How to get a strong reference
Get to know your referee
Know your referee so that they can write about your strengths, and write something personal about you that would stand out to the admissions tutors who see hundreds of similar references day in day out.
Request it early
The vast majority of candidates will have their references done by their teachers automatically. However for some candidates, they need to choose their referees and approach them for a reference. Ask early (in summer) for an October submission so that your referees can have time to write a stellar reference! Do not ask them to write something in the last week before submission – you will not endear yourself to them, and they may question your time-management skills in the reference itself!
Your referees will be busy people, so to improve your chances of having a meaningful reference, schedule an appointment with your referee if possible to discuss your reference. Bring your CV and personal statement with you so that they can see what areas needs supplementing in the application process.
Thank your referee
Something that nearly never gets done! When all is done and dusted, it would be a good idea to take some time to thank your referee in person for spending the time and effort in writing a reference. Also update them on where you were rejected from/accepted to, and where you eventually. Your referees have an interest in seeing you succeed, they deserve to know what happened!
Ask to see the reference
It is increasingly common for applicants to be shown their own references. This provides an opportunity to correct any errors that you may find (very rare but it can happen), or to be able to provide further information.
Harriet – University of Oxford
“I was given a copy of my reference from my school a couple of weeks before the deadline for submission of applications. This provided some reassurance that my referee had written positive statements about me. It was also useful as I was able to correct a couple of minor inaccuracies or add more specificity to a mentioned skill or attribute.
In hindsight it would have been useful to contact my referee in advance just to touch base and tell them a little more about myself and my motivations and interests. I think this would have been helpful for both of us. Don’t forget that your referee may have hundreds of references to write so be patient and organised, send them a copy of your personal statement early on so that the most important information about you is easily accessible.”
Can there be a bad reference?
Explaining negative situations
You can use a reference to mention details of any negative aspect of your application (such as resitting exams etc.) with an explanation of the reason (bereavement, illness etc.) coming from an authority figure. This would come across as more convincing than from yourself.
Whole reference is bad
It is very rare to see a bad reference completely. This will have a negative impact on your application process.
What if my referee asks me to write my own reference?
Some applicants (graduates) who can choose their own referees, find that some referees either do not have the time nor inclination to write a reference. So some ask the applicant to write the reference and that they will read it over and send it.
The whole truth and nothing but the truth
Keep everything factual, and real. Do not use this as an attempt to be dishonest. Your referee will not be pleased to be part of any deception.
Do not exaggerate
Do not say exaggerate your character traits in the reference “this man is a boon to man-kind in the field of research, without him I would never have achieved any degree of success”, as it would clearly be from a lie. Keep things modest, and your referee may upscale it, but been boastful will definitely result in the reference been toned down a notch or two.