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The school/college reference provides us with vital information about an applicant's abilities and potential. Admissions Tutors look for indications that a student is well suited to study at Cambridge. This means they are deeply interested in their chosen subject, have a high level of academic potential for it, are a very strong performer in their school or college cohort and highly motivated for academic study.

Comments from subject specialists that evidence an applicant’s intellectual flexibility and curiosity, analytic ability, logical reasoning, capacity for hard work and the ability to learn quickly are extremely useful. Teacher comments can also provide important perspectives on the applicant.

Most of our applicants are predicted to achieve top grades, and words and phrases such as 'outstanding' and 'one of the best...' appear in many references. Instead, it is helpful for remarks about academic performance and potential are as specific as possible, and supported by factual evidence.

The following material would be particularly valuable for candidates applying to the University:

Section One (school context)

We are very interested in receiving the information that UCAS outline in their guidance:

  • Context of your school, college, or centre eg detail on any selection policies (eg open access, academically selective), funding status (eg private or government-funded), performance, intake demographics, progression rates to higher education. 
  • Your portfolio of qualification provision and any restrictions on options for students. 
  • Information about your school, college or centre which may affect performance, such as significant staff changes, or damage to buildings. 
  • Any policies or processes used for predicting grades (eg internal assessments). This is an opportunity to articulate any policy about not predicting grades for qualifications where the school or college feels the assessment method or qualification structure is not suited to predictions. 

In addition to the guidance provided by UCAS, we would value the following information for applicants applying from schools or colleges outside the UK:

  • Proportion or size of the cohort that typically applies to study in UK universities annually.
  • Length of time that the school has been teaching the qualifications that applicants are taking to prepare themselves for university entry. 
  • Any policy on the production or content of transcripts.

We recommend a maximum of 1000 characters for this section.

Section Two (applicant-specific mitigating factors and extenuating circumstances) 

We recognise the value of having the information on an individual applicant provided in one section in the reference, and endorse the UCAS guidance about providing additional context on the applicant’s educational experience. This information includes:

  • Individual circumstances – eg mature student, significant caring responsibilities, disability, serious, acute, or chronic illness, bereavement, other significant adverse personal circumstances (with applicant consent).
  • An indication of why there is a discrepancy between the grades an applicant has already achieved in the course of their school or college education (eg at GCSE/Scottish National/MYP) and their predicted or final grades. 
  • Factors which have limited the applicant’s choice of subjects or load of study at UK Level 3 or equivalent (factors which have affected the whole centre rather than the individual should be included in section 1). 
  • Reasonable adjustments that have been identified by the applicant’s school or college to support successful student outcomes. 

You must be clear whether any of the circumstances outlined in section 2 have already been considered by the student’s examination boards or awarding organisations for the qualifications taken.

In addition to the guidance provided by UCAS, we would find the following information helpful:

  • Reasons for underperformance in qualifications, if applicable.
  • Any health or personal circumstances that might affect performance at interview, and/or require us to make reasonable adjustments to the admissions process.

For applicants with a particularly difficult educational or personal background, it may be appropriate for the school/college to complete and submit an Extenuating Circumstances Form. Most universities have a process to capture this information separate from the UCAS application. This allows a more detailed exploration of the applicant’s support requirements without using up significant space in the UCAS reference. If you plan to provide supplementary information about an applicant, please include a comment in section two of the reference. A note that 'There is additional information on this applicant we intend to submit' in section two is sufficient to make this clear to Cambridge and any other universities.

We recommend a maximum of 500 characters for this section.

Section Three (any other information)

We welcome the emphasis that UCAS has placed on this section being used to focus 'on a student’s academic performance and potential in subjects, relevant to the courses applied for….This allows advisers to provide a supporting statement and showcase any additional information for high performing students.'

All applicants to Cambridge are high performing students, so we anticipate that section three will usually be completed for all our applicants. We would welcome a focus on the following:

  • Comments from subject teachers indicating or implying an unequivocal rank order in class/cohort or a comparison with current or previous applicants. Alongside school/college contextual information, this can give insight into the applicant’s ongoing academic development or high level thinking skills and aptitude relevant for their chosen course. Examples of helpful comments include:

‘In tests at the end of Year 12 Becky was ranked second out of 63 students in Biology.’

‘Our head of Geography rates Jack among the top three students he has taught in his 25-year career.’

‘Neha was our only student to attain a gold award in the Cambridge Chemistry Challenge.’

‘Henry’s History essays have been consistently assessed as being at A or A* standard.’

  • Evidence of a willingness to explore and discuss ideas outside the requirements of the subject specification, if applying for a subject studied at school/college. We are interested in whether applicants are already engaging beyond the confines of the syllabus.
  • Evidence of steps taken to find out about the subject, for a non-school/college subject. We are keen to understand the applicant’s motivation to undertake the new subject, and are seeking evidence that this is an informed choice.

We recommend a minimum of 2000 characters are used for this section and are happy for you to use short statements, recognising the character limitations.

The limit for the reference is 4000 characters, so this leaves you 500 characters to use in any appropriate section where you feel additional detail is needed for a specific applicant.

You don't need to write a separate reference for Cambridge. We'll receive a copy of the UCAS reference you supply. Any unsolicited materials (for example, supporting references relating to work experience) that haven't been requested will be disregarded.

However, if there is a need to provide any supplementary information after submitting the UCAS application, or which can't be included in the ECF, please direct these to the Admissions Tutor at the College to which the student applied or to the Cambridge Admissions Office in the case of open applicants. Please ensure that the applicant's name, course and UCAS Personal ID are clearly stated.

References for mature students

When writing references for mature applicants (who will be aged 21 or older when they commence their university course) studying towards an Access to HE Diploma or other one-year qualifications, please give as much information about assessment procedures and the grading system for the course (in section 1), as well as details about the applicant’s performance so far (in section 3). We are aware that this can be difficult, as some students may have only just started their courses. Admissions Tutors may also find it useful for you to write a second reference at a later date.

Predicted grades

Admissions to UK universities currently operate on a pre-qualification basis - offers are made in advance of applicants achieving their final grades. Offers are then confirmed or rejected once an applicant's qualifications have been achieved. In order to facilitate this process, UCAS asks referees to indicate the expected performance of an applicant via predicted grades. A predicted grade is the grade of qualification an applicant’s school or college believes they are likely to achieve in positive circumstances. These predicted grades are then used during the admissions process, to help the University understand each applicant’s potential.

Applicants will not see their reference or predicted grades on their UCAS application. If you (as a referee) return an application to a student to make changes, any predicted grades that have already been entered will be automatically removed. In these circumstances you will need to make sure these grades are re-entered.

Further information can be found on the UCAS website.

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