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10-point checklist for a supportive UCAS reference

The aim of a UCAS reference is to give an academic and pastoral context for the application. The reference compiler should support the application with relevant evidence, but without lapsing into perjury or hagiography.

UCAS gives advice about reference writing.

However, I think it helpful to start from “the bottom line”: universities are looking for bums that will stay on seats until the end of a 3-5 year degree programme. They therefore want evidence that the applicant:

  • is up to it academically
  • has interest in the subject(s) applied for
  • has the perseverance to succeed in independent study.

As the reference should complement the Personal Statement, it cannot be compiled until the Personal Statement is finished. In order to do full justice to the applicant, the compiler should receive comments from all those who have taught and had pastoral responsibility for the applicant since the start of Year 12. As a compiler, I then look for common threads in the comments and use the following 10-point checklist under the headings above.

Give relevant evidence of academic achievement

  1. Stress the applicant’s suitability for the subject(s) applied for at the start of the reference (e.g., the extent of the applicant’s research).
  2. Discuss the academic progression:
    1. GCSE to AS
    2. AS to A Level predicted grades
    3. Highlight what is positive (e.g., AS marks)
    4. Explain any “work in progress” (expected academic development) or pastoral issues, if predicted grades do not seem to match results.
    5. Multiple quotation of subject teachers can reinforce this.
  3. Specific examples of academic evidence can add conviction (eg talks given, a project undertaken)

Give relevant evidence of academic interest

  1. Is the applicant a responsive contributor in class?
  2. Is the applicant conscientious in private study?
  3. Is there evidence that distinguishes her/him in terms of independent research or the ability to make links between subjects and within a subject?
  4. Has the applicant got involved in relevant extra-curricular activities, been on external courses, done work shadowing/experience?

Give relevant evidence of perseverance

  1. Does he/she react positively to set-backs or learn from mistakes?
  2. Is there evidence from her/his academic or non-academic activities of long-term commitment and determination (“stickability”)?

Any Other Business

  1. Is there any other positive characteristic that distinguishes this applicant (eg empathy, good team player)?

A UCAS reference is not like a report to parents. Indeed, parents have no right of access to this reference. However, the applicant does have the right to apply to UCAS to see a copy. As a compiler, I read to applicants the reference that I have compiled and ask if they have a problem with anything (an applicant’s consent is needed, if health issues are mentioned).

As for predicted grades, I feel that applicants have a right to know these from the start of the UCAS season (1 September), with the proviso that these may be increased (or decreased) in the light of performance before application. This can be a valuable incentive for those who have felt disappointed with AS results.

There is not one correct way to compile a UCAS reference, but I do think that using the checklist above can help university admissions’ staff to get a good understanding of the individual whose application is before them and thus make a decision with greater confidence.

Posted by Philip Rogerson on Wed, 8 Feb 2017



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Philip Rogerson read Classics at Oxford. He has taught in a wide range of institutions: from UN (refugee camps in Jordan) to university (Oxford). Philip has been an HMC/ISI inspector of schools and has was Director of Higher Education and Careers at Sherborne School from 1997 to 2017.

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