Getting a good reference is crucial to making your application a successful one.Understanding what universities want to see in a reference, and how schools and colleges put them together, can help you to help yourself when it comes to getting the place that you want.
Here's some great advice from a teacher who has written hundreds of references.
What do universities want to see in a reference?
It takes all your subjects in to account
Universities will expect to see information in the reference about how you have performed in all your subjects, not just the one you might be applying to study at university. They are pretty specific in their instructions to schools and colleges about the need to see how a student has fared in acquiring a range of academic skills, how the student works under pressure, how effectively the student has communicated, how deep their understanding of the subject has been, and how well they respond to teaching. Obviously, the skills you need to have acquired will be different for all the subjects you have studied - art has a very different set of techniques to physics, for example - and it’s for this reason that most references are built up of an amalgamation of input from most of your teachers. Whilst there will be someone who has the job of synthesising the bits of information into one coherent whole, no single teacher has the knowledge needed to talk about all subjects in sufficient depth for their input to be really useful as a university reference on its own.
This fact is of especial importance to remember if you are a mature student or an international applicant. Whilst it is only natural to choose a person to write the reference who is trusted and known to be favourably disposed towards you, that person really must consult other people who are able to comment on your academic performance in detail. This can be especially difficult for mature students who have been out of an academic environment for a long time. Universities will usually expect to see evidence of recent study, so a tutor on an Access course, for example, would be the one to turn to, but if the applicant is not currently in education, a employer might be the only option. It’s a good idea in this situation to contact the universities you are applying for in advance and ask them who they would be willing to accept the reference from. When you have decided on who it is to be, make sure that they get this link: How To Write A Reference. If they don’t follow the instructions, then their input is more likely to do you harm than good, so impress on them the importance of this.
They want to know about you, not just your grades
The reference needs to deal with not only your academic ability but also your personality. Most universities are in the luxury position of having to choose between applicants, so they are going to prefer those applicants who are able to turn up, hand work in, contribute to the seminars and tutorials in a positive manner, and generally be pleasant and positive people to work with. It is not usually the habit of schools and colleges to write damning references, but universities are adept at reading between the lines and what is NOT said can be as important as what IS said, so it’s a good idea to negotiate a positive comment on your reliability, positivity and amenability to student life if you can.
Some references have special requirements.
Oxbridge, medical, dental and veterinary applications have particular characteristics and are often dealt with by specialist tutors at schools and colleges. If you are applying for any of these, make sure your referee is aware of it from the very beginning. Your deadline is so much earlier than for other courses that you cannot afford to waste any time over them, so talk early and talk often to your referee.
It has to be truthful
The reference is the same length as your personal statement and is likely to have been put together by your form tutor or whatever the equivalent position is at your school, but it will go out under the name of the head of your establishment and they are legally obliged to make it a truthful document. The school or college is certifying that the grades your have declared in your application are accurate. Your predicted grades will be put into the reference and you may have had some negotiation about these at some point in the process. However, be aware that a school’s reputation for reliability in their grade predictions is very important in getting an offer, so don’t expect them to lie for you, because to do so is to risk the future of all the other applicants from your school. However, a good reference will speak as positively as it can for you and can be the difference between getting a place and getting a rejection.
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So, how can you help your referee to help you?
Discuss your application with them from the earliest opportunity. Don’t spring it on them as a surprise on January 14th and expect to them to meet the deadline.
1) Make sure the referee knows what you are applying for, so that weighting can be given to the most appropriate factors.
2) If your referee is not used to the UCAS system, make sure they receive and follow UCAS’s guidance on what to put in a reference.
3) If you have any personal circumstances you wish a university to take account of, you must discuss their nature and the form of words you wish your referee to use. Referees are not mind-readers and need to know what you wish to be made public and what you wish to keep private. Keep them informed throughout.
4) If you have exam scores you want to be known to universities, the reference is the best place for them. On the rest of the UCAS form, the rule about modular scores or UMS is to put them all in or none in, since being selective only makes it look as if you have something to conceal. If you have full marks in one unit, for example, putting it in the reference makes it known without raising suspicions about the others, since your referee will give it the appropriate spotlight.
5) The reference can be the place for extra-curricular achievements there was no appropriate space for in the personal statement, so let your referee know about them.
6) Say thank you. Writing a good reference is an art, and it is time-consuming, particularly if a referee is having to write many of them. A good referee will go the extra mile to help you win that place you want. Be grateful, and make a good impression on them. Would you want to help someone who was rude, unpleasant and took you for granted? Of course not. Remember that a referee also is required to comment on your personality. Don’t let this come back to bite you!
If you take the time to discuss your needs with your referee, you will have done the best you can to make this part of your application as helpful as it can be. Make the most of the opportunity to have some one else sell your virtues without feeling shy! Good luck!