How To Write A Great Student Reference

It’s something that I’ve been asked to do across the academic year and each time I write a reference for a student I realise that these is a real art to it. So as we hurtle rapidly into the time of year where we are writing references for college or UCAS, here’s how to write great references without sacrificing your need for sleep.

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Use a Writing Frame

I’m not suggesting that you use a template to write your references and just fill in the names. Therein lies a truly dreadful reference. Instead, consider the aspects of the reference that you want to write about for each student and adjust accordingly. The example below is one that I use regularly for my subject UCAS references:

  • How have they engaged with the subject?
  • Have they indicated that this is their chosen subject? If not, how will it help?
  • What extra curricular activities / volunteering have they undertaken?
  • What have their exam/test results been compared to their target?
  • Have they started their coursework? What is the topic?
  • End on a return to their chosen subject

Using this, we could write the reference:

“A methodical and dedicated learner, David has studied Computer Science with me for the past year arriving in year 12 having not studied the subject at GCSE. Despite being behind his peers at the start of the year he has made tremendous efforts to catch up, attending numerous Computing Clubs and extending his knowledge outside of the curriculum in our robotics club which led to his interest to study AI.

It is clear that his targeted grade of a B was initially a challenge, however based on the clear upwards progress within our class tests and mock exams I have little doubt that his choice to take the subject further at University is the correct path for him.

David has commenced his A Level NEA project making AI the basis of his investigation and has already begun to complete a complex project linking the Twitter API to a machine learning algorithm. This, along with his strong exam results to date indicates both enthusiasm and aptitude to study Computer Science further.”

Keep To The Point!

Usually, a UCAS subject reference is no more than three paragraphs, so I group the six questions into two per paragraph, and for some students they won’t be relevant so I omit them entirely. For longer references for US universities or apprenticeship applications, having all six questions as a writing frame helps me to focus on the student as an individual rather than just stating what they have completed as facts.

Imagine that you were the admissions officer, or employer reading the reference – a statement of fact is tantamount to a bad reference. You know your students; you are the person best placed to get across their ability to be an ambassador for the subject that you love.

We know report and reference writing is a tedious process and eats into our evenings when the sun is shining, but those few lines of personal praise can be the difference between a foot in the door to their chosen career and a line of applications elsewhere.

You are their first step up; They have to climb the stairs.

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