How To Write An Oxbridge Reference: A Teacher’s Guide

Writing Academic References is the part of the application process that is most dependent on you, the teacher. However, just as Oxbridge applicants are expected to meet Oxbridge standards within their application, you too must write a reference that reflects your student as a capable candidate for their course. This guide will help you create the perfect academic reference for your prospective Oxbridge students.

19th April 2024

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Your role as a teacher is to support your Oxbridge applicants through their application journey, but the work is theirs to complete all in all. However, the UCAS Teachers (or Academic) Reference is solely the responsibility of you or the staff member in charge of writing references.

This is the part of their application that your students depend on you the most for, so it’s your duty to ensure they can submit a reference that reflects how deserving they are of their place on their chosen course. You most likely have had plenty of experience providing these UCAS references for multiple cohorts, so you are most likely able to write a high-quality reference. 

However, whether you are an academic reference expert or will be writing one for the first time soon, you will need to adapt and improve when writing references for Oxbridge applicants. As with every other part of the application process, Oxbridge applicants need an exceptional reference showing the admissions tutors that they have what it takes to study at Oxford or Cambridge. 

So that is what you will be learning in this guide. We will discuss everything you need to know to provide the best possible references for your students, including referencing basics, templates and an overview of how references will be changing in the coming years. Let’s get started:

What is a UCAS Reference?

Most of you reading will already know this but it is worth clarifying what a UCAS reference actually is before continuing. 

A UCAS reference is a written statement provided by a teacher, tutor, or another relevant individual who can assess an applicant’s academic performance, personal qualities, and suitability for the chosen course. The reference is included as part of each student’s UCAS application and plays a crucial role in supporting the applicant’s candidacy by providing additional information and insight to universities or colleges during the admissions process.

UCAS references be a maximum of 4,000 characters and are expected to cover certain topics that are detailed in the reference guidelines provided by UCAS. They will need to be written and submitted online via the UCAS website, although it is recommended that you initially write on proper word-processing software to make the process easier. 

Why Are UCAS References Important?

UCAS references are important because they provide universities and colleges with valuable insights into an applicant’s academic abilities, personal qualities, and potential for success in their chosen course. Here are a few reasons why UCAS references are significant to the application process:

Academic Assessment: References allow educators to provide an objective evaluation of an applicant’s academic performance, including their achievements, skills, and potential for further development. This assessment helps universities assess an applicant’s suitability for their desired course.

Supporting Information: References provide additional information that goes beyond the applicant’s personal statement. They can shed light on a student’s work ethic, commitment, and ability to overcome challenges, providing a more comprehensive view of their capabilities.

Verification of Claims: References help verify the accuracy of an applicant’s self-reported achievements and qualifications. They allow universities to confirm the applicant’s academic record, extracurricular involvement, and any other relevant information presented in the application.

Comparative Evaluation: References allow universities to compare applicants from different schools or educational backgrounds. They provide context and enable admissions officers to gauge an applicant’s performance relative to their peers.

Decision-Making Tool: UCAS references contribute to the overall assessment of an applicant’s suitability for a course. Admissions officers consider references alongside academic qualifications, personal statements, and other application materials to make informed decisions.

Essentially, it is extremely helpful for universities to get a second perspective of their applicants when shortlisting and making final decisions. Who better to provide a relevant, trustworthy and objective analysis than you, their teachers?

Who Writes the UCAS References?

You may be unsure as to who would be the best member of your faculty to write each student’s UCAS reference. The truth is that there is no one right answer as it depends on the student’s specific needs. Here are the primary staff members that will be responsible for writing references: 

Subject Teachers/Department Heads

If an applicant is applying for a subject that emphasises subject knowledge and academic performance (such as a science course) then the reference may be best written by someone who knows that subject, and the student’s capabilities in it very well.

While a department head will have a broader view of the applicant’s abilities in comparison to the rest of the department, the student’s subject teacher may be able to offer a more detailed and personal analysis that could be more valuable to the universities. Ideally, both staff members would have input in writing this reference, providing an in-depth and focused piece of writing.  

Sixth Form Heads/Class Tutors

Heads of Sixth Form (or equivalent) and general class tutors may not have a great understanding of a student’s performance in a specific subject, but they will be able to provide a broader view of the applicant’s character and academic abilities. 

The staff members will have seen the student work in various contexts that test their abilities, meaning they will be able to better discuss their overall work ethic and skills. They will also have a better understanding of the student’s extra-curricular activities, a factor that is especially important to Oxbridge applications. 

On top of all this, these staff members will still be able to provide an analysis of an applicant’s subject-specific abilities, either through a review of their grades and submitted work or by collaborating with their subject teacher/department head. 

School Counselors

For applicants who may face specific extenuating circumstances that need to be addressed, the school’s counsellor may be the most knowledgeable and qualified to write the reference. They will still need to gather information from the other members of the faculty regarding academics and work ethic, but being able to clearly and sensitively explain specific issues will be invaluable to the candidate and offer them a better chance of success.

Ideally, a student’s reference would have input from any and all staff members that can provide useful and positive content. However, with the fairly short character limit and potential lack of time from staff members, ensuring that the most qualified individual leads the writing process is important to ensure the reference is as relevant and convincing as possible. 

With all that being said though, we now need to discuss some major changes that will impact how you write and send your UCAS references.

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Changes to UCAS References in 2023

For many years, the UCAS Reference has been delivered via a single, free-form written document, much like the Personal Statement. However, as you likely already know, the referencing process will be changing for every applicant in 2023.

Along with a slew of other changes and additions to the UCAS format from 2023 to 2024, it was announced that UCAS references would be changing to a more linear, question-based format. Instead of the free-text format, the referee will instead need to answer the following question on the online UCAS application form:

  1. Enter a general statement about your school/college/centre

2. If applicable, enter any information about extenuating circumstances which may have impacted the applicant’s education and achievement. 

3. Outline any other supportive information specific to the applicant and relevant to the course (s) applied for that you think the universities/colleges should be aware of. 

One of the first things to note here is the importance of applicant characteristics, skills, achievements and activities seems to have been heavily downgraded by being placed as the 3rd question. Although not immediately clear what this question is actually asking, this section is intended to be where the referee discusses the qualities of their applicant, the section that makes up a large portion of current references. 

UCAS have released a selection of example answers to these questions, demonstrating that referees are encouraged to be more concise with their writing here. This may be an issue for some teachers who were hoping to write a more in-depth reference for their applicants. However, this does still give you a decent chance to provide the most important discussion points. Also, this short form factor will save you a fair amount of time and effort that would have gone into writing a lengthy text and perfecting your writing style. 

The first two questions function fairly identically to how these topics are discussed now, so the primary change will be in how your approach your discussion of the student’s qualities. You can learn more about the changes that are being made by UCAS in our Personal Statement Changes Guide.

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What To Include in an Oxbridge Reference

Before we start, it is worth clarifying that the advice given here is not exclusive to Oxbridge applicants. In fact, we would recommend that you put the same level of care and attention to all of your applicants where possible. However, with how competitive Oxford and Cambridge are as universities, it is vital that your UCAS reference reaches the highest standards just as the rest of the application should do. 

Also, the material we will discuss here will be in relation to UCAS references in their current format. Later in this guide, we will discuss the upcoming changes to the UCAS reference format and how you can adapt your writing style to it. But for now, let’s see what you need to put into your students’ references. 

Essential Content for UCAS References

There is content that must be included in every UCAS reference in order for it to present relevant and useful information about the applicant. When writing your reference, you will need to discuss the following elements: 

Information about Yourself and Your School

UCAS requests that all references contain details about the applicant’s school, including  The idea behind this is to provide authority to the reference by providing evidence of the writer’s status. As well as this, proving that the school in question performs well and has a great standard of teaching can help improve the student’s chances of success.  

Be careful not to take up too much space on this topic, nor should you be overly congratulatory of yourself or the school, instead focusing on the objective facts that can add credibility to your reference and teaching. 

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General Skills and Qualities

You will need to provide a general overview of what the applicant is capable of and what characteristics they demonstrate that would make them a good match for Oxbridge. While these comments should be somewhat relevant to their academics, these comments will generally be a bit generic. However, it is still important to speak about your student in a context outside of their chosen subject. 

Subject-specific Information

This is your chance to discuss the applicant in the context of their chosen subject. This is less about listing the various specific skills they have developed through their education and more so about why they are suitable for the course. 

This discussion should tie back to their general skills, showing how the applicant’s positive characteristics have helped them develop in their subject to the point that they will be able to excel at Oxford or Cambridge. 

Also tying into the student’s subject, you should also take time to discuss the applicant’s chosen career path and how it will be possible for them to succeed in it. Again, this links back to their general skills and character but it is also important to show that the student has a clear and realistic career path in place. Admissions tutors want to take on students with prospects and the potential to succeed, and having a plan for the future is the first piece of evidence that they will be able to achieve their goals. 

Achievements, Work Experience and Extra-curricular Activities

You should discuss at least one specific event or task they have completed to provide more tangible evidence as to why the applicant is a good choice for the course. There are a couple of key things to consider when choosing what to write about here: 

  • Did your student discuss this experience in their Personal Statement?
  • Is this experience impressive, unique and relevant to the subject?

While you may think it is a bad idea to repeat what your student has already written, it is actually very that important that what you write coincides with their Personal Statement. You don’t need to discuss everything they cover in their statement, but providing your view of their biggest accomplishments will not only validate their own claims but also add a new perspective that is more relatable to the admissions tutor. 

As for the second point, all of that is fairly self-explanatory. However, ensure that everything you write is truthful and does not exaggerate the student’s achievements any more than their own writing, or else you risk appearing dishonest. 

Preparedness for Study

Separate from their extra-curricular activities, you could also discuss how they have been preparing for their application and studies. This will include activities such as wider reading, research projects and any other additional tasks they may have taken on within their subject.

This topic may somewhat overlap with their extra-curricular activities, but the primary focus of this topic is to discuss how they are preparing themselves for the academic side of things specifically. Due to Oxford and Cambridge’s teaching style, which rewards independent learning and exploration, admissions tutors are going to want to see signs of these behaviours in applicants early on.  

Grades and Academic Performance

As the applicant’s teacher, you will be the most qualified person to discuss their grades and academic performance; far more so than themselves via their Personal Statement. This will be your chance to provide reasoning for why their predicted grades are what they are and how their abilities and working style impact their performance.

Honesty is especially important here; if an applicant’s predicted grades aren’t quite as high as they should be, you need to be upfront about why this is while providing your thoughts on what they need to do to improve and if they are able to do this (the answer should always be yes for an Oxbridge application or else they will need to consider an alternative plan).

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As you can see, much of what you need to discuss will have been covered in your student’s Personal Statement. Therefore, you need to make sure that what you have written matches that statement so that the story that you both are telling is consistent. Much of this will come down to gathering the information that you will need from your student, which will discuss a bit later on.

Also, bear in mind that most of this content will need to be included within Question 3, so your word count will be fairly limited. In the examples provided by UCAS, these answers are no longer than two paragraphs, so the new system seems to be designed to limit how much content can be written by teachers. Therefore, you likely aren’t going to fit every one of these topics in your answer so you must prioritise the most important areas to discuss about your student. 

Optional Content for UCAS References

This content is mostly not required to be included in your references in a great amount of detail. You may need to specify a couple of facts, but generally, this information is added to provide additional context and inform admissions tutors of factors that may not be applicable to every student. 

Extenuating Circumstances

If agreed upon by your student beforehand, it can be good to discuss any issues they may be facing that could impact their life in any way. This can range from life events to disabilities and any other disadvantages they may face. This could be in the context of grades, academic ability or other factors that may impact their application or their time at university. 

It may seem like your student shooting themself in the foot, but being honest and up-front about any issues that could affect their education is important for the chances of success not just in their application but beyond as well. Within certain limits, these circumstances should not be allowed to negatively impact your student’s chances at risk of being classed under discrimination (although you must also be prepared for if one’s circumstances do act as a major roadblock in their application). 

Deciding what to write (if anything) will be reliant on speaking with your student, so ensure that you have had a conversation with them to find out what they would and would not like you to write in their reference. 

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Contributions from Other Faculty members

As we discussed previously, it can be good to get different perspectives from different members of your faculty. Subject teachers and department heads will know more about a student’s academics in their field while a form tutor or Sixth Form head will be able to comment on their general abilities as a student.

So getting contributions from multiple people will give the reader a clear look at all of the applicant’s strengths and abilities, both in terms of their subject and general. However, with such limited space to write in the new format, it may be more likely that you simply receive notes from other staff members that can then be implemented into your own writing. 

When it comes to Oxbridge UCAS references, we would argue that any additional content that could boost an applicant’s chances of being interviewed should be included. However, what you can include will come down to how well you can structure your writing in such a limited space…

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Oxbridge Reference Blueprint

Much like your student’s Personal Statement, your reference will need to be well structured and well written in its own right in order to meet the standards required by Oxbridge. First of all, let’s take a look at the ideal structure of a UCAS reference:

UCAS Reference Structure

Question 1 – School Summary

  • With the new format, it is now essential for every reference to provide information about the applicant’s school. Therefore, you will likely have a set answer that is used for every single student applying through UCAS. However, for Oxbridge applicants, it may be worth adding an extra sentence or two to emphasise how the school prepares students for intensive study at university.
  • General topics to discuss here include the type of school, cohort sizes, subjects taught, teaching styles and examination processes. 
  • Of course, you should also aim to show yourself and the school in the best possible light by providing your own qualifications and presenting the school as a place that gets results and trains high-quality students. This section will need to provide a fair amount of detail but you should aim to condense this into as few words as possible. 

Question 2 – Extenuating Circumstances 

  • The length of this section is entirely dependent on the severity/complexity of the circumstances and relevance to the application. Some issues may require an in-depth explanation in order to provide context to the rest of the application. Others, however, will more so be footnotes that are important to highlight but not something that defines the applicant and their abilities.  
  • This answer only needs to be written if there are actual circumstances to discuss. Many students will not have issues that require discussion in this reference, so do not feel compelled to write something here just to follow the structure; leave it out if there is nothing important to discuss. 

Question 3 – Additional Applicant Information

  • Previously, this section would have made up the majority of your reference. Now though, it has been reduced to a single question and UCAS themselves seem to be encouraging a “less-is-more” approach to answering this (as seen in the official example references”). Therefore, you are going to have to cherry-pick the most crucial elements of your student’s education and enrichment to make the largest impact on the admissions team. 
  • We’ve already discussed the key points you should aim to touch on, but the balance of what you discuss will vary from student to student. Always focus on the most relevant and impactful topics (which will usually be their school performance/grades and one or two major placements or projects). Any additional points can be made at the end of the question if there’s space. 

COVID-19 Information

  • We mentioned before that providing some information regarding the student’s experience of the pandemic is currently recommended. This isn’t a majorly important topic and will continue to be less and less relevant with each application cycle, but it is still worth mentioning for now. This shouldn’t take up more than 100 characters or so.  
  • Unless COVID had an unusually large impact on their studies or your school’s operations, this discussion is best saved for Question 3. 

Tips for Writing an Oxbridge-Quality Reference

Now that you’ve seen an example, the question is how do you do it yourself? These tips and techniques will be important for ensuring you know what to write about and how to best present the content. 

Gathering Information From Your Student

Before you can think about writing, you need to have a plan of what you are going to write about. To do this, you are going to need to speak with the student in question to figure out what exactly should be included and how they should be represented. Here are some vital steps to take when doing this:

Invite them to a meeting at a dedicated time to ensure that you are both able to give your full attention to the matter without being rushed. Hold this meeting in an office or other quiet space to ensure there are no distractions. 

Try to hold the meeting after they have a semi-complete draft of their Personal Statement or a plan of what they plan to write at the very least. Ensure you both have a copy of this and read it before the meeting so that you know what topics you have to pick from. If you have previously helped with planning their Personal Statement then this should make the process a bit easier (take notes during any Personal Statement support sessions to give you a head start on your reference). 

Let them tell you what they want before making suggestions. If the applicant has been thorough in planning their application, they should have a good idea of how they want to be represented in their reference. 

Offer applicants your honest views of what their best qualities and skills are and how you would want to represent them in a reference. You may find that they agree with your stance or you may need to work to find a middle ground. At the end of the day though, it is the student’s reference so they are entitled to their say on how you present them to the universities. As long as their requests are truthful to their actual skills, character and achievements, you should include points that they feel are important.  

Applicants with extenuating circumstances will be the most important to discuss their references with, as you should not include any personal information about them or their life without their clear consent. If an applicant is not sure they want something to discuss, but you believe it would benefit their application, then talk with them about it and share your point of view. Detailing why you think something should be included may help them understand your idea, but they still have the right to say no. If they are adamant that something should not be included, then you will have to leave it out of your reference. 

Collaborating with other Faculty Members

Schools are a busy work environment and it can be a challenge to get someone that you need alone for a few minutes to ask a favour. However, in most cases, getting input from other team members will be a massive benefit to your reference. Even if it is just to gather some information about the student, you should try to speak with the staff members that work with them closest to see what you could add to your reference.

The person you need may not be free to contribute to the reference initially, and although you likely have your own ways of getting what you want from your colleagues, their contribution isn’t necessarily essential. However, you can reduce the risk of not getting their input due to time constraints by simply starting early. If you ask them early on to help you, you will be much more likely to get what you need, even if you haven’t started writing your section yet. 

If they feel they are unable to write a high-quality section for the references, you can offer to edit their words to make them more suitable or simply ask for a summary of what they feel is necessary to include so you can write it yourself. When getting these notes, try to ask for details such as their work ethic, subject competency and ability to work individually.

Additional Reference Writing Tips for Oxbridge

Before you can think about writing, you need to have a plan of what you are going to write about. To do this, you are going to need to speak with the student in question to figure out what exactly should be included and how they should be represented. Here are some vital steps to take when doing this:

Try to use a wider vocabulary when talking about your students and their achievements. Using fancier words isn’t going to disguise a below-average student but it can make your reference more interesting to read and increase your credibility as an educator. 

Ensure your spelling, grammar and general writing quality are on point. Just as a student must perfect their writing skills for their Personal Statement, you should aim to meet the same level of quality (if not greater) with the reference you provide. 

If you are worried about the fairly small character limit, you could try writing your first draft without considering it. Instead, focus on the quality of your writing and the message you are trying to present. You may be surprised by how close you get to 4,000 and if you are over, simply edit it down to match the requirement. 

Research what the applicant’s chosen universities say they look for in applicants. Most universities will be searching for applicants with similar traits and skills, so make a note of which ones can be applied to your student and mention them in your reference. 

Letters of Recommendation

You may have heard of schools sending out letters of recommendation before; you may have even written and sent some out yourself. These are separate from the UCAS reference and are handled by schools independently, but they have a fairly similar function.

A letter of recommendation is a reference that is sent directly to a university and is written specifically for said university. These are mostly sent to the more prestigious universities in the UK, of which Oxford and Cambridge are at the top. Therefore, sending these letters to them is not uncommon in many schools. in the UK. 

Should you send one for your applicants though? It depends on how good your UCAS reference was and if you feel you were able to discuss everything that you wanted to within the limitations of the format. As well as the character limit and question-based format, references are also unspecialised, being sent out to every university that the applicant applied for. This means that you may wish to cover some details that would not have fit into the reference within a separate letter. 

Another reason you may wish to send a letter is if another member of the faculty wants to provide a more detailed summary of their experience with the student. This could potentially be a good boost to the application as they will have two separate staff members proving glowing references to the admissions team. 

However, it is not always necessary to do this. If you were satisfied with the reference that you sent out, then there likely isn’t enough additional content to fill up a whole extra letter. Bombarding the university with redundant information about your student is not going to improve their chances of success. 

If you do decide to send a letter, you will find that most of what we have discussed in this guide will help you write your letter as well. The primary difference is that you can focus specifically on the university that you are writing to, meaning you don’t need to keep things generic. 

That concludes our Oxbridge References Guide. While you most likely had a good knowledge of how to write UCAS references before reading this, we hope that you have been able to take away some actionable advice that will help you write references for your Oxbridge Candidates that will match their high standards. 

Our Teacher’s Hub features guides that cover everything you need to know about the Oxbridge application process, so be sure to check them out. Plus, you can find out how UniAdmissions can support your school in creating the ultimate support programme for your students. 

Other Helpful Oxbridge Resources

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