Writing a Teachers' Reference
What are admissions tutors looking for?
The reference should provide an objective assessment of the candidate’s academic suitability for their chosen subject, and to that end, it would be useful for the referee(s) to be aware of the specific selection criteria for the Oxford degree.
When writing the reference, familiarity with the specific selection criteria should help provide a focus. It is also probable that, given that a candidate is likely to be applying to five competitive degree courses, all of whom are likely to be looking for broadly similar qualities amongst their candidates, that constructing a reference with knowledge of Oxford’s selection criteria will be just as valuable for a student applying to study for other highly selective institutions.
The reference is a useful addition to the many other pieces of information that are used to assess a candidate’s application to Oxford:
Previous examinations record
A-level (or equivalent) predicted grades
UCAS Personal Statement
Submitted work (where requested)
Test results (where applicable)
The University of Oxford does not require the reference to be written by the headteacher or head of sixth form; it is more important that it is written by someone who knows the student well enough to comment on their academic abilities and any personal qualities that will help them to succeed. Often the subject teacher in the most relevant field to the applicant’s chosen course is best suited to write the reference.
Ideally, the primary content should focus on the academic skills and experiences of the student, with the reference giving prominence to the subjects the student is undertaking that are most relevant to their chosen degree. If this means that the information on the candidate’s A-level Biology course is twice that devoted to their A-level in English Literature because they are applying for a degree in Biological Sciences, that is highly appropriate
If the school or college uses a standardised template and/or it is traditionally completed by the head teacher or head of sixth form, it is still useful to receive comments from the most relevant subject teacher which can subsequently be included in the reference.
The reference is a good opportunity to focus on the individual applicant and their particular strengths relevant to the chosen subject. Tutors at Oxford, like other universities, are interested to find out if the student is expected to flourish in an intensive academic environment and how they may cope with a sustained workload; specific examples are useful here. Relating the relevant selection criteria to specific pieces of work, activities, experiences or interactions with the students are helpful indicators and bring the candidate’s qualities to life.
The University is aware that under the Data Protection Act UK students can obtain a copy of the UCAS reference if they choose to do so and sometimes this can have an effect on the overall nature of the reference. Whilst it may seem difficult for a reference to include comments which, although accurate, do not portray the applicant positively, it is important to recognise that it is ultimately not in the interests of either the candidate or the referee to overstate a candidate’s suitability for study on a demanding course.
The limited space for the UCAS reference is best used to address the individual applicant and their skills, achievements and qualities relevant to the student’s chosen subject. The particular strengths and achievements of the school the student attends have more limited value unless they have a direct impact on the particular applicant.