Secret E-Diary

The art of writing a good reference

‘A critic should be taught to criticise a work of art without making any reference to the personality of the author.’ – Oscar Wilde

When I taught briefly at a Tutorial Establishment in one of our university cities, it fell to me to write the academic references for several of our pupils on their ‘UCCA’ forms as they were then called. For some reason, many of our students preferred not to have these reports written by their old schools. Nevertheless, I contacted these venerable institutions and synthesised a hotchpotch of opinions. One of my pupils, Philip Simnel, was trying for Oxford to read Modern History. I read his former master’s long reference and picked up the ’phone. This wonderful man had written the very textbook, Renaissance to Revolution, that steered me through ‘A’ level.

Once I had recovered from being embarrassingly sycophantic, I moved to my central questions. ‘You were very enthusiastic about Philip’s behaviour in his House.’ ‘Oh yes,’ he replied, ‘he was a wonderful prefect’. ‘And,’ I continued, ‘you say he was a stalwart on the rugby field.’ ‘Indeed. Quite slight of frame, but brave as a lion.’ ‘And a commendable performance as Lucy the maid in The Rivals?’ ‘As convincing a representation by a boy of a female servant as I have ever seen,’ replied the aged pedagogue. How many had he seen, I wondered briefly? ‘However, sir, I cannot see any reference to his abilities as an historian. I was wondering if this were a mistake?’ ‘No,’ he said, succinctly and definitively.

I queried the issue with the delightfully eccentric principal of our establishment, James Black, himself a polymath with an extremely distinguished cousin-once-removed in the literary field. ‘A perfect reference,’ he confirmed. ‘You never say anything that is adverse to the candidate. You just say nothing at all about the problematic subject in question, such as the candidate’s ability in the chosen discipline. If they understand how to read a reference, all will be clear. If not, then they will get what they deserve. The Oxford college concerned had this gift and Simnel went to work in a bank in which I am happy to say his income in ten years exceeded mine in a lifetime. However, I had learned how to write a reference.

And, as well, because it is that time of year again. Earnest looking juniors approaching their seniors in search of references for Silk. For the referee, or assessor as they are now known, the difficulty is in divining what the organisation requesting the reference actually wants. It was not so in the old days. Now it has become much more complicated – in common with most aspects of modern life. Are you being asked to provide information that will aid them in making a decision? Will your slightest quibble be used to justify a decision against the applicant taken for wholly different reasons? Have those invaluable judicial references from ‘a word to the wise’ been lost in a welter of transparency? And how am I supposed to know what their contributions to diversity and cultural issues have been?

Both the Twist brothers are in for Silk this year: Roderick and Alexander, whose ability to sit on both sides of the fence is legendary. I had no method of differentiating them as they are as two peas in a pod. Personally, I think neither of them should get Silk but am equally sure that both of them will so I have a problem with hedging my own bets. Of Roderick, I wrote that he was extremely good at seeing everyone else’s point of view, which is apparently accounted a virtue, and that he moved to ultimate decisions with the deepest care and consideration. Of Alex, I wrote that he was equally at home with a person of one belief, creed, culture or diverse feature as he was with another and only formed a final opinion when he could see clearly that the advantages of the course he favoured outweighed the disadvantages of all the others.

Then there were a series of final judgments to be ticked off in a box. Was the candidate ‘excellent’, ‘very good’, ‘good’ and so on through to ‘prefer not to say’, which is surely the most eloquent of all denouncements. I remembered from a previous incarnation of the procedure that anything lower than ‘very good’ was, in fact, no good at all. My word-processed bullet point hovered and struck the same box in both cases. I looked at an old, framed photograph of James Black on my chimney-piece. He is still alive and he would be proud.

William Byfield Gutteridge Chambers. William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.