References – how to write them properly?

You have written your Personal Statement and filled in the application form, and all that is left is to upload your references. Let us look at this from two perspectives – yours and that of the referee.

References – the student’s role

The first thing you need to consider is who to ask to act as your referee. The aim of a reference is two-fold: to provide a positive appraisal of your abilities and to endorse your application. This means that you must decide who knows you best on the staff, and who is a position to evaluate your academic work.

In order to help your referee, it is useful to meet them, and explain where you are applying and why. It is important to give them an idea of your long-term plans. What is more, you could also hand over a list of your extracurricular and volunteering experiences, as well as any additional projects you have been involved in outside the classroom, your achievements etc. You do not need to provide them with any material which they can already access, such as exam results or grades. Have an open conversation with your referee. Let them get a full picture of why studying a particular course is important to you, and what you hope to achieve.

Make sure you ask for the references in good time, and not at the last minute. This is an important part of your application, so you cannot expect the references to be produced overnight.

What to do next:

Whatever you do, do NOT print out an internet sample letter of recommendation and ask your referee to fill in the blanks. Admissions boards will turn you down instantly if you plagiarise (copy) references, using a template. The whole point of a letter of recommendation is to get to know you and what you have done and offer the university, so any information it contains has to be personal.

Finally, check if the university to which you are applying has any specific formatting requirements of references – word or page length, number of paragraphs etc. If they do, let your referee know!

References – the role of the referee

If a student asks you to write a letter of recommendation and, in all honesty, you believe that you do not know them well enough, or cannot write positively about their academic work, then reject their request. It is far better to say no, than to reluctantly type out a lukewarm references, which will simply weaken their application.

Make sure you take the time to understand why they are applying for a particular course. You will need to highlight completely different characteristics if they want to do medicine, than if they are choosing to study fashion.

There is a structure of references to follow:

Important to know:

Check the spelling and grammar and read through what you have written one last time.

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Common mistakes found in letters of recommendation/references

  1. Do not mention race, age, nationality, religion, health issues or marital status
  2. Even if you are well aware that a student has certain weaknesses try to avoid writing about them, this is, after all, meant to be an endorsement, not a critique.
  3. Make sure your reference is not too short, and try to aim for 500 words. 
  4. In spite of the fact that a letter of recommendation is an official document, and you should definitely avoid slang, humour and hippy-talk, the following examples demonstrate that there are exceptions to the rule.

“This person is going to move mountains. And she will do it regardless of whether she graduates with an MBA or not. Therefore, it is critical that she be given admission.”

“The finest mind of a whole generation”

There is also the famous letter written about John Nash, Nobel Prize winner extraordinaire, who asked his professor for a reference to Princeton, which bluntly confirmed his age and stated “he is a mathematical genius” – nothing more!

Letters of recommendation/references – a summary

These helpful documents are an intrinsic part of every application to study at a university, and have some weight with admissions committees, so make sure you give yourself enough time to request or write them. Personalise the information you provide or include, and keep the language clear and simple.

Good luck! 


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