Careers Service Writing academic references

As a member of staff, you may be asked to provide references for students by employers. An academic reference aims to confirm facts. It also provides relevant opinions on the student's aptitude and ability. Both facts and opinions must be differentiated.

These guidelines will advise students and staff on how to ensure best practice. They will also adhere to the University's Data Protection guidance on confidential references. This information was developed after consulting with employers from diverse fields. Employers include 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 accurate and complete. Avoid ambiguous or coded language.

Differentiate statements of fact and opinion. For example, if you are referring to an 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. This ensures you will be confident in justifying your opinions on reasonable grounds. For example, by making comparisons with other students at a relevant stage of study. Please ensure you do not identify individuals. Do not feel pressured into giving information you are not qualified for. Or, that you do not have the necessary information to provide.

Do not make statements that you cannot justify. For example, don't claim that he/she would be successful in a certain role. Focus on the skills and abilities that, in your opinion, will ensure the candidate will be successful in this position.

Use the most appropriate sources to gather information on your students/graduates. Ask them to submit a CV if you need further information. If you think a student’s application is poor, refer them to the Careers Service for further guidance.

Always keep a copy of the reference. Store references in an appropriate place in line with GDPR best practice.

What to include

  • verification 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's made clear that this is an opinion and not a fact)
  • comment on student's skills and abilities

Overview of skills:

  • work experience
  • career interests
  • involvement in extracurricular activities/interests
  • overall impact and demeanour

Types of references


When an employer requests information on a candidate, it may take the form of a pro forma. Tutors will fill out a series of set questions. They can expand on the student's particular skills and abilities.

A tutor may be asked to write a letter to the employer. Contact could also be made by email and the reference is expected to be returned by email. Please ensure that the authenticity of the email address is confirmed.

It's also common practice for an organisation to email you directly. They will cite the student's name. And request you visit a web page to enter a supplied username and/or password to access an online form. Again, ensure the authenticity of the web page. Always print and keep a hard copy.


Some employers may make contact by telephone to request a reference. Avoid providing information on the telephone unless the circumstances are exceptional. Oral references can be misinterpreted and transcribed incorrectly.

If a telephone reference is unavoidable, limit statements to facts. Follow up on the oral reference immediately in writing. For example, by email. You may request the telephone number of the employer and call to ensure authenticity.

You can refuse to answer a question you consider to be sensitive personal data. For example, health-related matters. Don't make comments that you would not endorse in writing. Further advice is given in the University's guidance on data protection considerations of writing references.

Open references/letters of recommendation

Students may ask academics to write an open reference or a general letter of recommendation. This may happen if they're going to be out of the country or unavailable for some reason. A tutor can still be contacted for a specific reference, even if they have supplied an open reference. The reference should be dated. See 'What to include in a reference' below for further guidance.

Legal considerations

The Careers Service offers guidance on the basis of the best information available to it. Readers of these general guidelines must take responsibility for their own decisions.

Under the GDPR and the Data Protection Act 2018, people have a right to request access to their personal data. Referees should always assume that the student will view the reference. Ensure that disclosure of data in the form of a reference only happens once you have confirmed the employer's identity. A student's request for a reference should be made in writing.

There's no legal obligation for a referee to provide a reference. But, referees are under a legal obligation to use due care when compiling references:

always say when the information given is factual or an opinion

  • always keep a copy of any reference provided
  • if posting, mark the envelope and all correspondence 'Private and Confidential'
  • when obliged to send an email reference, type 'Confidential' in the title box. It doesn't guarantee anything. But it shows you're trying to protect the candidate from having personal information broadcast

If a tutor is uncomfortable about providing a reference, they can tell the student they do not wish to be a referee. They must be clear and transparent about their reasons for refusing.

If an employer contacts you to provide a reference and you're unable to do so, this must be communicated carefully to the employer and student. This helps avoid implying a negative reference.

Don't supply any 'special category data' without the written permission of the candidate. GDPR and the Data Protection Act 2018 provide a definition of what is 'special category data'. This relates to information about a subject's:

  • race
  • ethnic origin
  • politics
  • religion
  • trade union membership
  • genetic data
  • biometric data (where used for ID purposes)
  • health
  • sex life
  • sexual orientation

If a member of staff has any concerns or queries, please contact