skills for University References

Special Circumstances Or Mitigation

You may be aware of circumstances that have adversely affected the applicant’s educational journey. If you have permission to share these, it can be very helpful for an admissions tutor to understand why results or progress may have been affected before making offers.

You may know of family difficulties, financial hardships, health concerns or special educational needs that have made a difference.

Explain the impact of these, how the applicant has actively sought to overcome them, and your opinion of how they will be able to manage in higher education as a result.

Universities aren’t looking for reasons not to make offers, so far from disadvantaging candidates, this approach can make all the difference if results are not what the applicant was expecting.

Equally, if education has been interrupted as a result of COVID-19 or other factors that are outside the control of the candidate, it’s wise to mention these as well.

Honest Endorsement Of The Applicant

Lastly, it’s wise to sum up your reference with a few words that endorse the application. Your perspective, your honest opinion and your recommendation will go a long way to convincing the reader about the suitability of the applicant.

If you write a compelling few sentences at the end (especially if you make reference to the applicant’s value to the university or college), it can leave a lasting positive image of the applicant’s potential.

A good example might be…

I hope that’s been a valuable insight into how to write a university reference and that you feel reassured about the task ahead of you.

If you’d like to download an example of a university reference, you can click here or hit the banner below.

Just remember that every reference must be unique to the applicant, and they are checked for plagiarism, so whilst it’s useful as a guide, please don’t copy the wording.

You’ll have your own points to make about each applicant, and your relationship with them is going to form the basis of everything you write.

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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