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Which points should I be sure to cover in a reference? How honest should I be? What tone should I take? How much detail is required? These are some of the questions commonly asked about what a teacher reference for a university application should look like. It is easy to underestimate the importance of a reference, but in fact it is one of the top elements of the application that admissions tutors will look at. In this resource we’ve broken it down for you and outlined the important points to hit and the pitfalls to avoid. 

✗ Don’t generalise

Admissions tutors see countless teacher references that rely on phrases such as “Emily is an outstanding student” or “I’ve been impressed with Adam”. This does not tell them anything about how the applicant is performing compared to others, or what makes them special. Remember that a vague reference is a bad reference, even if you have praised the student. All teachers will want to say that their student is great at their subject—it’s your job to prove it with concrete examples that will tell the admissions tutors what calibre of applicant they are dealing with.

✓ Do be specific

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It’s vital to give examples of how the student is exceeding expectations and how they compare to their peers. Tutors will be looking for facts such as “Maryam’s essays are consistently in the top 3 of our class of 20” or “Theo outperformed all his classmates in the recent mock test”. Such details will back up your claim that the student deserves a place and will make them stand out against the countless other applicants being praised by their teacher. Think of the university application a bit like a job application, with the tutors as employers and the student’s school career being their previous work experience; tutors are looking to see how the student has already demonstrated skills and ambitions which will make them likely to excel in their degree. 

✗ Don’t repeat the personal statement

There should not be excessive overlap between the personal statement and the teacher reference. Tutors do not want to read two documents that are virtually identical; not only is it dull, but it gives the impression that you were not able to find anything interesting to say about your student. Instead, try to contextualise and reflect on the information the student has provided. If the student has undersold themselves, be sure to emphasise the magnitude of their achievement. For example, if the student has mentioned their extended essay, you might want to add that it was one of the best you’d read that year, that they showed diligence and excellent research skills in completing it, or that it really reflected their intellectual curiosity and university-level mindset. 

✓ Do write with the interview in mind

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Remember that the initial goal is for your student to be invited to interview. Admissions Tutors don’t just want to interview someone with excellent grades, but someone who is demonstrably passionate about their subject. You might want to mention that your student often asks you for reading recommendations, or that their contributions in class show evidence of knowledge outside the syllabus. Anything that sets your student apart in their subject will be useful for interview. Have they set up an after-school politics club? Have they started a philosophy blog on the school website? Pick up on these details if they haven’t emphasised them in their personal statement.

✗ Don’t be lukewarm 

Although the student in question may not be the very best in your class, coming across as anything less than wholly enthusiastic is the worst sin in a teacher reference.  You may think you are being complimentary by describing Omar as a “strong student who consistently performs about average” and a “hardworking member of the class, a pleasure to teach” but an admissions tutor would most likely read into this that Omar is an unremarkable candidate. If your student is good, make them sound great; if they are great, make them sound amazing. And of course, as we’ve already mentioned, cite specific examples of their achievements. 

And Lastly…

✓ Do talk about extenuating circumstances

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If the student has had to overcome particular difficulties, especially if they have had to resit exams or if their grades are lower than expected, these should be mentioned in the teacher reference so that the Admissions Tutors can take the applicant’s circumstances into account. Valid extenuating circumstances are often the difference between success and failure for such an applicant. Even if the student has done very well and there are no resits or low grades to account for, mentioning the obstacles that they faced will make their achievements all the more impressive. So, rather than just stating that Lucy achieved A* grades, point out that she achieved these grades despite a prolonged period of illness or significant discontinuity of teachers.

How important is the teacher reference?

JW: Second only to the grades. The reference is vital to supporting a university application, offering a less biased and perhaps more reliable assessment of a candidate than the candidate’s own.

JBR: The teacher reference is one of the most important parts of the university application, placed directly beneath grades as the second thing Admissions Tutors will analyse. The reference is written by a teacher, whom Admissions Tutors view as objective and professional judges of a student’s ability, and so is given more weight in many instances than the Personal Statement.

Should the reference reflect the personal statement?

JW: Teachers should expand upon the personal statement in the reference, so tutors know what the significant achievements are. Often, a student will undersell themselves and not highlight what the most important aspect of applications are. Teachers are often in a better place to judge this. The reference should also be as subject-specific as the personal statement is.

Getting input from the subject teacher of the student’s chosen university course is extremely important.

JBR: The personal statement should be viewed as complementary to the reference. While there shouldn’t be an entire overlap of information, the reference should make sure to contextualise the information in the personal statement. If the student writes about all of the extra-curricular activities they do, then it is the reference’s job to explain why this is important – does it demonstrate time-management? Curiosity about the subject? The reference is where these skills can be highlighted.

Should all of the student’s good and bad points to expressed?

JW: The job of the teacher writing the reference is to show Admissions Tutors the best of that student – but not every single good thing they do. Admissions Tutors do not get attracted to references which point out that a student is good at Maths and will get an A* – this kind of information is repeated in every reference. Instead, paying attention to what it is specifically that makes a student stand out is crucial – a student being highly skilled in statistics and demonstrating this across multiple subjects is much more likely to grab an Admissions Tutor’s attention. Focusing on two or three of their greatest strengths is more relevant than stating every great thing about a student, as this won’t make a lasting impression.

JBR: Always show a student in the best light, but make sure it is a true light. It’s largely inappropriate for a student to talk about extenuating circumstances in their personal statement but you must include this in the reference. Context is key. Particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, Admissions Tutors need as much information on a student as possible – they want to give all students a fair chance at a place, and clearly outlining extenuating circumstances helps them to do this.

Three top tips for writing a reference

1. Write with the goal of an interview

For Oxbridge applicants, the desired outcome of any reference is to get that student to interview. The reference should indicate that the student is promising enough to warrant the Admissions Tutor giving them the chance of the next stage. In her experience of interviewing Mathematics students, JBR says that ultimately, Admissions Tutors care about seeing students “do Maths” – make sure the Personal Statement shows a student’s aptitude for a creative, challenging environment like an interview.

 2. Give three selling points

Unique selling points should run through a reference. Drilling down and thinking about why your student deserves a place will allow you to highlight what it is that makes them stand out, which you can then communicate in the reference. JW says that the key skills need to be referenced throughout the reference, in order to impress upon the Admissions Tutor why this student is worthy of a place.

 3. Contextualise

The word limit of the reference means that you cannot convey everything you think about a student, but it is enough to demonstrate the most important information. JBR says that platitudes or general comments are unhelpful to Admissions Tutors, and contextualising all information makes it easier for them, to understand the significance of information presented. Pointing out that a student is good at English is less helpful than contextualising and quantifying this information, by saying that a student achieved the top GCSE result in their year out of 250 students.

John Wilson

JWilsonJohn is a graduate of the Queen’s College, Oxford, having studied Biological Sciences. John has spent a significant proportion of his career as an adviser to students in the UK and throughout the world on making the best possible university choice and the strongest possible application. Having attained a PGCE in secondary science from Cambridge University, he is also a qualified and experienced teacher of Biology and Science, specialising in Sixth Form education at A Level. John is a lay member of the university admissions panel for medical school undergraduate entry at UCL and has also performed this role at Imperial College and Queen Mary University. As such, John supports the rest of the team at Oxbridge Applications to understand the admissions process for top UK universities and how we can support our students to succeed at interview.

 

Jane Bennett-Rees

JBennettReesJane is a graduate of St Hugh’s, Oxford, and was later a fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where she held the position of Admissions Tutor. Her insight into both Oxford and Cambridge University has given her an excellent grounding from which she advises and prepares students for entrance, visiting both universities regularly and talking to admissions and subject tutors in order to maintain an encompassing knowledge of the application process. Jane currently lectures in Mathematics at King’s College, London and Guys Medical School, focusing her energies on helping first-year students bridge the gap between A-level study and university courses. She is a member of Oxbridge Applications’ advisory board.

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