Rather than thinking of the reference as an awkward extra over which you have no control, and which just annoyingly delays your application being sent off, you should consider it as an integral part of your application.
If you are reading this at an early stage of your sixth-form career, and you know who will be writing your reference (at McAuley it will be your form tutor) then you can begin the process of ensuring your reference is both personal and positive by the way you conduct yourself both academically and socially.
In our case, part of the reference will be compiled from the comments of subject tutors towards the end of Year 12, so make sure your teachers have a very positive view of you as a student that will allow them to make comments that show you standing out from the crowd, whatever your academic ability. Asking for suggestions for wider reading or other study materials (and then doing that wider study and showing it in your work) is one straightforward way of doing this. Make sure you are fully engaged in lessons, asking questions and contributing to discussion.
Impress your form teacher (or whoever will write your reference) by your punctuality, and willingness to contribute to form and school activities, such as assemblies and fund-raising. Ensure your tutor knows about any and every extra-curricular activity you are involved in, and if you have part-time work, make clear how you are organising your time well to fulfil that responsibility without it harming your academic work. Show that you are well-organised and committed to higher education (or future career if you are applying for work or training) by starting your research early, arranging work-placements, visiting universities, developing a network of contacts through social media in your field of interest, and make sure your tutor knows about all this. A good way of doing this would be to start a blog tracking your experiences. I posted about this idea previously here.
Once you are closer to completing the application process, you should work ever-closer with your tutor to make sure that your UCAS personal statement (or CV / letter of application for jobs) is complemented by the reference. One of my main sources of annoyance as a tutor is when the guidance I have given is not followed, leading to extra work on my part: if you want the best reference possible, you should obviously want to make your reference writer’s job as easy as possible, so make sure you carefully take on board all the advice and instructions you have been given (in my case you will find it all on this blog). In particular make sure you are in a dialogue with your tutor as you draft your personal statement. Perhaps there are things that you are struggling to fit into your personal statement, which it would be appropriate to be mentioned in the reference instead. For me, one of the most important things is making sure that my reference not only shows genuine knowledge of the student, but also of the courses they are applying for. However, it is frustrating to have to constantly switch between the personal statement, my draft reference, and university websites or UCAS entry profiles. So remind yourself of this post on targeting your personal statement about making sure you know exactly what universities are looking for, and share this information directly with your tutor as you are drafting the personal statement, so that it can also be used to tailor the reference to be specific to your course choice(s).
You may like to read some of the guidance that is available for staff who write references (see links below). This will help to give you an idea of exactly what we have to do, and help you work with your tutor to make your statement and the reference complement each other positively.
Slides from a UCAS presentation on references – succinct and useful advice with examples of what to write (and avoid)
Exeter University Teacher Information Sheet– a short and succinct advice sheet.
Slides from a Leicester University presentation – covers both personal statements and references.
Tips from Birmingham University academics – a short video packed with useful advice.