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Postgraduate Study


Thank you for acting as an academic referee for an applicant to the University of Cambridge. High-quality references are much appreciated and help us decide which applicants will benefit most from our courses.

The information below describes what we need from you and what we're looking for in a reference. Following this guidance will maximise the value of your reference to ourselves and to the student concerned.

If you're unable to supply a reference for the applicant, or cannot meet the timetable, please let the applicant know as soon as possible so they can nominate another referee.

What do I need to provide?

Our reference request has three parts.

1) Your details

You are asked to give your name, your role and institution when you knew the applicant directly, and how long that was for. This helps us interpret your comments.

2) Specific questions

You are asked to answer three specific questions. For each, your response is given by selecting one from a short set of categories. These questions cover:

  • the student’s academic performance relative to others. You're also asked about the size of the group against which you are comparing the student. If you're unable to rate the student, you're given an opportunity to explain why. Please give some details of the capacity in which you oversaw the applicant’s work and your judgement on it.
  • the student’s potential for originality, creativity and independence of thought, based on their work when you taught them.
  • the student’s suitability for the course and its level of qualification (eg MPhil or PhD), given their existing experience. The name of the course and a link to further details are on the first page (‘overview’) of the referee portal.

3) Reference letter

You are asked to provide a letter of reference or recommendation. Please focus on the student’s abilities, experiences and skills, and how these are relevant to their proposed course.

A reference will be most useful to us, and to the student, if you can give specific examples of projects or tasks they have conducted and the results they have achieved.

A reference of 500 to 1,000 words is most effective. Longer references will not give additional help to the student. However, a very short reference may disadvantage the student and it may be fairer to let them know that you are unable to act as a referee.

If possible, we ask you to comment on the following specific areas. It is helpful, but not necessary, to cover these in order. We recommend that you use these as headings in the reference letter.

  • For a student who is yet to complete their degree, their expected final result and any interim grades. Please explain any discrepancy between the two.
  • For all students, their academic potential on the proposed course, including the relevance of courses taken to date and the logic of the new course for their academic development. Use this section to describe any contextual factors which have prevented them from demonstrating their potential in their academic performance to date, such as circumstances affecting their ability to devote time to study or a background of educational or social capital disadvantage.
  • Their intellectual characteristics: their intellectual curiosity and their abilities in critical thinking, analytical reasoning and coherent argument, as well as any relevant technical competence.
  • Their motivation: their persistence when faced with challenges and their drive to complete set tasks, including their proposed course.
  • Their task and time management, in particular when they are working independently.
  • Their effectiveness as a student: their responsiveness to feedback, their capacity for self-reflection and development, and their ability to work and communicate with others in an intellectual community.
  • Your summary view: whether you would want to supervise the student yourself or offer them a place within your own research group.

You may want to consult colleagues in drafting a reference. In particular, if the student was taught by a PhD candidate, they may be a useful source of information (note that we ask applicants not to nominate PhD candidates as referees directly).

Please do not discuss protected characteristics like ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability.

We're looking for references that are specific to an individual course. If an applicant names you as a referee for more than one course, we will need you to complete a separate reference for each.

Submitting your reference

All references are submitted through our referee portal. A link to the portal will be emailed to you when an applicant nominates you as a referee.

The email will give a deadline for submission of your reference. Unfortunately, the student’s application will be withdrawn if this deadline is not met. If the deadline is close, the student has been late in nominating you as a referee. Please contact them directly if this is a problem.

The reference letter can be uploaded to the portal or typed directly into a free text box. If you have any technical difficulties, please contact

Your reference should be:

  • in English
  • between 500 and 1,000 words
  • a PDF document 
  • no larger than 2MB
  • signed and dated

To help with verification, we expect applicants to provide an academic email address for their referees (usually containing .ac or .edu). 

If you do not have an academic email address, please use your institution’s headed paper for each page of the reference letter and provide full contact details. Please include a brief explanation of your position and why an alternative email address is being used.

References are supplied to Cambridge in confidence and, as such, are exempt from the right of access provisions of data protection legislation (UK GDPR). References will not be disclosed to the student or to third parties, including other parts of the University of Cambridge.

After submission

We give applicants the ability to send you an automatic reminder letter if your reference has not been sent.

We also let applicants know that it can take up to 36 hours for your reference to register for them as submitted. If needed, you can use the link in the request email to check that you have submitted successfully.