What to do if you don’t have a reference for UCAS

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Anyone applying to university in the UK will have heard of UCAS, the system through which all the applications go. The UCAS form is a major part of the application process, and it can get confusing keeping track of the different sections, from the personal statement, to subject choices, to the reference. In fact, while students don’t have to write the reference, it’s possibly the section they know least about, so you may have some questions about it. In most cases, students apply through their school or college, and teachers will sort out the reference. However, if this isn’t the case, it can be hard to know how to get a reference. Who do you ask to write it? How do they know what to do?

The UCAS reference is an academic reference, meaning it should be written by someone who knows your academic abilities. For many people, this will be a teacher. If you aren’t in education when applying, you could ask an old teacher for a reference. Alternatively, universities may accept references from employers or supervisors. After choosing someone (and making sure they agree!), you can fill in their details on UCAS, who will contact them with instructions. 

Keep reading for plenty more information about making sure you get a reference for UCAS. We’ll cover who you should and shouldn’t choose, what you need to discuss with them, advice for mature, international, and home-schooled students, and more!

Do you have to have a UCAS reference?

If you don’t have a UCAS reference, your first thought might not be about how you go about getting a reference – it might be: do I actually need a reference in the first place?

The short answer is that yes, pretty much every UCAS application has a reference included. It’s definitely recommended to get a reference, if possible, because universities will look at it to support your application.

You can have a look at this article from Think Student for more about how much universities actually check your reference.

Technically, it’s not compulsory to have a reference. However, you will have to contact each of your choices separately to ask if you can miss the reference. This is stated on this page of the official UCAS website, under ‘Individual circumstances’.

Universities will likely want an explanation as to why you don’t want to, or can’t, provide a reference. They also have the right to say they will only consider your application if you do have a reference.

However, if they all agree, there is a box to tick in the reference section of your application saying you have talked to your choices, and they are happy for you to not have a reference.

How do you get a UCAS reference?

All in all, you are likely going to need a reference. There are three main things to think about if you have to organise your reference yourself.

Firstly, you need to find someone to write your reference. You then need to discuss the details with them, making sure they are happy to write it, and they know what they need to write, as well as any deadlines.

Secondly, you need to make sure the reference is actually added to your application, so it’s sent off before the UCAS deadline. For more about UCAS application deadlines, check out this Think Student article – and for more on each step to getting a reference, keep reading!

How do you choose someone to write your reference?

Choosing who to write your reference really depends on your individual circumstances, so we’ll go through a few of those here.

First, though, one rule is that you can’t ask your family, friends, partner, or ex-partners to write your reference. This is to avoid unfair bias, and if you are found to have done this, UCAS will cancel your application.

Instead, your UCAS reference should be done by someone who knows you academically, rather than personally, such as a teacher. You can read more about what exactly is meant by an academic reference in this Think Student article.

How do you choose someone to write your reference at school?

As mentioned, if you are a student applying through your school or college, they will sort out the reference section for you. However, in some cases, you will still have to choose which teacher you want to write your reference.

The choice here is between teachers who might know you better, like a form tutor, or someone who teaches a subject close to what you are applying for. Ultimately, it shouldn’t make too much of a difference. As long as they can write about your academic ability and potential, and any extenuating circumstances you’ve faced, they will be able to write a suitable reference.

How do you choose someone to write your reference as a mature student?

There are actually plenty of circumstances that mean you are applying to university not through school, which can bring up more questions about references.

If you are a mature student (21 years or older), you may have taken a break after school or gone into employment rather than continuing with study. But just because you don’t have a current teacher doesn’t mean you can’t get a reference.

If you were in education until recently, you can always get in contact with old teachers and ask if they would be happy to give you a reference. If you feel it’s been too long, you can ask someone who has known you more recently.

Often, mature students will ask an employer for a reference, or someone who knows them professionally, like a colleague or careers advisor. These people will be able to write a reference about your skills, and it will be more up to date than a teacher from a few years ago.

You can read more about getting a reference as a mature student here on the official UCAS website.

How do you choose someone to write your reference as a home-schooled student?

If you have been home-schooled before applying to university, you may not have teachers who know your academic abilities well. Although your parents might, you still can’t have a reference written by a family member.

Instead, many home-schooled students find an alternative person who has been in a teaching role for them. This is often a tutor of some sort – in extracurriculars like music, not just schoolwork.

Check out this page from Just World School for more about applying to university as a home-schooled student, including advice about the reference.

How do you choose someone to write your reference as an international student?

As an international student, your school is unlikely to be routinely familiar with the UCAS application process, so might not have a system in place for UCAS references. However, it is still best to ask a teacher for your reference – they know you best academically.

All you will need to do is discuss with them beforehand what you want included in the reference, and logistical details like how long it needs to be and the deadline for writing it.

You can check out this article from Time Higher Education for application advice for international students – and keep reading for more about what you need to discuss with your referee!

What do you need to tell the person writing your reference?

Of course, you want a good reference, so if you are organising it yourself, it’s important that you make sure your referee knows what they should be writing about.

If a teacher is writing your reference, they should know the general protocol, so you will just need to talk to them about things specific to you. Perhaps there were some more academic activities you completed that you didn’t have space for in your personal statement. They could mention it in the reference instead as proof of your academic abilities.

If known, your referee will also have to input your predicted grades for qualifications you haven’t done yet but will before starting university. This might not be relevant for everyone – mature students will often have completed all their A-Levels or equivalents.

If the person writing your reference isn’t familiar with UCAS references in particular, they will need to know details like how long it should be, and when the deadline is. Make sure to give your chosen referee plenty of time to complete the reference – they will be busy!

It might help to send them this guide from the official UCAS website outlining how to write a UCAS reference, including changes made to the process from 2024 onwards.

How do you make sure your reference is added to your application?

Once you have talked to your referee and they have agreed to write your reference, you might wonder how to make sure it actually finds its way to your application.

If you aren’t applying through school, you will be able to see the reference section on your application, where you can enter your referee’s details, including their email. You can see how this will look on this application guide from UCAS.

UCAS will then email them with instructions to complete it, and you will get an email when it’s been added to your application.

If you are applying through a school, you won’t be able to edit your reference. If your referee is going to be someone other than a teacher at that school, you will need to let them know who it is, so they can get in touch and add the reference. This article from Think Student has more information if you’re interested in seeing your final reference!

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