How to write a UCAS reference letter for application

UCAS Reference Letter: Ultimate Writing Guide

The UCAS Reference letter is the last part of a UK university application and can make all the difference. To apply to a university course in the UK you need to submit a UCAS application, and the reference letter is an essential part. You only need one reference, hence the importance of choosing your referent carefully

Find out who has the right to write a UCAS reference letter to support your university application and all our tips for obtaining a reference that will convince admissions you are the right choice.

​​What is a UCAS Reference?

UCAS applications require references, where someone writes about your suitability for study on your behalf. UCAS references are designed to provide universities and colleges with an informed and academic assessment of an applicant’s suitability for further studies. 

Keep in mind this is the only part of the UCAS application not written by the applicant. 

Who can write a UCAS reference?

Who can write a reference letter for you? The referee is someone who can describe your academic skills. Usually, this is a teacher. However, it can be any other person who knows you and who can describe your qualities and your ability to follow the chosen course, such as an employer or a training supervisor for example.

It’s important to know that family members, friends and partners cannot be referees, otherwise, your application to UCAS will be cancelled.

Choose someone who knows you well

The easiest way is to ask a teacher who knows you well to be your mentor. You can also contact a professor who teaches a discipline that you are going to study, to show a strong link with your choice of orientation. In any case, choose someone who will speak positively about you and be enthusiastic about you.

Ask your teacher on time

Writing a reference does not happen in an hour. To be certain of respecting the application deadlines, do not hesitate to contact your referent early enough. The more you anticipate, the more time you will have to discuss with him the elements that could be useful to him.

Discuss with your referent

To make it easier for them and to make sure they don’t miss anything, discuss your project and the reasons why you are applying to the university with your referent. This will make it easier for them to identify your goals and motivation. 

Tell him about your interests, extracurricular activities and professional experiences, if they relate to the chosen course. The referent should include them in his reference letter.

The referent must express an opinion on the relevance of your orientation and the courses. So mention everything you think is useful to help him understand your aspirations. In a word: cooperate!

Recommended UCAS guides:

How long should a UCAS reference be?

There is no word limit. There is a limit for UCAS reference of 4000 characters or 47 lines of text (including spaces and blank lines). If you are an international student make sure you submit a reference letter in English. 

UCAS Reference Deadlines

You must submit your UCAS reference letter by the course deadline. For Oxbridge and Medicine applicants this is 15th October at 18:00 UK time. All other applicants can submit by 31st January at 18:00 UK time.

Reference process explained

Here is the entire process of UCAS reference submission for better understanding. 

Entire process of UCAS reference submission
UCAS Reference process

How do universities use references?

Most UK universities choose applicants based on their UCAS applications rather than interviewing them. UCAS reference letters provide important context for assessing students’ suitability for degree-level study.

We treat our admissions decisions extremely thoroughly at Bath and consider all aspects of each UCAS application in detail, and reviewing the academic reference is an important part of this holistic process.

Admissions Selector, the University of Bath 

What makes a good UCAS reference?

  • Discusses strengths and skills
  • Contextualises performance and is honest
  • Evaluates motivation
  • Evaluates academic potential and provide examples
  • Is consistent or justifies any discrepancies
  • Is detailed and highly specific

What makes a weak reference?

  • Neutral or bland
  • Discusses weaknesses without justification
  • This shows the referee has had little contact with the student
  • Not based on academic or applied experiences
  • Contains spelling or grammar errors
  • Does not describe the context of achievement

What should the UCAS Reference letter include?

The Reference letter must contain numerous and precise information. The referent will have to provide real work to write it.

Your skills, qualifications and abilities

Your referent will have to describe your qualities, your accomplishments during your school career and your learning abilities. If your referent is not aware of your academic skills, he will then have to highlight your personal qualities, your behaviour and your ethics.

In both cases, the referent will have to value the relevance of the course you have chosen to follow and your ability to succeed in this way.

Your experiences and your professional project

To be able to establish your ability to pursue the desired studies, the referent must also mention your professional experience. He will be able to discuss your goals and your professional aspirations to demonstrate the consistency of your choices.

Your possible difficulties

The referent may also be required to specify certain difficulties that you may or may have encountered during your course. If special circumstances surround your application and affect you, it may be necessary to mention it, such as a complicated family or financial situation.

If you have health problems, your referent can only mention them with your agreement.

A prediction of your results

At the time of submitting your application, likely, you do not yet have your Baccalaureate results. This is quite normal since, unless you apply for Clearing, the closing dates are set for October 15 and January 31 (find out the deadlines). If you have chosen an academic referent, he will have to list the marks he expects you to obtain in the Baccalaureate. These predictions will help universities make their choice and whether or not to consider your application.

UCAS Reference Structure

School or college information (can include a hyperlink to the school website)10%
Subject-specific information and aptitude for degree:
– Focus on subject choice
– Contextual achievement
– Areas of particular strength
Any mitigating or extenuating circumstances (including nature and length of impact)
Concluding statement
Follow Reference structure

UCAS Reference Template

Before you begin writing make sure you have in mind a reference template you can follow. The best UCAS reference template you can follow is based on a question you can ask a student or yourself as a teacher about a student. 

  1. Student’s attitude overall and learning personality
    • Attitude
    • Motivation
    • Commitment to Learning
  2. Why do you believe the student has the potential to progress to HE/succeed on this particular course?
    • Significant growth or progress that the student has shown during the course
    • Personal milestones e.g. confidence, new skills
    • How the student managed the progression to FE/Level 3
    • Professional awareness
  3. What technical skills relating to the chosen subject do students have
  4. What learning skills students have
    • Time Management
    • Deadlines
    • Research
    • Multitasking 
    • Ideas Generation
    • Development
    • Refinement
  5. Explain Extracurricular activities, work experience, and hobbies
  6. Contextual information about the student or the institution
  7. Any other information you think it’s important for the university 

How to Write a UCAS Reference

Before writing a UCAS reference letter, you should keep a few good practices in mind. By doing this, you will be able to plan your time and ensure that you have enough information to write an excellent reference letter for every student you teach. Sometimes writing a UCAS reference for a mature student can be a difficult task. Make sure to follow all guidelines. 

Read carefully the suggestions on how to write a reference for UCAS.

If possible, chat with your students

Writing reference contributions for lots of students may not be possible! The best way to tailor each reference is to speak to each student individually if the number of students is manageable. Depending on the volume of references you’re writing, you may have to prioritise speaking with some students, but not all. Focus on students who plan to study your subject (or a related one) at university. In their cases, your reference contribution will be of the greatest importance, so make sure you understand why they are applying to that subject.

Read the student’s personal statement

Teachers scratch their heads when trying to remember a reference specific to a student, or with evidence, but cannot recall. You’ll waste time, and the student may receive a less impactful reference – both disasters! Reviewing what the student says about themselves in a personal statement for UCAS can assist you in writing and ensure you don’t just repeat the information.

Show, don’t tell

A reference is a lot more compelling if there are examples to back up your adjectives. Rather than saying a student is proactive, describe a situation in which they were proactive that you found impressive. For every statement you make about a student, think about a specific example you can point to that illustrates that characteristic, attribute or behaviour.

Don’t copy-paste

It’s tempting, we know, but you shouldn’t use the same language as every student. The use of cut-and-paste paragraphs stands out as a sore thumb among similar paragraphs. You’d notice if your students copied and pasted in their essays!

Describe the potential you see

The potential is a key criterion admissions officers will be looking for. Talk about how you see the student thriving in a university setting, and why you think they’re equipped for that environment and programme of study.

Be honest

Your integrity as a teacher means you will not be able to say that someone is an attentive and talented student if they are constantly cutting your class and being rude.

UCAS Reference Example

This UCAS reference example can be used as inspiration for teachers, mature students, employers, and anyone who will write it. 

Stephen is an excellent historian with a lively interest in the subject. He is highly engaged in lessons and often asks searching questions which demonstrate the breadth and depth of his historical knowledge. Stephen particularly enjoys anthropological and ancient history and therefore found our study of the ancient civilizations and the rise and fall of ancient empires to be of particular interest. His History Personal Investigation will focus on comparing the Minoan and Egyptian empires. Stephen’s performance has been strong and consistent throughout Year 12, both in terms of class and group discussions, and exam assessments. His written work demonstrates strong historical explanation skills, and his essays are always rich with analysis and clear arguments from start to finish. He is happy to engage with ‘real’ historians’ writings rather than rely on a textbook, such as Giorgos Rethemiotakis’s on the Minoan empire. He works independently, and hard and is always eager to improve, seeking one-to-one feedback on his written work. I am confident that he is equipped with all the skills required to thrive in an undergraduate environment.

UCAS reference example for teachers

Richard has a solid understanding of organic chemistry. The fact that he can apply priority rules to both E/Z and optical isomerism demonstrates her strong analytical skills, as well as his ability to operate with complex multistep thinking. Furthermore, he is precise and careful in his mole calculations, and he fully understands the importance of being detail-oriented. He is a superb practical chemist, able to produce pure products in quick-fit syntheses with care and accuracy. Learning concepts in class and applying them to new situations is something Richard does very quickly. His strengths lie in the more mathematical aspects of the course, including Hess Cycles and Equilibria Constants. His ability to apply this knowledge to models to solve real-life problems is evident.

Can I read the reference written by my teacher?

The reference letter is the last step in your UCAS application. Once you have paid the application fee, only this part remains to be completed. You will only have to fill in the name and contact of your referent in the dedicated section. The teacher will then receive the instructions from UCAS directly by email. He can then follow the writing and sending instructions.

Once the reference is completed, your application will be submitted to the universities. You will not be able to access or read the reference letters.


Do you need a reference for UCAS?

Yes. The UCAS Undergraduate application requires only one reference.

Can I send my UCAS application without a reference?

It’s not recommended. However, it is possible to not include a reference, but only if all your chosen universities and colleges agree.