Writing references: dos and don'ts

General advice for staff on things to do and not do when writing references for students.


  • Respond to reference requests as quickly as possible. If you are likely to be away from UWE Bristol make sure you can be alerted if a reference request arrives. Not responding at all or a late response can affect the outcome of the application.
  • Give the reference in the manner requested by the employer. For example, use a pro forma or template if it has been supplied.
  • Be fair. You have a duty of care to the person asking for the reference and to the person about whom you are writing.
  • Explain to students how you are going to approach writing their references and ask to be kept informed about their applications.
  • Be consistent in how you give references. Give a similar length and similar level of detail for all that you write.
  • Try to support any statements with factual evidence. For example “confident participator in group discussions, demonstrating the ability to debate points of disagreement clearly and maturely” is much better than just saying “excellent communication skills”.
  • Try to make only positive points. If there are areas of concern these should be discussed with the applicant prior to agreeing to be their referee and supported by written documentation.
  • Consider sharing the reference with the applicant  before you send it.


  • Refuse to write a reference without giving clear reasons to the employer, an unexplained refusal will be interpreted as a negative opinion concerning the applicant.
  • Use ambiguous language. If you have a definite opinion on the applicant you need to express this clearly.
  • Offer opinions that are not relevant to the position applied for. Specifically do not offer information about any perceived weaknesses that are not relevant to the job.
  • Give any opinions that are defamatory or refer to any topics that might lead to discrimination. Unless you are specifically asked by the prospective employer, and have explicit permission from the student/graduate, avoid all reference to: health, race, religion, political opinion, disability, maternity and other family issues, and convictions.
  • Offer opinions that you are not competent to give. For example, “she will be an excellent performer in this role” would be better phrased as “I believe she is well suited to this role“.
  • Provide telephone references if possible as they can be misheard, misunderstood and poorly transcribed. If you do give a telephone reference make sure you confirm the information you have provided in writing as soon as possible afterwards.

Back to top