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Applying to university

Article outlining how to approach the UK university application process
Photo of two young men speaking to each other, one with a laptop open in front of him and the other pointing out something on a piece of paper

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the number of things to think about when your young person is applying to university. By breaking it down into the different stages of the process it can seem a lot more manageable.

There are four main steps involved when applying for a university course:

  1. Choose the courses and universities that are of interest
  2. Apply to the chosen university courses via the UCAS portal
  3. Offers may be made, or your young person may be invited for interviews or to attend university visit days, interview or an additional test.
  4. Decisions then need to be made about which university offers your young person wishes to accept

1. Choosing

The first step to applying for university is to get a taste for what student life might be like. Open Days are a fantastic way to get a lot of information, so before online application and personal statements get written, make sure your young person has had a look around a range of universities! If attending an Open Day in person is not possible then many universities will have virtual events or tours so that you can get a feel for the university. There’s more information on making the factors consider when making choices and making the most of Open Days later in the course.

2. The UCAS application process

All admissions to university courses in the UK go through an online portal system called UCAS There are two main parts of the process;

  1. The Application
  2. The Personal Statement

The application asks for a long list of information to be provided:

  • Personal details, such as name and date of birth, nationality
  • Previous education, current studies and predicted grades
  • Five course choices. For medicine, dentistry and vet science your young person can use four of their choices in those subjects but must choose a different subject to make up the fifth. This is to provide an insurance choice as these subjects have very high entry requirements. The choices can be at five different universities, or may involve different course choices at the same university.

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As a general rule of thumb, it can be helpful to choose two that are slightly aspirational, two that they are on target to achieve, and one that can be used as a ‘back-up’ choice. This ensures that your young person will have a spread of options to choose from when offers come back from the universities. It’s always beneficial when making these five choices to think realistically about entry requirements.

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Along with these steps, UCAS will ask for a teacher reference to be provided. The school/college will be able to provide this, which may be written by a subject teacher or a tutor.

The final step to the UCAS application is to pay a small fee to submit the application. You can make the payment online using a credit or debit card, and current charges for applications can be found on the UCAS website. It’s important to know the deadline date for application to make sure you submit the application on time. There is an earlier deadline of 15 October if your young person is applying for Oxford/Cambridge, or certain courses including dentistry, medicine or veterinary science.

3. Offers

Offers start coming back after the application has been submitted. Generally, universities work through applications as soon as they receive them and will make offers until mid-May. Your young person will choose their first two choices in the spring term. During this time, they may be invited for an interview, a university post-offer visit day or in the case of some creative subjects such as Art, or Architecture a department visit to show their portfolio. This allows applicants to get a chance to meet current students and the academic staff that they would be working with. These days may also include campus and accommodation tours, department taster sessions, and a time to answer any questions. As a parent/carer you may also be invited, and you may want to go along for some moral support!

Offers for university places will most often be ‘conditional offers’ which are based on students achieving certain grades in their A levels or equivalent qualification. An ‘unconditional offer’ may be made if the student already has the qualifications that they need for the university requirements. Many universities will have a variety of offer making schemes which may include grade drops for taking the Extended Project Qualification, making that university first choice or students from disadvantaged backgrounds may receive different offers.

4. Decisions

Once all the universities have responded, it’s time for your young person to make a decision about the university they wish to make as their ‘Firm Choice’ and which they will make as their ‘Insurance Choice’. They will need to think carefully about the conditions of the offer, in terms of the grades that they think they will be able to get and maybe their GCSE grades too. It’s good to work towards aspirational targets but make sure they are also realistic to avoid stress during exam time and potential disappointment on results day.

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Remember that it’s a good idea to make the ‘Insurance Choice’ a university or a course which has slightly lower entry requirements so that if things don’t go to plan, your young person will still have a place at a university that they are comfortable with.

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Now that you know a little more about the application process, what are your thoughts? Is there anything you’re still unsure about? Share your thoughts and questions in the Comments area as other Learners may be able to help.

© University of Reading
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A Parent and Supporter’s Guide to University Entry

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