Writing Academic References

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Tutors are often asked to provide references for students by employers. There can be confusion and uncertainty by students and tutors as to employers' requirements. The aims of an academic reference are to confirm facts (confirm accuracy of statements made in any application) and to provide relevant opinion on the candidate's aptitude and ability. Both facts and opinion must be clearly differentiated.

The general guidelines provided will advise students and academic staff on how to ensure best practice while also adhering to the University's Data Protection policy on confidential references. This information was developed after consultation with a wide range of employers from diverse fields including IBM, ASDA, Accenture, Scottish Power and JP Morgan.

General Principles

  • Try to be fair, bearing in mind the duty of care owed to both the student and the recipient of the reference.
  • Ensure that the reference is factually accurate and complete.
  • Avoid ambiguous or coded language.
  • Clearly differentiate statements of fact and opinion. For example, when referring to a student's expected degree result or exam result, this would be an opinion whereas reference to existing achievement and marks is a fact.
  • Only express opinions that are relevant, and that you are competent to give. When expressing opinions, draw upon experiences of working with or assessing the student, so that you feel confident in justifying your opinions on reasonable grounds. For example, by making comparison with other students at a relevant stage of study.  (Please ensure that no reference is made to other students in a way which would identify individuals). Do not feel pressured - for example by pro forma questions - into giving information you are not qualified or do not have the necessary information to provide.
  • Do not make statements that you cannot justify. For example, do not claim that he/she would unequivocally be successful in a certain role, but rather focus on the skills and abilities that, in your opinion, will ensure the candidate will be successful in this position.
  • Always retain a hard copy of the reference.

Types of References

Written References

The employer makes contact and requests information on the suitability of the candidate. This could take the form of a pro forma where the tutor is asked to fill out a series of set questions and then provided with space to expand on the student's particular skills and abilities. However, a tutor may be asked to write a letter to the employer. Contact could also be made by email and the reference expected to be returned by email. Please ensure that the authenticity of the email address is confirmed. It is also common practice for an organisation requesting the reference to email you directly, citing the student's name and requesting your visit to a web page to enter a supplied username and/or password in order to access an online form. Again, ensure the authenticity of the web page. Always print and retain a hard copy.

Telephone References

Some employers may make contact by telephone to request a reference. It would be best to resist providing information on the telephone unless the circumstances are exceptional. Oral references can often be misinterpreted and transcribed incorrectly. If a telephone reference is deemed unavoidable and in the student's best interest, then academic staff should try to limit their statement to the facts and should then follow up the oral reference immediately in writing (e.g. by fax or by email). As a minimum security measure the telephone number of the employer can be requested and a call made to ensure authenticity.

During the conversation, you can refuse to answer a question you deem to be sensitive personal data (e.g. health related matters).  Do not make comments which you would not endorse in writing.  Further advice is given in annex 1.3 of the University Data Protection Policy.

Open References/Letters of Recommendation

Students may ask academics to write an open reference or general letter of recommendation if perhaps they are going to be out of the country or unavailable for some reason. The student should be aware that a tutor can be approached for a specific reference even if that person has already supplied an open letter of recommendation. Obviously, the reference should be dated as a matter of course. See 'What to include in a reference' below for further guidance.

What to include in a reference

Students usually approach tutors personally and make a request for a reference. If you agree, at this stage it can be very helpful to ask students to provide a copy of their CV or other general information, together with any ideas they have on their future career plans.


  • Verification of the fact that you have known the student for a certain length of time.
  • Confirmation that the student is on or has attended a specific course.
  • Class of degree or expected class of degree. (If expected please ensure it is made clear that this is an opinion and not a fact).
  • Comment on student's skills and abilities

Obviously the specific combination will depend on the vacancy but for an overview of skills employers require and to see descriptions of exactly what employers mean when they mention these skills .

  • Work experience
  • Career interests
  • Involvement in extra-curricular activities/interests
  • Overall impact and demeanor

Legal issues

The Careers Service offers guidance (advice and information) in good faith on the basis of the best information available to it. Readers of these general guidelines must take responsibility for their own decisions based on such guidance.

It is important to remember that under the Data Protection Act students can ask the employer for an opportunity to view the submitted reference. Therefore, referees should always assume that the student will view the reference. Please ensure that disclosure of data in the form of a reference only takes place following confirmation of the employer's identity.  Ideally, a student's request for a referee to give a reference should be made in writing (by letter or e-mail) rather than verbally.

There is no legal obligation for a referee to provide a reference, however, referees are under a legal obligation to use due care when compiling references. Always indicate when information given is factual or an opinion. Always retain a hard copy of any reference provided. Mark the envelope and all correspondence 'Private and Confidential'. When obliged to send an email reference, type 'Confidential' in the title box. It does not guarantee anything, but it is an indicator that the referee is trying to protect the candidate from having personal information broadcast inappropriately.

If a tutor is uncomfortable about providing a reference, or has significant reservations about what they can say, they are free to tell the student that they do not wish to be a referee. They must, however, be clear and transparent about their reasons for refusing. If you are contacted by an employer to provide a reference, but you are unable or unwilling to do so, then this must be communicated carefully to both the employer and student in order to avoid implying a negative reference.

Do not supply any 'sensitive personal data' without the written permission of the candidate. The Data Protection Act provides a definition of what is termed 'sensitive personal data'. This relates to information concerning a subject's:

a) racial or ethnic origin,
b) political opinions,
c) religious beliefs,
d) Trades Union activities,
e) physical or mental health,
f) sexual life,
g) details of criminal offences.

If a member of staff has any concerns or queries, please contact dataprotection@strath.ac.uk, for further guidance.