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Writing the UCAS Reference

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  1. Writing the UCAS Reference Stephen Thomas SWAT Conference 9 July 2012

  2. Sources • Advice at HE advisers’ conferences • Research on university websites and prospectuses • Senior Press survey of admissions tutors • UCAS advice • Experience of writing references

  3. Variation • Universities and departments will treat references in different ways. Most courses do not interview (LSE not at all) so reference and PS crucial • Some give them more weight than others • Practices can vary within institutions • References are used in conjunction with a range of other factors

  4. Reference is important • Most important school document in terms of student’s future life chances? • Subject contribution is vital raw material • Information left out or not fully developed can have a crucial effect especially at competitive end where: (1) Small differences affect success or failure. Oxford applications increased by 82% in last 10 years (2) We need to discriminate clearly between, for example, a scraped A and a student with full mark potential

  5. 2 stages of reference writing (1) The contribution from subject departments (2) Putting together the final draft


  6. UCAS advicePreliminary points • Review the information supplied by the student. • Do not repeat information the student has given unless you want to comment on it. • For students who have certificated AS, and are re-sitting it would be helpful to mention this in the reference. • Each university chosen will see the reference but not know to which other universities the student has applied. If you refer to one of the university choices in your reference, this could compromise the application. http://www.ucas.com/advisers/online/references

  7. You should comment on: • Potential for academic success in HE • Student academic performance post-16 • Why their chosen course is suited to them • Personal qualities which will benefit them at university • What they can bring to HE eg extra-curricular and interests

  8. Look at Selection Criteria and Entry Profiles on UCAS website for course information • Use ‘course search’ on UCAS APPLY • Choose a course at a university • Look at ‘entry profile’ for English for that course, for example

  9. Selection criteria: Oxford Medicine

  10. What can students do to help you write the reference? • Critically appraise their performance to date and consider means of future improvement • Consider their contribution to (relevant) extra-curricular (especially super-curricular) activities • Draw your attention to anything else which might support their case or mitigate against any under-achievement

  11. Predicted grades • Each pending qualification applicant has entered on application will be listed in reference section of UCAS form • Do predicted grades match entrance requirements of courses chosen? How do you know what these are? • Predicted grade should match comments in reference • If predicted grade is not a reflection of true ability should be commented on with reasons. Be honest about subjects students having difficulty with • Over-predicting grades can be counter-productive. Many universities monitor the accuracy of predictions.

  12. Accuracy of predicted grades • 41.7% over-predicted (9.7% by 2 or more grades 32% by one) • 51.7% accurate • 6.6% under-predicted (6.2% by one 0.4% by two) • Slightly more A*s achieved than predicted

  13. How do we arrive at UCAS predicted grades? • Same as AS grade? • AS grade plus one grade? • By reviewing all round performance including exam grades? • Is approach consistent across subjects? • Make rationale explicit in reference in fairness to student? • How do we deal with student dissatisfaction with a predicted grade?

  14. Predicted grades: University of Exeter • Underestimated grades can result in no offer being made • Overestimated grades can result in seeking places via clearing • If predicted grades are above AS grades explain why the student’s potential exceeds previous attainment • If predicted grades are not a reflection true abilities, state why the student has been disadvantaged and what their intellectual potential ought to allow them to get. For example:

  15. Since joining this college last year, xxx has not had a particularly settled time. He found it quite difficult settling in with his peers and at first was not focussed on his studies. We feel that he did not make the best decisions regarding the subjects he chose to study and may have been wrongly advised by others and this has adversely affected his motivation and achievement. However, in recent months, he has been considerably more positive and hard-working about his studies. At last he is beginning to see his true potential. His anticipated grades are not high (DDD) but we feel that this does not reflect his true ability. If he continues to work at his current pace he is likely to exceed his predicted grades……..

  16. Nottingham • Accuracy of predicted grades an issue • Majority of references are ‘glowing’ and therefore not helpful • Too much about school • More on intellectual curiosity and ability to deal with course eg tutorials etc • More on subjects related to course

  17. Leicester University: Don’ts • Use stock phrases • Repeat yourself • Write as a report e.g. ‘J---should concentrate on…’ • Be specific about universities • Exaggerate • Raise weaknesses unless documented, evidenced and communicated to/discussed with student/parents • Be negative – omit things you can’t be positive about

  18. Dos • Use subject-specific guidelines as applicable • Add comment where predicted grades are not a true reflection of potential or are inconsistent with achievement so far • Focus on academic skills, enthusiasm, ICT skills • Be concise • Clearly indicate if you are supporting/recommending the student

  19. Essex University • Honesty about subjects students are having difficulty with is helpful • If a low predicted grade is accompanied by a glowing reference it is difficult to see the relationship between them. • Why is a student achieving this grade? Is a higher grade in their grasp. Do they have the potential to reach this? • If a student’s predicted grade is not a reflection of their true abilities, why is this? • Is the student is likely to improve between the UCAS application being made and exams taken?

  20. Queen Mary History Department: reference advice for students! We are looking for evidence that you are fundamentally a good citizen: that you can interact appropriately with others, that you are moderately responsible, and that you show up for most of your classes. We don’t want to create a department full of identical goodie two shoes: this would be extremely boring...............Most schools  work hard to gather information and write effective references and are obliged to write positively. There are, however, a selection of coded statements which all those who write and read references can understand. ‘X is capable of hard work’ means ‘X could work hard if they could be bothered, but they can’t’. Try to make sure that your teachers will not have to encode your reference.

  21. Cambridge advice • Grades are not everything and the reference is useful because it tells us about abilities and potential. • Very useful are subject specialist comments that show evidenceof: • intellectual flexibility and curiosity • analytic ability • logical reasoning • the ability to learn quickly • Words such as 'outstanding' appear in many references. Instead, it is helpful if remarks about academic performance and potential are as specific as possible.

  22. The following are particularly useful • Comments from subject teachers indicating a rank order in class (such as 'top of 20' or 'in the top four out of 23') • A comparison with current or previous applicants (for instance 'one of our top 10 university applicants this year') • Updated information about an applicant's progress or personal circumstances, as long as it is received before the December interview period • Where an applicant has underachieved at GCSE/IGCSE or AS Level, the reasons why this might have happened

  23. Any health or personal circumstances that might affect performance at interview • Evidence of a willingness to explore and discuss ideas outside the confines of the subject specification, if applying for a subject studied at school/college • Evidence of steps taken to find out about the subject, for a non-school/college subject • For applicants with a difficult educational or personal background an additional reference for the Cambridge Special Access Scheme should be completed

  24. If you wish to make any Cambridge-specific comments you are most welcome to send these direct to the Admissions Tutor at the College to which the student applied • In the case of open applicants these should be sent to the Cambridge Admissions Office. Please ensure that the applicant's name, course and UCAS Personal ID are clearly stated.

  25. Oxford advice Very Useful E-Guide on website

  26. What are Admissions Tutors looking for? • Should provide an objective assessment of academic suitability for chosen subject and useful for the referee(s) to be aware of the selection criteria. • A candidate is likely to be applying to five competitive degree but a reference with Oxford’s in mind will be just as valuable for a student applying for other selective institutions. • Need not be written by head-teacher or head of sixth but by someone who knows the academic abilities and personal qualities that will help them to succeed.

  27. Often the subject teacher in the most relevant field to the applicant’s chosen course is best suited to write the reference. • The primary content should focus on the academic skills and experiences of the student, giving prominence to the subjects 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.

  28. Tutors 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. • It is not in the interests of candidate or the referee to overstate a candidate’s suitability for study on a demanding course.

  29. 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.

  30. When qualifying student achievement, it is helpful to have information about this. For example, if this student is the best candidate you have taught in fifteen years • It is even better if you follow that up with a statement explaining why you have reached that conclusion: ‘In ten years of teaching A-level History, Sophie is the strongest candidate I have taught, evidenced particularly through her careful and considered interpretation of source material whilst undertaking her extended project on the Causes of the War of Jenkins’ Ear, and her innovative and thought-provoking essay assessing the impact of the Watergate break-in on the subsequent fortunes of the Republican Party in the 1970’s). ‘

  31. Medical Reference:Leeds • How do applicants work with peers and teachers? • Good team members? • Can they assume a leadership role? • Communication, organisation skills, honesty and integrity. • Well-rounded not just academics. Academic ability necessary but not sufficient • Humility: ability to care, involvement in the wider community. (.......evidence of sustained voluntary commitment)

  32. Once qualified going to be held accountable for their decisions • Early indications of their ability to take responsibility are also important • Is their interest in medicine because they are almost guaranteed a secure job, or because they are fascinated by the science of medicine? • Essential they have had the opportunity to experience the reality of a medical career.

  33. Medical Reference:Edinburgh • What are they like as a person? • Do they have integrity? • Are they honest and responsible? • Do they show empathy? • How does they get on with peers and teachers? • Would they make a good leader? • Do they have good interpersonal and organisational skills? • Are they able to work as part of a team? • What activities are they involved in at school – sport, music or other clubs and hobbies? • Do they help out with students in other years?

  34. Confirm what you can of the applicant’s personal statement regarding extra curricular activities. • Do you think they are unsuitable by temperament for the course? • We are looking for evidence that the applicant as well as being excellent at science, is also a well rounded person. • Do the realise that medicine is not just about science but also about communicating with people? It is vital that the applicant understands this and this is why we attach so much importance to work experience.

  35. Identify key skills within each subject to comment on

  36. Use assessment objectives:eg OCR History AO1 Demonstrate Knowledge and Understanding • recall, select and deploy historical knowledge appropriately, and communicate knowledge and understanding of history in a clear and effective manner. • demonstrate understanding of the past though explanation, analysis and arriving at substantiated judgements of: key concepts such as causation, consequence, continuity, change and significance within an historical context; the relationships between key features and characteristics of the periods studied.

  37. Especially higher order skills where appropriate AO2 Analysis, Evaluation and Application • as part of an historical enquiry, analyse and evaluate a range of appropriate source material with discrimination; analyse and evaluate, in relation to the historical context, how aspects of the past have been interpreted and represented in different ways

  38. Tips for subject reference • Use unit mark data • Comments appropriate to and which justify predicted grade • Refer to course especially where it is your subject • Be honest but avoid being negative • Use examples and evidence • Discriminate between students • Don’t be too reserved where fulsome praise is justified

  39. Structuring the subject teacher’s reference contribution • Academic achievement: potential, curiosity, analytical skills, logical reasoning, ability to learn quickly (with examples) • Reading, initiative, experience beyond subject spec (with examples) • How does student compare with others past and present? • How do they relate to peers and teachers? • Are they suited to their chosen course (with reasons)? • Evidence and examples of commitment to chosen course and potential to succeed on it and manage workload. • Evidence and examples of skills and personal qualities such as stamina relevant to chosen course.

  40. Activity • What are the strengths of our current practice? • Are we consistent within departments and across departments? • What can be refined? • Are we agreed about the key subject skills that need to be referred to in the reference? • What are these key subject skills that will be the focus for the subject reference?