Careers Service

Writing references

Guidance on providing references for your students

As Personal Tutor you will be asked to supply references for your students and graduates. These guidelines will help you ensure best practice and avoid any pitfalls.


The reference must be accurate, fair and transparent. You should avoid making unsubstantiated or potentially misleading statements. Keep the information fact based and support your claims with evidence. Avoid supposition and use qualifying statements if needed, e.g. ‘To the best of my knowledge’. Many employers will issue a reference pro-forma, but you may be asked to provide an open reference. If so, you are advised to follow the guidance below.

What to include

  • The capacity in which you know the student
  • Confirmation of dates of study, degree subject, relevant grades and related modules
  • Notable academic achievements: awards, bursaries, competitions
  • Comments on the student’s academic ability, personal qualities, skills and suitability for the role.
  • Participation in extra or co-curricular activities.
  • Internships and work experience.
  • Focus on positive points where possible. Discuss any concerns with the student beforehand. 

What to exclude

  • Opinion or personal comments that are irrelevant to the position
  • Defamatory statements
  • Information relating to a student’s health or mental state, ethnic origin, religious belief or sexual orientation

Managing the process

  • Raise the subject with students early in their penultimate year. Encourage students to keep you informed of their career plans – ask them to share their CV or application(s) and details of jobs or postgraduate courses.
  • Respond to reference requests within the agreed timeframe.
  • Avoid giving telephone references where possible. It is best to have a written record.
  • Maintain a consistent format to avoid allegations of favouritism.
  • Store references in the appropriate place

Although there is no statutory duty to supply references, it is established practice at Edinburgh for personal tutors to fulfil this role. If you are unable, uncomfortable, or unwilling to provide a reference please inform the student (or graduate) as soon as possible, clearly stipulating your reasons

The legal context

  • You do not need the student’s consent to provide a reference. The legal basis is *performance of a contract” as the student wishes to enter into an employment contract.  It’s the same for giving references for students making an application for further study. That is also “steps taken towards a contract” so the legal basis is the same.
  • You must not provide confidential references, only a reference you would be prepared to share with the student.
  • There is a legal obligation to use due care when compiling a reference in order to ensure its accuracy.
  • As references involve the sharing, handling and disclosure of personal data, they are subject to the General Data Protection Regulation.


This information was provided by Dr Rena Gertz, (PC.dp), Data Protection Officer, University of Edinburgh, who confirmed it will be provided to students too.