5 Ways to Get Great University References

University quad setting

Image shows graduates throwing mortarboards into the air.
It’s natural to give more thought to some parts of your UCAS application than others.

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Obviously, you give the greatest amount of thought to your grades, perhaps followed by your personal statement and all the super-curricular activities you’ve talked about on it. It’s not strictly part of the UCAS process, but the next most worrying thing might be interviews, if you have to attend them for your course. The final part of your UCAS application is one that it is likely you will never even see, so it’s easy to forget about it: your reference.
Your reference is a little like a second personal statement, only it’s written for you, usually by a teacher. It’s the same length (4000 characters or 47 lines) as a personal statement, and it is written in a similarly positive tone; there isn’t supposed to be any negative content, though universities will be looking out for what might be implied. It’s an opportunity for teachers to say things about you that you can’t say about yourself, for instance if your grades don’t accurately reflect your full potential. It reads a little like a school report, for instance:
‘Sophie is a keen, enthusiastic student of History. Her essays are well-written and thoughtful, and invariably submitted punctually, as she has a great commitment to her studies. This is evidenced in the impressive improvement in her grades from GCSE to AS-level; she is now performing a level that reflects her true abilities. This has been achieved through solid hard work on Sophie’s part, and I feel she would be even more capable of exercising her remarkable work ethic in a university setting…’
But given you probably won’t ever see your reference, and students are strictly prohibited from writing their own references, or getting their friends or family to write them, what can you do to ensure you’ll receive the best reference you possibly can? Here are our suggestions.

1. Work hard

Image shows a notebook next to a laptop.
Even if your grades have been good up to this point, don’t become complacent.

Is this too obvious? Yet it’s the single best way of ensuring that you get the quality of reference that you want. If you’ve changed schools for the sixth form, do your best to make a great first impression and to sustain that impression during your time there. Think about what it is that you would ideally like your teachers to say about you – would you like to be described as diligent? Hard-working? Patient? The easiest way to get these traits into your reference is by living up to them as much as possible right from the get-go.
This is harder, of course, if you’re still in the same school as you’ve attended since you were 11 or 13. You can’t go back in time and stop your pre-teen self from misbehaving. But that’s not to say that you should give up. If your attitude hasn’t been great in the past, or if you’ve allowed yourself to slip into complacency, change that right away. You could even say to your teachers that you are consciously trying to turn over a new leaf and ask what they think you could do to improve.
If you’re happy enough with your school performance – if the kind of things that your teachers write about you in your annual report is what you want universities to hear – then that’s most of the battle already won. Just keep up the good work!

2. Tell your teachers what you’d like included

Image shows lots of pots of jam.
If you’re going to study something obscure like jam-making, your teachers might need more guidance from you.

Let’s say you’ve applied for a small course at a particularly specialised university, and they pride themselves on an informal, collaborative learning environment. In the subject you’re applying for, you did a coursework project that you feel reflects these skills perfectly – and you got top marks. Under these circumstances, it would be perfectly appropriate to draw your teacher’s attention to the particular requirements of the university you’re applying to, and ask them to mention the project in their reference.
Obviously, you need to do so politely (now would be a bad time to irritate your teacher with rude behaviour). Ideally, write down what you’d like them to include, in order to make it easy for them without going so far as to write the reference for them. And it’s important to remember that you should only do this if it’s appropriate. If you didn’t do so well on the project, you shouldn’t ask. If you don’t have evidence you point to (so you just want your teacher to say you’re good at collaborative learning without having anything to back it up), you shouldn’t ask. If the requirements of the universities you’re applying for are well-known or obvious (for instance, you can assume your teacher knows what’s required of references for prospective students of medicine), you shouldn’t ask.
The exception to this is if your school gives you an opportunity to speak to someone, or to write down anything you might like included in their reference – so if it’s at their instigation, not yours. Under these circumstances, you should write down anything you think you might want included, and they can choose whether to take or leave it.
An additional complication to this is if you’ve underperformed, but there were extenuating circumstances – for instance, if you suffered a bereavement while you were taking your AS-level exams. If your school was aware of this at the time, they will almost certainly mention it in your statement without any reminders, though a polite message might not hurt at all same. If they weren’t aware of it, it’s possibly too late, but you can always ask and see if they’ll mention it for you.

3. Consider the strengths of your school

Image shows a small village school.
Small schools might have less experience in providing really good references.

If you attend a large school, where the majority of students go to university, and students get into the type and calibre of university that you’re applying to every year, then you can be confident that your reference is safe in their hands. Attempting to provide information outside of the bounds of what we covered in point 2 probably won’t be particularly welcome, and you should just let them get on with their work.
However, it might be the case that your school isn’t in the UK, and your teachers don’t have much experience with writing references for UCAS. It may be that you’re going to a type of university to which your school doesn’t send many people (like Oxford and Cambridge, or an art school), or it may simply be that not many people from your school go on to study at university full stop. If so, your teachers might welcome a link to advice like this or this. Be aware that lots of schools will face unwelcome pushiness from parents and students, and make sure that any assistance you offer is appropriate.
If you are at a small school that doesn’t send many students to the kind of university you’re interested in, you might at this stage be wondering if it’s worth moving schools to somewhere larger with more experienced staff. But this shouldn’t concern you too much. Just as you might allow for the marketing materials of a smaller, less well-funded university not to be as good as larger, better-funded university, so too will universities take your school into account. If you come from a school from which they have never had any applicants before, they will make allowances (and this goes for the whole of your application, not just your personal statement). And if you attend a fantastic school with decades or centuries of experience of university admissions, then they will naturally expect your references to be better written than those of other applicants.

4. Demonstrate your maturity

Image shows students working alone in a university library.
Can other people easily imagine you succeeding at university?

Much of this article has used subjective terms about your actions, such as judging what is ‘appropriate’, which may be frustrating if you’d rather have hard-and-fast rules to abide by. But a sizeable part of preparing to go to university is preparing for adult life, where you will have to make this kind of decision for yourself.
On a related note, one way you can get better references is to demonstrate your maturity about the process of applying to university and your school life in general. When your teachers give you a reference for university study, they will be imagining you as a university student, living an independent, adult life; you don’t want them thinking that you are intelligent, talented and hard-working, but that it’s impossible to imagine you surviving without your parents to wash your clothes. So, when you communicate with your teachers about your references, it should be you doing the communicating, not your parents on your behalf. If your attitude to school has been to date that you mess around, but you always get your work done and your exams don’t suffer for it – it’s time to fix that. Enable your teachers to think of you as a young adult, not as a teenager, and that will show through in the reference they give you.
It’s tempting in the last couple of years of school to take advantage of the fact that your teachers know you well and are perhaps more prepared to let you mess around a little as long as you get your work done. But when you go to university, you will have even less supervision. If you skip a tutorial, or mess around for a whole lecture, the lecturer might not even bother to tell you off; they might just take 5 marks off your final score for that course. By monitoring your own behaviour and acting like you’re ready to be treated as an adult in your education, you can demonstrate to teachers that you’re ready for university life.

5. Give your school clear, straightforward information

Image shows the city of Durham.
Try not to be needlessly indecisive about your choice of university.

Depending on your school’s approach to UCAS applications, they might want to talk to you about why you’ve chosen to study the subject you’re applying for, what motivated you to pick the universities that you did, and what your hopes are for the future. All these things can feed into the content of your references.
Given that, don’t infuriate your teachers at this point with pointless uncertainty. If you’ve told them with confidence that you’re planning on studying English, and you favour campus universities, don’t come back a fortnight later and inform them that actually you’re applying to study History at Durham, Cambridge, and King’s College, London. We know – and your teachers know – that these are big life decisions to make. We’ve provided a lot of advice in the past about how to choose the right university for you because it’s such a difficult thing. But don’t put your teacher in a position where they’ve spent hours writing a fantastic reference about how you’re an ideal medical student and will make a great doctor someday, only to have you inform them that you’ve decided to study Law; it means that the second reference they produce has a much lower likelihood of being any good.
Even if you haven’t quite decided on every part of your application, do your best to provide your teachers, when asked, with all the information that you have decided on. If there’s something that might change, tell them so. If you can be clear and purposeful, that makes it easier for your teachers to convey the message that you want in their references for you.
Ultimately, you shouldn’t worry too much about your references. Most of what helps give you great references is the kind of thing that you should be doing anyway: working hard, thinking clearly about what you want from your future, and treating your teachers with courtesy and respect. You can request to see your references, but most people prefer not to, as there’s very little you can do to change their content once they’ve been written and submitted. And finally, remember that whatever happens, your teachers cannot write anything negative about you; if they do, that will reflect more on them, in failing to respect the guidelines for referees, than it will do on you.

Image credits: banner; working hard; jam; small school; university library; Durham.