References | | DJS


Most of you will have your reference for UCAS written by your centre Principal (meaning me if you’re at my Centre). The common habit in the UK is that the Head signs these even if your Tutor writes it. Where I am, please feel free to approach another teacher and ask if they might feel able to write your reference.

The reference is used by the university to support your application. It is expected to be in good English but has become almost an art form in saying apparent positives while not saying some things. So, if you were able to read one as an example, it might well read one story on the surface and something quite different at another level of meaning. I disagree with this habit quite strongly; I would like references to be clear, straightforward communication that tells the situation the way it is. Only a few can be the best—most of us are ordinary folk, and, while hopefully special in some respects, we each represent just another facet of humanity. Sadly, the habit of making all references read like advertising the greatest student to appear since the failure of the Greek empire has devalued the process to the point where admissions officers often ignore these.

In the end, the reference becomes a validation of things you say in your personal statement. It might be clever to leave some things out of your PS for the referee to include (they will certainly appreciate you giving them something to write about). The reference should be confidential, which means that you cannot (should not) see it. Some interfering parent took a school to court over this and as a result references in Britain may be read by the student. This has prevented most head teachers from writing their honest opinions and makes the reference an almost useless document. For our (mine, at least) Centres it is in all our interests for the reference to be (and be seen to be) confidential, to be seen to be honest, direct and to the point, with no obfuscation and no blurring of the comments. This means you have, in the reference, a second document that supports your application, not some bland and practically meaningless statement. You do not want to know what it says. You do, however, want the opinion of the person you ask to write your statement to be positive; that should affect who you choose to ask.

All those lines that your Chinese character says you must write—all those “oh, I’m so wonderful” sentences, all those phrases you worked on that say you won prizes—give them to your referee: it reads really well (in English) when someone else writes that you won a competition, that you are a star player in your sport, that you have extra qualifications you are not shouting about. Write them out and give them away—then you have two documents that support each other and the one from the referee has more content, not just warm words.

Applications to America (by which I mean US and Canada) often ask which percentile a student falls into. Some of these institutions ask the question intelligently, but the majority ask a bad question. Only 5% of us are in the top 5%, so 95% of us are not. A question not posed often enough asks about the population: if I am asked who is in the top 5% I can only write knowledgeably about my students, who are already in the top 5% of the nation for education, and the top 0.5% at grabbing opportunities (that they’re in the programme at all is proof of that), so those in the bottom 95% of our classes are provably special by Chinese standards. So who is in the top 5%? Obviously, only one in each twenty of your cohort (your age group at your Centre). I think there is a case for Centre Principals adding some standard notes to these applications....

The sort of thing a referee would like to write (I speak for myself here) is several sentences that describe your personality in a way which is accurate, different and memorable. I well remember describing one boy as a Dick Francis hero (unmemorable at first meeting, hidden mental and physical strength, reliable in all circumstances and standing up for their friends; once you know him well, he is unforgettable); I am happy to describe someone as a wonderful future parent as it says much for their caring nature; I am happy to say you don’t come across well at first meeting (neither do I) because it means, I hope, that they’ll treat an interview with leniency.

A reference should give your predicted grades at A-level. I would expect to discuss this with you, not in the sense that “we’ll put AAA to increase your chance of an offer”, but in the sense of saying that “your teachers think this, and what do you think about that?” If you think you are AAB and they think CCD then we have a problem of perception that needs addressing (and probably should already have been dealt with). This is a good opportunity to talk about your dreams (a horrid word in English, but good in American and Chinese), your hopes and aspirations. If you have looked at psychometric testing as suggested, this is a good time to discuss what that said, how you feel about this, how your parents feel, what the expectations are for your future, et cetera. However, it is actually more useful if you can answer questions with the same general intent but from a different perspective.

For example, ask yourself these questions:

Do you like working with people? Does that mean you want to work with the general public or with a relatively fixed team of people you know? Could you grade your preferences on a scale between extremes? Would you describe yourself as extrovert or introvert, generous or selfish, competitive or co-operative, aggressive or passive?

Do you think of yourself as a future expert in some field? Would you rather be a generalist?

Do you like working with numbers, ideas or concepts (or all of these)? Can you see yourself as a professional of some sort?

Which would you rather have, happiness, fame or fortune?  Ask yourself which is the most important to you, put them in order, ask if there is one you could do without. Consider adding good health to the list.

Do you know yourself? What have you done that gave you a strong learning experience? When have you stretched yourself in mind and or body and discovered that you can do more than you thought? Could you write or talk about this?

Are you able to work independently and do you have any evidence of that? Can you demonstrate anything that suggests you will thrive (or merely survive) at university? Are you good in a team? Do you work harder for a team than for yourself? Have you any evidence of this?

Can you sell things? Can you support that with evidence? Can you sell an idea better than a product? Have you run a business? Have you handled money? What societies have you run? (and if you can’t answer these, then why are you applying for Business?)

Can you do research on your own? Where is the evidence of that? What have you done recently along those lines? How does this point to the subjects you are applying to study?

What do you do in your own time? What do you do that you really enjoy? How does that relate to what you say you want to study? It doesn’t have to connect, but in Britain the connection will often be direct and obvious; Sports Science, Medicine, Leisure Studies, Politics for example.

There are some other questions on the page on Personal Statements. None of these are easy questions to answer—you may spend the rest of your life discovering the answer to some of them—but they are the sort of things to think about.

                                                                                                               DJS 20080930

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