Writing a UCAS reference for Oxbridge: advice for teachers in Scotland



1. Research the course your student has chosen, then discuss their decision with them

For any Oxbridge reference the best way to begin is by researching the demands of your student’s chosen course. The course page on the university website (Oxford, Cambridge) will give a flavour of the skills the degree develops. Naturally, the beginnings of these skills are one part of what look they look for in applicants. Once you have a good idea of the admissions process, sit down with your student to find out their motivations for applying to this specific course at Oxford or Cambridge. You want to be sure of (1) their academic potential for this course and (2) their interest at university level for this course.

Academic potential is the obvious stuff: relevant SQA grades, test scores, subject-specific competitions they have placed in or won. Displaying an interest in the course at university level is the more challenging, abstract task. Ask them first about any personal motivations behind choosing this course and any areas they are particularly interested in. Then find out what they have read or are reading outside the classroom to further their interest.

Neither university expects applicants to have any technical fluency at the point of applying (that is, after all, the whole point of going to university). However, exposure to the breadth of the subject through introductory books and subsequent personal reflection is essential. Helpful recommendations are available on the Oxford and King’s College, Cambridge websites. Your student may also be working with academic literature as part of Advanced Higher coursework which, as evidence of academic engagement, is worth detailing in your reference.

Example (Law, Oxford)
'Robert’s Modern Studies dissertation this year, titled ‘Prisons are universities of crime.’, is exploring the seemingly paradoxical consequences of the British penal system for young offenders and wider society. In both primary and secondary research, Robert has approached this issue with characteristic care and sensitivity, engaging with the writings of a number of inter-disciplinary academic authorities, including economist Gary Becker and criminologist Edwin Sutherland.’


2. Refer back to the chosen course at all times

For all Oxford and Cambridge courses, the application process is designed for students to show that they will thrive on their chosen course in Oxbridge’s highly-intensive academic environment. Every claim you make in your reference should serve to prove your student has the academic potential and enthusiasm for this specific course. Extracurricular activities like sports, volunteering, work experience should only take up a few lines unless they are exceptional and related to the course being applied for.

The course’s teaching-style will be all or in part one-to-one/two/three discussion groups with academics, some of whom are leaders in their field. These are known as tutorials at Oxford and supervisions at Cambridge. This teaching format forces students to think on their feet, refining their argument constantly while being challenged with new information. The application process tries to identify students best suited to this teaching format, so you want to give examples of times they have demonstrated intellectual flexibility and open-mindedness during their studies.

Example (Law, Oxford)
‘Robert’s enthusiasm and suitability for his chosen course is a reflection of much independent research. To further his understanding of the role of historical continuity in legal systems, Robert attended The Stair Society’s annual lecture titled ‘Who is in control? Historical perspectives on the role of the judge and the parties in civil litigation’.'


3. Get input from subject teachers

Your reference is a vote of confidence in your student that must be grounded in professional observation. Oxford and Cambridge naturally want proof of your student’s ability in all subjects relevant to the course for which they are applying. This means the observations of subject teachers are essential. Useful questions to ask your colleagues might be:

• Where does this student rank in their class?
• Where does this student rank amongst all the students you have taught in your career?
• How has this student shown engagement with the subject beyond the SQA curriculum?
• How has this student shown they would be suited to intensive one-to-one/two/three teaching?

Example (Law, Oxford)
‘Discussions with Robert’s History and Modern Studies teachers have cemented our confidence in his ability to undertake a demanding university course. To date, Robert has consistently produced some of the highest scoring essays in both subjects, such that he comes recommended as the strongest student in his Advanced Higher cohort. We have no doubt whatsoever that Robert will enjoy any highly stimulating course and be an asset to university classes.’


4. Quantify evidence

Every claim you make about a student’s academic ability should be supported by concrete examples. Where possible, this works best as a comparative exercise. A few ways you can express how your student has an outstanding academic record might be:

• How their performance in relevant SQA qualifications compared to their year group and previous years, as well as the size of their cohort.
• If they received an award or prize academic work, how many other students eligible.
• If they placed or won a competition, how many other students entered.

You may find that your reference overlaps with the contents of your student’s personal statement. There is nothing wrong with this in principle. Your reference should try to contextualise achievement where the personal statement does not, for example by demonstrating how a relevant extra-curricular activity has been juggled alongside exceptional academic results.

Example (Law, Oxford)
‘In addition to featuring in the top 5 students in his year group for exam performance, Robert has also made time for debating and public speaking, captaining our first school team to reach the semi-final of the Donald Dewar Memorial Debating Tournament. Robert is an articulate and engaging speaker, whose natural ability to express and defend complex ideas excites us enormously as he moves onto university.’


5. Include any and all extenuating circumstances

If your student has been subject to any extenuating circumstances, particularly if this has affected their performance in SQA exams, you must include this in the reference. Cambridge also has a dedicated Extenuating Circumstances form, which must be submitted by the school before 22nd October to their chosen college or, in case of an open application, the University Admissions Office. More information is available here.


For further reading

Writing references, Oxford
Advice for teachers, Oxford
School/college reference, Cambridge
Advice for teachers, Cambridge
Extenuating Circumstances form, Cambridge