SCHOOLS AND COLLEGES will write references for some half a million sixth-formers this winter to support their university applications. For school leaders, getting this right could mean more students gaining places and added prestige. But do universities take any notice of them?
It is tempting to think that all that really matters to admissions tutors is predicted A-level grades. References, like the personal statement, are surely too subjective to merit serious attention? "References have become much less helpful to admissions tutors since they became open because referees are understandably reluctant to be explicitly critical," says Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge. "They also seem reluctant to be very explicitly supportive, perhaps because they are worried that references will be compared by parents of students."
At face value, early application seems more likely to result in a desirable offer than a well-crafted reference. By October 15 (the Oxbridge deadline for medicine, dentistry and veterinary science), nearly 60,000 pupils had submitted UCAS forms. Despite a further 400,000 applications expected by the January 15 deadline, many students have already received offers.
"Lots of our students have received multiple offers and two pupils have even received letters congratulating them on the quality of their application," says Michele Tipp, head of sixth form at Oakwood Park grammar in Maidstone, Kent. Oakwood Park, like my own school, Portsmouth grammar, has a policy of submitting all pupils' applications by mid-October.
But references are still important. "It has to be honest," says Ms Tipp.
"Students have to be able to cope at university, so although we try to be positive, we can say negative things in a constructive way."
Peter Galliver, head of applications at Portsmouth grammar, says: "We take care to include relevant information about students' background and write to parents before sending the reference to establish if their child is the first in the family to go on to higher education."
Mr Parks says well-prepared references give valuable additional detail about a candidate, and is critical of schools that fail to give a full picture of candidates. He would like referees to assess candidates against specific criteria, such as academic ability, organisation, persistence, reliability and creativity - a system used in the United States.
Information that helps to put students into context is the most important function of the reference. This "contextual" data is so vital that UCAS is considering the addition of more formal questions for 2008 - further evidence that a good reference is one written by someone who knows the student's background situation as well as they know their performance in the classroom.
James Priory is head of sixth form at Portsmouth grammar school
ADMISSIONS TUTORS SAY...
"Many courses don't have time to interview, but it's important for us to find out about the student's relationship with their school community. We are looking for thinking individuals who can contribute to their institutions." Lee Worden, Durham university
"(A good reference) discusses the candidate's suitability for higher education and identifies any mitigating factors that might affect the student's results, such as problems at home and illness." Amanda Bennett, schools and colleges liaison officer at Brunel university
"For English, we give the reference a numerical score. This helps to ensure that even though you may not be predicted straight A grades, you will still be looked at as a candidate. It makes the process more inclusive." Rachel Atkin, Nottingham university