How to Secure Strong References for Your UCAS Applications

13 Jun, 2024 | Blog Articles, Get the Edge

References are a crucial component of your UCAS application, offering a holistic view of your potential as an applicant. 

Your application will ask for references who can testify to your potential as a student and what you have to offer the university or college community. They’re an important way of showcasing your character, work ethic and course suitability beyond your academic achievements.

Why Are UCAS References Important?

A strong reference can really boost your application and positively influence the admissions decision-making process. It offers the admissions team a more nuanced understanding of an applicant, providing information that can’t be conveyed through predicted grades alone.

A good reference contributes to creating a whole-person picture, allowing the admissions team to evaluate the applicant beyond their grades and test scores, and account for the unique qualities and experiences each student has to offer as an individual.

What Do Admissions Teams Look for in UCAS References? 

As with all components of UCAS applications, admissions teams are looking for particular things in a UCAS reference. If you manage to tick these boxes, you’ll really elevate your chances of making final selections. 

Here are some aspects to think about when considering your reference:

I. Insightful academic assessment

Admissions teams want to know what you’re like as a student beyond your raw grades. They look for references that provide insights into your mastery of topics relevant to the chosen course. In particular, they’re looking for evidence that you’re able to handle challenging academic content: i.e. a reference that discusses your engagement with challenging classwork and additional materials. 

The most helpful references enable admissions teams to compare the applicant’s academic performance with that of their peers, providing important context to consider when choosing the strongest candidates.

II. Personal attributes and character assessment

References are an important way for the admissions teams to get to know you. A strong reference should convey your genuine enthusiasm for your chosen course and subject, and evidence your motivation. 

Admissions teams look for references that discuss aspects of your character that will make you a strong student and a positive contribution to the university community. This could include traits like resilience, curiosity or a positive attitude. 

Similarly, mentioning instances of leadership or teamwork helps to demonstrate your interpersonal skills, while examples of independent work or creative output demonstrates your academic maturity and innovation. 

The UCAS reference is a really useful place for plugging in extra information that you didn’t have space to fit in your personal statement, so bear that in mind when you’re thinking about what you’d like your reference to include.

An Oxford Scholastica student smiling

III. Extracurricular engagement and impact

References serve as a chance to show admissions teams how your extracurricular activities link to your suitability for the course. References should outline your initiative in extracurriculars, as well as the impact you’ve made in the community or subject area. This helps to demonstrate your natural drive and independence, and is a great way of showing your commitment. For example, extracurriculars like an Oxford Scholastica Academy summer course are a great way of showing academic engagement, the pursuit of new skills, and hands-on experience in vocational areas. 

Skills developed in your extracurricular activities are also transferable to your academics. For example, you might enjoy baking for friends and family, but it could also further your understanding and enjoyment of chemistry! Similarly, visiting art galleries and museum collections as a way to relax or explore a new country might underpin your interest in history. 

Your reference should demonstrate how your enjoyment of your area of study overflows into your life and interactions in both formal and informal settings.

How to Secure Strong UCAS References

Now that you understand what you need from a UCAS reference, the next step is to work out who to ask.

Who to ask 

Referees should be chosen based on their ability to speak to different aspects of the applicant. The most obvious, and usually best, choices are teachers, employers or mentors who can provide diverse insights on a candidate’s personal and professional qualities.

References need to collectively present a well-rounded image. You might choose a teacher who can speak for your work ethic and academic achievements, as well as put your grades into context. To complement that, you might then choose someone else who can represent the skills and attributes you’ve demonstrated in extracurricular activities, linking these to your chosen course.

When to ask

The optimal timing for requesting references is in alignment with the UCAS application deadlines. Check when your application is due and give a reasonable gap of time for your reference writer to familiarise themselves with your application and write something that really reflects your strengths and suitability for your chosen course. 

With this in mind, when you approach a potential referee, it’s important to give them plenty of time; avoiding last-minute requests allows for thoughtful recommendations. Considering the availability and workload of your referee will also start the process on a positive note – and will likely be reflected in your reference.

How to approach potential referees

Approaching someone for a reference can be very daunting. The most important thing is to ask politely. Framing your request in a way that will allow them to turn it down without any awkwardness is a good place to start, with phrasing like:

‘Would you be comfortable serving as a reference on my UCAS application?’


‘Would you have time in the coming weeks to serve as a reference on my UCAS application?’

Finally, always finish by expressing gratitude for the time and effort your referee will be putting in on your behalf. Following these components, you can request a reference in a way that shows you to be a polite, conscientious and highly-motivated candidate that your referee will be proud to support.  

Providing information

Once you’ve secured your referees, you need to make sure they’re equipped with all the information needed to write the best reference possible. Preparing a comprehensive package including CVs, personal statements and specific points to address will help your reference tailor their writing to your needs. 

It’s important to provide clear information on the courses and universities you’re applying to so your referee can highlight anything that is particularly relevant or requested by individual courses or institutions. It might help to include suggestions to specific elements that line up with your academic or extracurricular achievements so that they know where to place particular emphasis.

Group of Oxford Scholastica Computer Science students celebrating their graduation!

Following up

Your referees are busy people, so it’s important to make timely follow-ups to ensure that references are submitted before deadlines. A follow-up email should express gratitude, acknowledge any imposition, and make a clear reminder of the deadline details. It might look something like this: 

I hope this finds you well. Thank you again for agreeing to serve as a reference for my UCAS application; I greatly appreciate your time and support with this process. I thought I’d get in touch as we approach the deadline to make sure that you have all the information you need from me, and that you will be ready to submit it for the deadline of Friday 15th October (next Friday). Please do get in touch if there are any issues or if you have any questions, and my thanks again for your time and effort.

Once your referee has submitted your reference, make sure to get in touch once more to acknowledge their efforts and to express your gratitude. Not only is this the polite and professional thing to do, it will also stand you in good stead if anyone needs to get in touch with them to clarify anything on your behalf.

Ultimately, while the process of securing UCAS references might feel daunting, following these steps will help you through it and ensure that you have the strongest application possible. 

If you think carefully about what your UCAS references need to include and who is best-placed to present that information, and communicate in a polite and professional manner at each stage, you can be confident that you’ll have the best references to complement the rest of your application and help achieve your goals.


By Alice Spiers

Alice is an historian at St Anne’s College, Oxford, where she teaches undergraduate history (predominantly medieval history and historiographical theory). She is also a freelance writer and editor, and a research assistant at the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Studies.
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