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Guidance for writing references

Some key points on reference writing

  • Encourage contact from the student/graduate to raise the issue and how you propose to deal with references.
  • Ask the student/graduate to give you a copy of their up-to-date CV and any ideas they have on their future career plans.
  • You might like to consider using a questionnaire on which students supply basic information to aid writing a reference.
  • Have a system for storing references in a secure location to maintain confidentiality.  Give someone responsibility for looking after them when you are away.
  • Stick to facts and make sure your comments can be supported by hard evidence.
  • Sensitive data (e.g. dates and details of absences from university) must not be disclosed without the explicit consent of the student.
  • Avoid writing ambiguous or ‘coded’ references. At all times aim to be fair to both student and employer.
  • Don’t write a defamatory reference as this could lead to litigation.
  • If you are unable to give a reference, give a clear explanation of your reasons. Refusal to give a reference can imply a negative opinion.
  • Be consistent, keeping a similar length of reference and level of detail for all students.
  • Remember when writing a reference the student can ask the requesting organisation for a copy. 
  • It’s important to respond to a request for a reference as quickly as possible.  You may receive a request early in the academic year – closing dates may be as early as November for graduate programmes beginning the following Autumn.

What to include

  • Verification of the fact that you have known the student for a certain length of time.
  • Confirmation that the student is on a specific course.
  • Comments on the academic aptitude and personal qualities of the student.  Employers typically ask for evidence of skills such as teamwork, organisational ability, problem solving, IT skills, communication and time management.
  • Specific points highlighting the student’s suitability for the position.
  • How closely the student’s skills and qualities match those needed for the job.
  • An indication of the students potential for development, backed up by evidence drawn from university performance.

Difficult Cases

You may be unsure how to respond when asked to provide a reference for a student who was in bad standing with the university, for disciplinary or financial reasons for example. Avoid mentioning the matter unless you believe it directly relevant to the duty of care you owe the recipient, i.e. directly relevant to the job or course applied for. If the job or course requires a high level of responsibility and personal integrity, it may be necessary to disclose it.

Types of reference

Factual/Standard Reference

This will simply confirm dates of attendance, course studied, award and classification obtained (if applicable) and is usually dealt with by administrators.

Personal Reference

Requests for personal references may take a variety of forms from a general request for comment on the applicant’s suitability for the post to a series of specific questions about particular qualities such as interpersonal skills and motivation.

Where an academic reference is requested, it is more important to emphasise the individual's research and analytical abilities, and to point to their good performance in previous academic study.

It is helpful to include how the course of study will benefit their future career plans. 

Telephone References

Resist such requests where possible. Oral references can be mis–heard, poorly transcribed and misinterpreted, and you will have no written record of the conversation. Also, a reference usually merits more consideration than a phone call allows. If in exceptional circumstances, and in the interests of the candidate, you do provide such a reference, follow it up in writing by letter or e-mail. 

Open References/Testimonials

These are seldom seen in the UK, but you may be asked by an international student to provide a letter of reference for general use on return to their home country or by a student who is going to be out of the country and difficult to contact.  In this case you might include information on how long you have known the applicant, confirmation of their attendance and results, comment on the students’ skills and abilities overall performance and confirmation of other activities they were involved in whilst at university or any other positive impressions the student has made on the referee.  Make sure the reference is dated. 

References for PGCE applicants

Obtain information from the student about their classroom experience and other experience of working with young people.  You will be able to view all of the information on the applicant’s form when writing your reference if you are the principal referee.  Comment on the applicant’s personal qualities and suitability for teaching as well as their academic achievements.

The student is not able to submit their application until the reference is provided online, so it is important to deal with these requests promptly.  Applications for primary training must be received early December and many secondary courses fill up early. 

References for casual work

Reference requests by telephone may be more likely where the student is applying for casual work. You may wish to suggest in this case that you will e-mail your response within a given time period rather than commenting orally. Employers may require a very rapid response and delay may result in the candidate losing the opportunity. 

References for volunteering

Organisations requesting references for volunteers seek to verify that the person is who they say they are but also seek useful information to help identify their strengths and weaknesses and providing additional security where the volunteer will be working with vulnerable people.  They may seek comment on the ability of the candidate to work effectively in a team, their suitability to work with their client group and their willingness to develop their skills, knowledge and experience.

Though the requesting organisation is likely to accept references from a variety of sources, please consider providing this support where possible as volunteering is an important source of work experience for many students.  International students in particular may not have alternative suitable referees.