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Choosing a degree and preparing for UCAS – the basics

We help you with how to choose a degree, explore what your options are, and how you can start preparing for your UCAS application.

What Degreee Ucas Preparation

For many students, applying for university can be an exciting and slightly daunting process. Whether you’ve decided on higher education or are still undecided, knowing how the application process works can be helpful. We take a look at the process of choosing a degree and applying through UCAS. 

As well as exploring some of the different types of degree courses available, we’ll look at how to know if higher education is right for you. We’ll also take you through everything you’ll need to do when applying through UCAS. Although much of our advice is for students studying in the UK, the decision-making process can be useful for all students to know about. 

What types of degree courses are there? 

If you’re thinking about going to uni, you’ve probably heard people talking about all kinds of different degrees. But what do all the names and abbreviations mean? We’ve got a handy reference guide below: 

  • Foundation degree. A foundation degree gives you the chance to combine academic study with workplace learning. It’s equivalent to two-thirds of a Bachelors degree or a full HND. It usually takes two years of full-time study to complete. 
  • HND. A Higher National Diploma is another skills-based qualification equivalent to the second year of a bachelor’s degree. They’re usually provided by higher education institutions and often more practical-based than exam-based. It takes two years of full-time study, and you can do a top-up course to make it a full degree. 
  • Bachelor’s degree. This is the most common type of undergraduate degree, and there are several types available depending on the subject studied. You could take a Bachelor of Arts (BA), Science (BSc), Law (LLB), and Engineering (BEng). They usually take 3-4 years to complete when studied full-time. 
  • Master’s degree. When it comes to postgraduate qualifications (after completing an undergraduate qualification), a Master’s degree is a common choice. They usually go into further detail on one particular area of study, taking 1-2 years to complete. 
  • PGCE. A Postgraduate Certificate in Education is a teaching qualification that combines school placements with studying theory. You’ll need an undergraduate degree or equivalent to take one, and to complete a PGCE requires around one year of full-time study. 
  • PhD. The highest level of degree qualification is a PhD. You’ll usually need both a Bachelors and a Master’s degree to take one, and you’ll need to conduct independent and original research over the course of around four years if studying full-time. 

If you’re applying for a university course through UCAS, you’ll likely be considering a Bachelor’s or foundation degree.

How and where do you want to study? 

Now that we know the types of qualifications you can apply for, let’s think about some of the other factors that might influence your decision. Two of the main factors are how and where you want to study: 

How do you want to study? 

You have two main options when it comes to getting an undergraduate degree; full-time and part-time. There are benefits to each type of degree, and the right choice depends on your personal circumstances. Here’s a brief rundown of the two options: 

  • Full-time degree. According to Plymouth University, an average full-time degree course requires around 15-25 hours of attendance each week. Of course, then there is your study time outside of contact hours. In other words, it’s the same as working a full-time job. Usually, it takes 3-4 years to complete one. 
  • Part-time degree. When studying part-time, you can often spread the time out to meet your schedule. If you’re working full-time or have other commitments, it can be a good way of learning. Some sources say a part-time degree can take around 5 years to complete. The Open University suggests 16–18 hours to study each week.

Where do you want to study?

When you’re choosing a degree, you’ll need to bear in mind where you’re going to study. We don’t mean the specific location (although that is important for other reasons); we mean whether you choose on-campus, remote, or a combination of both: 

  • Distance learning. While many people associate distance learning with mature students, that’s far from the case. There are many online degree programs that you can choose from, many of which you can structure around your existing schedule. 
  • On-campus learning. A lot of students like learning with in-person lectures and seminars. By studying on campus, you get a defined structure to your studies and can interact with other students. 
  • Blended learning. Of course, in recent times, a combination of online and in-person education has become common. With a blended learning university course, you get the benefits of both worlds, giving you flexibility with in-person contact time. 

What degree should I do? 

You might be asking yourself, ‘how do I choose a degree?’ After all, you’re spoilt for choice. Luckily, you can take a few steps to help you decide what to study at uni. We’ve outlined some pointers for helping you choose what to do after A-Levels or similar: 

Think about what you enjoy 

If you’re not sure what to study in university, it can help to start with what you do know. Have a think about some of the subjects you currently enjoy (or have in recent times) to get some ideas. 

Remember, you’ll potentially be studying your degree subject for a few years at least, so it helps massively if you enjoy it. If there isn’t anything that particularly stands out, you can also think about some of the subjects you’re good at. 

You can also think about preparing for university and what the transition from school learning to higher education might be like. 

Consider your future plans 

Some students and school leavers already have an idea about what kind of career they want. If you have a future job in mind, it’s worth researching what kind of qualifications you’ll need to enter that field. 

For example, if you’re wondering what degree you need to be a teacher, you might want to consider an undergraduate degree that gives you qualified teacher status (QTS). A  Bachelor of Education (BEd), Bachelor of Arts (BA) with QTS or Bachelor of Science (BSc) with QTS would all be options. 

Go to open days 

Open days are useful for many reasons. Of course, they can give you the chance to get familiar with universities and their campuses (more on that further down). However, they can also give you an idea of what particular degree subjects and courses are like. 

Often, you can visit different faculties, hear from staff members and current students, and even get samples of lectures. Whether you go to a virtual open day or an in-person one, it can help you decide when it comes to making an application. 

Do your own research

If you have a particular area of interest in mind, you can always do some of your own research to help choose a degree course. Many of our online courses are from leading universities, both in the UK and overseas. They can help give you a flavour of the types of subjects you might encounter on a full degree course. What’s more, they can also help your university application stand out.

You can also check out our university preparation course which explores the differences between university and school or college, and helps you prepare for success at university. 

Listen to other students 

The experience of others can help you decide which degree to study. Whether it’s people you know or those who are willing to share their knowledge, they can provide valuable advice. 

In one of our open steps, you can find some tips from students about choosing the right university and degree. Here, you can find some insight into the process of how to choose a degree.  

Narrow down your options

Once you’ve got a few ideas in mind, it’s time to start filtering down your options. Start by looking at the entry requirements for the various courses. Although it will differ depending on the exact university you apply for, you should be able to identify whether you’ll have the necessary grades for particular subjects. 

Once you’ve got a shortlist of degrees, you can start looking at universities that offer them. This will be your next hurdle before you start your UCAS application. 

Which university should I choose? 

Choosing a degree subject is one thing, but it’s another trying to find a university that’s the right fit for you. Luckily, we’ve already created an entire article on how to choose a university. Here, you’ll look at some of the factors that go into choosing where to study, including: 

  • The course and educators you’ll work with 
  • The university ranking and employment rate
  • The industry connections on offer 
  • Whether there are online and remote learning options
  • The location and type of campus 
  • What the social scene is like 
  • Opportunities for overseas travel 

Preparing for UCAS application

Once you’ve chosen a university course or courses, you’ll then have to think about the application process. Usually, UCAS applications open in the May of the year before you’re going to attend. For example, for entry in 2022, the UCAS Undergraduate application service begins on May 18 2021. This means that September 7 2022 is the first day you can submit a completed application. The UCAS deadline is 15 January 2022 for most courses.

Let’s look at how that process works in more detail: 

How it works 

UCAS is the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. It’s a centralised service through which you can apply to universities. So, if you’re hoping to study for an undergraduate degree in the UK, you’ll have to go through UCAS. 

There are four main steps to the UCAS process: 

  1. Apply online. You can find universities and courses through the UCAS search tool. From here, you can fill out and send your application to your universities or colleges of choice. Deadlines are usually: 
    • Mid-October for Oxford, Cambridge, and many medicine, dentistry and veterinary science degrees. 
    • Mid-January for the majority of universities and courses. 
    • Mid-March for some art and design courses. 
  2. Wait for a response. The institutions you’ve applied to will review your application and supporting documents. You’ll then receive a response detailing whether or not you’ve been accepted, and what conditions are attached. If you’ve not been accepted by any, you can then go through the Extra service to apply for alternatives. 
  3. Send your reply. Once you’ve received all of your responses, you can then think about your choices. You will usually have to select a ‘firm’ first choice and potentially an insurance or backup choice if you don’t meet the conditions of your first one. 
  4. Wait for your place. If your firm choice is unconditional, you have your place waiting for you. Conditional offers depend on your exam results. If you don’t meet these conditions, you can then apply for other courses via Clearing. If you’ve done better than expected with your results, you can look for alternatives using Adjustment. 

What you’ll need 

When you’re preparing for UCAS applications, you’ll need to gather various pieces of information. It’s not a process that you can complete in a day – you’ll have to take your time and do the necessary groundwork. 

We’ve covered each of the sections you’ll need to complete below. However, your UCAS application will be assessed based on: 

  • Your qualifications and the grades you’re predicted/eventually achieve. 
  • Your personal statement, including how you express yourself in writing, as well as the passion, motivation and enthusiasm for your chosen subject. Your skills and experiences also contribute. 
  • The content of your reference.
  • Your knowledge of the subject you’re applying for and your understanding of the field. 
  • Your attitude towards learning and personal development

As well as demonstrating these qualities, there are some other pieces of information you’ll need to gather: 

  • Your personal details. 
  • Your education history from secondary education onwards. 
  • Your residency status (if you’re applying from outside of the UK).
  • Your employment history (if applicable). 
  • Your student finance arrangements. 
  • The UCAS application fee – £22 for a single course choice or £26.50 for more than one choice.

Sections to complete

If you’re applying from the UK, there are seven sections that you’ll need to complete your UCAS application. We’ve given some further details and guidance about the main ones below: 

Personal details

You’ll need to add a variety of personal details for your application, including an up-to-date email address. If you’re applying from outside of the UK, you’ll need to provide details of your residency status. There are also questions specifically for UK students, as well as those about your personal circumstances. 

In this section, you’ll also need to provide details of your school (if you’re applying from one) as well as how you’re going to fund your studies. If you want to, you can also give your parent or guardian access at this stage. 

Education history 

As well as providing details of your qualifications and achievements during secondary education, you’ll also need to outline any unfinished courses. If you’re waiting for results or are still studying for a qualification, you can add your predicted grades. Often, these are an important part of a university’s consideration of your application. 

Employment history

If you’ve had a full-time or part-time job in the past, you can enter details of the companies you’ve worked for, the role you had, and when you started and finished. This isn’t a section where you should mention any voluntary work. 

Course choices 

Here, you can choose up to five courses you wish to apply for. Check out our section above about choosing what to study at uni for more details. You don’t have to select all at once, and you don’t have to add them in preference order. 

Personal statement

This is where you get to express yourself to admissions tutors. You can tell the universities and colleges you’re applying to why you want to study your chosen subject, as well as the skills and knowledge you already have. 

Your UCAS personal statement length must be 1,000 – 4,000 characters, with a maximum of 47 lines. Make sure to pay attention to your spelling, punctuation and grammar here. Take your time to craft something meaningful that is going to stand out to those reviewing your application. 

You can check out our free course on how to succeed at writing applications for more expert advice on what makes a strong application. 


The final touch to your application will be your reference. This is a written recommendation from one of your teachers, an adviser, or a professional who knows your academic skills. Once you have your reference, you can pay the fee and send off your application. 


If you’re asking, ‘what degree should I do?’ we’ve hopefully given you some inspiration for how to choose a uni course. As well as thinking about what you currently enjoy and excel at, you may also want to think about any future career plans you might have. By going to open days, chatting with current students, and doing your own research, you can find a uni subject that’s right for you. 

Once you’ve made some decisions about where, how, and what you want to study, you can start cracking on with your UCAS application. We have a variety of online courses that can help you prepare for university, and many of these can help give you some inspiration for your application. 

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