Everything you ever wanted to know about references

Our advice on who to ask, when to ask and what you should ask them.


Not everyone feels confident about asking for references. Maybe you know your potential referees are really busy or hard to get a reply from right now, or you’re just not sure what to say to them.

We work with thousands of referees, as well as applicants, every year — these are our recommendations on how to make the process easier for everyone.

Who should you ask to be a referee?

You’re going to be registering three referees when you apply and like everything else in your application, it’s worth thinking carefully about it beforehand.

So, who’s in the best position to give a positive, well-informed opinion on how well you’d do on the course you’re interested in?

Take a look at your course page for your academic department’s specific requirements. Usually you’ll be looking for someone in a more senior (and usually academic) position than you, who’s been familiar with your work over a sustained period — around the length of an academic term, or longer. Ideally they’ll have been in charge of assessing and/or overseeing your work in some way in the time they’ve known you.

Think about your achievements, and who knows them best

One way to approach this is to look at your CV and transcript and to think about what you’d want to highlight to the assessors —maybe a particularly good grade on an essay, a competitive internship you aced, a class or lecture series you really enjoyed and got into really in-depth discussions on.

You might find it helpful to go back through your module list and write a list of the staff who taught you. Modules, projects and assignments you did particularly well on are a good place to start.

  • Can I use a professional reference? Each course has its own policy on this (you’ll find this on the course page) and some courses will accept one or more professional reference, especially if it’s been a while since you studied at university. Make sure you double-check that your referee is happy to write this sort of reference for a graduate course, even if they’re usually your go-to referee for applying to jobs.
  • Is a famous academic (or head of department) a better reference? If you have a lot of options it can be tempting to go for referees who might look the most impressive on paper, but for someone to advocate for you well, it’s best if they really, truly know you.
  • Is a high school or secondary teacher a good reference? When you’re applying to graduate study we don’t ask you about your high school education in your application or have any entry requirements for your high school grades. Since your high school record isn’t considered as part of your application, academic references are generally from your university-level study.
  • What if I think someone might be a good reference but I don’t know if they’d agree? If you’re asking all of your referees well in advance if they’d be able to submit a reference for you on time (which we really strongly recommend) then it really doesn’t hurt to ask. If they say no, you can move on and find a new referee.

Take some time to think through your options and make sure that any reference meets the requirements on your course page.

What’s next?

Ask your referees before you register them

One of the first things you’ll do when you apply is register your referees in your application by putting in their contact details, which sends them an automated email with instructions on what to do next. However, this automated email isn’t the best way to let them know that you need a reference.

Before you register anyone, you should tell the people that you want be your referees about your plans to apply. Be polite and concise, include links to the webpage for course(s) you’re applying to, and ask if they’re happy to submit a reference for you by the deadline. Including your CV and a line or two on why you’re interested in the course(s) you’re applying for can also be a helpful head start for them and give them an idea of what they might focus on in the reference.

Doing this gives your referees the chance to tell you straight away if they need any more information, or if they might struggle to submit a reference in time — even if you do give them a lot of notice, there’s always a chance they could be away on fieldwork or a sabbatical, or having medical treatment when you actually apply, for example.

Tell them your plans

If you want to apply to more than one course to Oxford, make sure your referees know and that they’re happy to submit a reference for each application.

We’re not able to apply the same reference to all your applications (and if they’ve written a really course-specific reference, you probably wouldn’t want us to anyway).

If they don’t know your plans, your referees might think you’ve changed your course choice or may not notice that the requests are for different applications, and they might not submit all the references as you need.

Give them time to prepare (as much as you can)

A good reference takes time, thought, and often some research to prepare — your referee might want to look back at your work or your marks, or read about the course you’re applying to.

Following our advice to contact referees before you apply gives them a head start so don’t skip this step, even if you’re applying closer to the deadline.

Make sure you follow up by registering referees in the form as soon as they say yes, and try to give them at least a few weeks to submit — more if you can!

Check in with them

Like all of us, referees sometimes run into technical problems, have personal emergencies, and get deadlines mixed up. If the deadline is coming up and they haven’t submitted yet, send them a polite message to check they have everything they need, and that they’ve received the automated email from Oxford with their instructions and link to submit.

You might think that academic staff know everything there is to know about submitting a reference, but every university has its own system and requirements and your referee may not have sent one to Oxford before.

They’ll probably be writing references for other students with different deadlines and processes around the same time as well, so a gentle reminder when your deadline is coming up can help everyone out.

Don’t wait on your references to submit your application

You can submit your application any time as long as you’ve registered your referees and it’s otherwise complete and ready — your references will still get added to your record as they come in.

If you’re ready to submit, send it in! We’ll look it over and you’ll have that bit of extra time to fix any problems, compared to leaving it until the last minute.

Everything you need to know about applying to Oxford

Our detailed Application Guide covers the whole process of applying to Oxford for graduate study, from references and documents to English language requirements and how to use the form.

For more on references, check out the dedicated section on choosing, registering and submitting references.



Graduate Study at Oxford
Applying for graduate study at Oxford

A perspective on masters’, DPhil (PhD) and other graduate courses from Graduate Admissions at the University of Oxford