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Writing references for your students

At some point it is likely that you will be asked by employers to supply references for students that you have taught or for whom you are a personal tutor.

There are points of good practice to be aware of, both in order to be fair and transparent towards the student but also to avoid any potential litigation due to negligence in the writing of a reference. The information below will support your reference writing.

The legal position

When writing references, authors owe a duty of care to the subject of the reference and are expected to take reasonable care in the preparation of a reference in order to ensure its fairness and accuracy. The reference does not have to be full and comprehensive, but it must be true, accurate and fair, and the overall impression given to the reader by the reference as a whole must not be misleading.

As references involve the creation, handling and disclosure of personal data, and sometimes sensitive personal information in the form of facts and opinions about an individual, they are covered by the Data Protection Act 1998.

What an employer will want to know

Usually an employer will contact a referee to supply a reference for two reasons:
  • To verify what an applicant has said at the various stages of the selection process (CV, application form and interview).
  • To gain your opinion on the applicant.

Employers’ reference requests will vary. Some will just ask for your opinion on the student’s character and ability generally. Others will be more precise and ask for factual details such as academic performance, possession of key skills and extra curricular activities, and request completion of an employer-provided template.

It is likely you will be asked to comment on many of the following areas:

  • Personal details.
  • Verification of degree course.
  • Date of graduation.
  • Your relationship to the student.
  • Academic ability – course grades, predicted final result and overall quality of work.
  • Personality – commenting on their general character, integrity, honesty, reliability, self-confidence, drive, motivation, maturity and decisiveness.
  • Extra curricular activities – have they been involved in clubs and societies? What role did they undertake? Have they been a volunteer or student mentor? Are there achievements beyond UWE Bristol that you can refer to?
  • Career aspirations – it is essential that the student/graduate remains in contact with you to keep you up to date with this.

Skills and competencies

You will also be asked to comment on the student's skills and competencies, which can include the following:

  • Working with others – how has the student interacted with peers and academics, and how do they perform in a team?
  • Self management - ability to meet deadlines, willingness to work hard, persistence in face of obstacles.
  • Communication – listening skills, presentation skills (for example in seminars), written and oral effectiveness.
  • Problem solving – finding solutions, thinking logically or laterally, using ingenuity to get round difficulties.
  • Organisational – taking responsibility, setting objectives, planning, prioritising, meeting deadlines.
  • Analytical - critical thinking, ability to synthesise material from different sources.

Key words you can use in references

Personal attributes
  • Honest.
  • Reliable.
  • Positive in approach.
  • Enthusiastic.
  • Confident.
  • Tolerant.
  • Sense of humour.
  • Open minded.
  • Dependable.
  • Courteous.

General work attributes

  • Competent and efficient.
  • Organised.
  • Professional.
  • Flexible.
  • Forward-looking approach.
  • Uses initiative.
  • Quick to learn.
  • Disciplined.
  • Self-motivated.
  • Consistent.
  • Works without supervision.
  • Has breadth of experience.

Team work attributes

  • Good team-working ability.
  • Demonstrates leadership qualities.
  • Constructively critical.
  • Innovative.
  • Can draw ideas together.
  • Maintains high standards.
  • Focussed.
  • Adopts an evidence-led approach.
  • Able to finish a project.

Specific work skills

  • Communication skills [written/oral].
  • Sets knowledge in context.
  • Time management.
  • Critically analytical.
  • Computer literate.
  • Languages.
  • Relevant technical skills.

See a list of general dos and don'ts on writing references for students.

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