Writing references


He got a sense of how I worked and my work ethic and the academic side of me as well as the personal side of me so it gave me the confidence that if I were to ask for a reference from someone he would be very useful to give that and he’d be able to give the most accurate information about me as a whole rather than just someone I’d meet maybe once a term

Student, Psychology

As a Personal Tutor, it is likely that you will be asked to provide a reference for your tutees at some point. The function of the reference will dictate how you approach this task (a reference to support your tutee’s application for a PhD studentship may look slightly different to one to support your tutee’s first job) but you should ensure that you adhere to the University’s overarching guidance on references within the recruitment and selection process available here.

Clearly the University has an obligation to ensure that references are legally compliant and hence the guidance recommends that:

  • academic departments have a clear procedure for the provision of references for students “whereby students ask in advance for permission to quote members of staff as references. This provides an opportunity to get explicit permission from the student to disclose ‘sensitive personal data’ such as attendance”. Guidelines on Requesting and Obtaining References and Writing References for Employment HR version August 2016
  • references are factual, accurate, fair and unambiguous
  • you restrict the use of University headed notepaper/University email accounts and your University credentials to official references – if you are providing a personal reference (character reference) this should be made clear
  • references  should be written – decline requests for telephone references as these can easily be misinterpreted or mis-heard and there is no written record of the conversation
  • you respond to the request for a reference as soon as is practicable
  • if you receive a questionnaire from the employer which requests information which you do not have, do not be tempted to guess at the information nor make a judgement about those areas which you are not able to assess
  • you assume that your tutee will read the reference you have written – this should help frame the contents of the reference.

Common questions about writing references

⩔ Am I obliged to write a reference for a tutee I’ve never met?(click to see response)

In the interests of consistency and equality of treatment of all students, you should consider the impact on your tutee (and the reputation of the University) if you decided not to write a reference. It may be simplest to provide minimal factual information (dates of attendance, course completed, classification obtained, any particular features of the course if known eg placement undertaken (place/duration), title of dissertation. Remember that you are legally obliged to ensure that your reference is fair, accurate and factual.

⩔ Am I obliged to write a reference for a tutee who graduated 3 years ago and I haven’t heard of since?

Again here the response is that you should provide a reference which provides factual information and which is fair and accurate.

⩔ What about a student who had chronic health issues whilst on the course? Should I mention that?

Remember that you have a duty to provide information which is non discriminatory and fair. If the health issue did not affect your tutee’s performance then why mention this at all? Even if the health issue resulted in your tutee having to resit a module why mention this? Stating the facts (tutee’s start date, completion date, final qualification/classification) will provide all the ‘clues’ a potential employer needs. Information relating to your tutee’s health record/absences is treated in law as sensitive personal data and you should seek advice from your department, Senior Tutor or from the University’s Human Resources Department if you receive a request for a reference which requires this information.

⩔ I really do not want to provide a reference – I don’t think I could say anything positive

This depends on the reason for your unease. Naturally, you will get along with some tutees more readily than others but you must treat all tutees equally when it comes to the provision of a reference. Even if you are aware of a particular issue with a tutee (your tutee has committed a serious academic offence or has been found guilty of a criminal offence) you should not normally disclose this information without careful consideration. There may be instances when the duty of care owed to the reference requester necessitates the disclosure of information but such instances are rare and you should seek the advice of your Senior Tutor and/or from the University’s Human Resources Department .

⩔ My tutee has applied for a summer job with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) and VSO has just rung for a telephone reference as that is their usual practice. What should I do?

Under such circumstances, it may be appropriate to provide a verbal reference. Clearly this opportunity (or any similar voluntary work) is beneficial for your tutee. Check the credentials of the requester by taking a name and number and calling them back. Provide factual information. State that you are providing a character reference if you proceed to do so. Try to make notes about the conversation.