Applications to UK universities for undergraduate degree courses are done online, through the UCAS (University and College Admissions Service) system. You can apply from September in Year 13, and the closing date for applications is normally mid-January. After the deadline, you can still apply but the most popular universities may decide that they already have enough applications and so will not consider those that come in after the deadline.
You are allowed to choose up to 5 universities or courses, therefore you need to plan carefully so you do not waste any of the 5 choices. Most students will start their research several months before they apply. Research might involve looking at university ranking tables, the grades that the universities require, location, subject specialisations, and the type of campus. Some universities are located in their own self-enclosed campus which means that everything that you need – lecture theatres, classrooms, laboratories, libraries, accommodation, social and sporting facilities – are all within the campus. Campus universities can be in or close to cities, or in quieter countryside locations. Other universities are incorporated within cities, so that the university buildings are located throughout the city.
Each university course will have what is called a “Standard Offer” which usually means the minimum grades that are required to get an offer. This doesn’t mean that you are automatically going to get an offer if you achieve these grades – more about this later. So, if a particular course has a Standard Offer of AAB at A level or 38 points at IB, then you need to have either achieved these grades or be predicted to achieve these grades in order for your application to be considered. Most students who are studying recognised international qualifications such as IB, A level or AP will apply before they sit the exams and so the school or college will predict what grades a student might achieve. If the prediction is at least as good as the Standard Offer then the university will look at the application in more detail. Some universities will make offers based on the “UCAS Tariff” which is a system of awarding points to various subject grades. The Standard Offer might also specify which subjects they require you to have studied.
When you apply through UCAS, you are required to write a Personal Statement to support your application. This has a character limit of 4000 characters including spaces – around 600 words – and the university will use this to see whether you are likely to be suitable for their course. You write one Personal Statement which all 5 of your university choices will read. This means that it needs to be relevant to all 5 choices so you need to ensure that the 5 courses you
apply for are similar so that the Personal Statement can effectively support your application. Usually, the Personal Statement is assessed by someone who teaches the subject that you are applying for so he/she is going to be most interested in your interest in that subject, what research you have done, and why you have chosen the subject. Although there is no exact requirement, most universities would expect to see about 80% of the Personal Statement focusing on the subject you are applying for. You can use the remaining 20% to write about your other interests, achievements or personal qualities.
In order to write an effective Personal Statement, you need to have done lots of preparation. A good Personal Statement will include details of any reading you have done about the subject, online resources you have used to find out more, internships, work experience or voluntary work that you have done to find out more about the practicalities or personal qualities required, holiday courses or projects. To ensure that you have enough to write about, preparation should start at least 6 months before you apply. Some subjects have very strict requirements about the sort of preparation they ask for. For example, if you want to apply for Medicine or Dentistry you need to have done lots of voluntary work to show that you understand the demands of a medically-related career and that you have the right levels of empathy and communication skills. If you want to be an architect or a designer you need a portfolio of your own art or design ideas to demonstrate your creativity.
Some universities or courses ask for extra entrance tests. If you are applying for Medicine you will almost certainly have to sit either or both of a UCAT test and a BMAT test. If you apply for Oxford or Cambridge universities, they may ask you to sit a Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA) test. Many Law courses require an LNAT test. If English is not your first language you might also need to sit an approved English Language test such as IELTS.
Once you have applied through UCAS, some universities might also require you to have an interview, either at the university or online. The purpose of the interview is to find out more about you, assess your communication skills, knowledge of the course or subject and, for the top universities, to get an idea of your thinking or problem-solving skills. The main areas that interviews generally cover are questions about your Personal Statement to get more detail, about your reasons for choosing the university or course, and some form of subject-related problem-solving or analysis. For a science or engineering interview you may be given a question about something that is new to you, which might be more advanced than you have been taught at school. They are not particularly interested in whether you know the answer, more about how you approach the problem. For a Medicine interview, they may ask you about current global medical issues or give you a scenario where you are a doctor and ask how you would deal with a particular situation. Again, what they are looking at is how you respond, not
whether you know the answer. Interview formats vary from university to university, so you need to find out exactly what will be required well in advance, and then have practice interviews.
Once the universities have looked at your application and, in some cases, interviewed you, they will make a decision. Each university has 3 possible responses. “Decline” which means that they cannot offer you a place. This, generally, is either because your predicted or actual grades are not enough to meet their Standard Offers, or because they (based on your Personal Statement and/or interview) do not think that the course is suitable for you. Bear in mind that the top universities have between 10 and 20 applicants for each place so even the best students will often get a rejection. A “Conditional Offer” means that they want you to join them, but have to wait until you get your final exam results or grades before confirming the place, and for students who they want and have already sat exams or have final grades, an “Unconditional Offer” which means that if you accept, you have your place confirmed. Once all 5 universities have responded, you then have to choose just one of the offers as your “Firm” choice. If it is a Conditional Offer, you then have to take that place if you subsequently achieve the required grades. You can also choose an “Insurance” offer, generally a Conditional Offer that requires slightly lower grades so that if you miss the grades needed for your Firm choice then you still have a place at your Insurance university.
What if you do not receive any offers? UCAS has a back-up system, UCAS Extra, which allows students who have not received offers to then apply to other universities. And what happens if your exam results or GPA is not good enough to satisfy your Firm or Insurance offers? Again, there is a safety net called “Clearing” which happens in August each year. Universities that still have places will list them, and what grades they require: if you have the right grades you contact the university directly and they will make an Unconditional offer, so you will then have your university place.
- Research courses and universities thoroughly.
- Preparation for the application should start at least 6 months before you apply.
- The more preparation you do, the better chance you have of getting into the best universities.
- The UCAS website is a great starting point – everything you need to know can be found there.
- The Personal Statement is the key to success, so get help with this from experts.
- If you are applying to universities that require interviews, practice interviews and feedback are vital.