Tales from the Classroom: Writing references - a teacher's perspective

Last week our teacher blogger shared the other side of the UCAS application process, this week she talks about what it's like to write references for students.

Teachers want their pupils to realise their dreams 

The art of writing UCAS references is a fine one, and one which is in surprisingly short supply if you listen to our head teacher, who likes to suggest we are illiterate morons from time to time to keep us on our toes. My lengthy tenure as a sixth form tutor lies in my ability to turn a decent sentence. It’s a house rule in our school that ‘if you can’t say nothin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all’ and as far as I know, that’s pretty much the same everywhere. I am a mistress of faint praise. I’m an honest soul by nature, but also have a tendency to get very fond of my students and want to see them succeed in their aspirations. It’s a careful balancing act to be fair to both student and admissions tutor, and I’m particularly fond of phrases like ‘At her best, Y can….’ or ‘Z has now learned to…’ which enable an astute admissions tutor (and they all are - that’s how they got the gig) to read between the lines and make up his/her own mind.

All your teachers get a say.. 

All subject teachers get an input. Every subject is reported on, even the AS you drop. The length of the reference is the same as the personal statement, and it’s my job as form tutor to edit the disparate elements into one cohesive document, including a little about the fabulousness of the candidate as a top notch human being as well as a superb potential physicist or whatever. This can be a little exercise in the art of creative writing if your colleagues struggle with full sentences (not being stereotypical here, but I’m looking at you, sports scientists!) It can also be quite a challenge if your tutee has all the charm of a leper with anger management issues, but that is fortunately very rare in the school where I work. (And if you are reading this, you know who you are! I hope you are grateful for the lies I told on your behalf, but I doubt it.)

Extenuating circumstances go in the reference

The reference is also the place for extenuating circumstances. I can’t count the number of times I’ve posted in TSR forums that the personal statement is NOT the place for the sob story about your pet cockroach dying on the morning of your exam at the same time as you experienced a truly tragic broken fingernail. Your claims carry no weight - anyone could claim anything - and in any case, your PS should be a celebration of your suitability for the course and your all-round star quality as a future academic adornment to their university, not a whining and snivelling excuse for having cocked things up so far. I exaggerate to make a point, but the important thing is that your reference does all your special pleading for you, so you don’t have to. So don’t. Just don’t.

Attention to detail

When all that is done, the stage before sending the form off is checking it’s all been filled it correctly. Schools are responsible for the accuracy of the information sent under their name, or specifically, the head of the centre is. That means you can expect to have your grades, modules, exam boards and so on checked through with a fine toothed comb. The only thing I think we don’t check is this year’s new addition to the optional extra information questions. I am not personally going to ask you to prove your sexual orientation to me, and would really rather you didn’t offer to demonstrate it. There are boundaries and I’m just fine with them as they are, thanks.

If it’s all hunky-dory, then it’s all systems go and you can go ahead and click the magic button which sends your application off to start its journey towards fulfilling your dreams. Once you’ve paid your £23 of course. Magic isn't free. However, if we’ve both played our parts in this right, then there’s everything to hope for and it will have been money well spent. If you get it right, you’ll only have to do it once. Unlike me. Thirteen in the tutor group, each one with five applications, twenty six years in the job…. I hope I’ve got it right by now. Statistically, I think I must have, because my last form had only two rejections across the whole of their sixty five applications and, as they were from Oxford, it is par for the course. I’m sure they got mightily fed up with my nagging and pestering to do their PS over and over again, but it all paid off, so when your tutor is doing the same to you, hang in there. It’s ultimately worth it, I promise you.

Mrs Kinetta is a secondary school English teacher who writes for The Student Room under a pseudonym. 


More on TSR: 
How to get the best teacher reference
Post your question in our Applications and UCAS forum 
Writing an excellent personal statement in 10 easy steps 
Create your Personal Statement with our brilliant builder tool 
Everything you need to know about applying to uni