The application process

The UCAS application process is tricky, and you need to make sure you get it right because this decision determines what you do with the next three or four years of your life.

The first that you need to do, and this is not a small thing in any way, is to pick five courses you want to apply for. This is complicated; you need to think about what you're going to enjoy; about entry requirements, about where you want to live and after you've picked five courses, you need to write a personal statement. This is going to be a big part of deciding whether you get into university or not because this is the bit that the admissions tutors are going to look at and choose whether to accept you, interview you, or reject you. So if you get this bit wrong, you might end up with no offers. After you've picked your five courses and written your personal statement, then you can start to fill in your UCAS application form.

You're going to need to give them your essential details, a bit of student finance information if you are from the UK or the European Union, add your course choice, education, employment history, and then you're going to write your personal statement ending with your references.

Your references will be significant as this is what helps the admissions tutor decide whether you're a yes, a maybe, or a no, they have to be in at the same time as your application. You shouldn't fill in your application at the deadline because you need to have your references submitted by your teachers ready and waiting for you. If you want to apply for medicine, veterinary medicine, or dentistry, only four of your five choices can be for those courses. This is to give you a guaranteed insurance choice in case you don't meet the entry requirements for those courses because they are highly competitive. If you want to apply for Oxford or Cambridge, only one of your five choices can be for either Oxford or Cambridge. You can't apply for Oxford and Cambridge, and then three other things. For courses at Oxford, Cambridge, medicine, veterinary, dentistry: your application needs to be in mid-October for starting your course the following September/October and the rest of applications need in by the deadline of the middle of January for a course beginning September of that year. But, just because those are the deadlines it doesn't mean that's when universities start giving out offers.

As soon as the universities start getting applications in at the beginning of September, they start reading them and start making decisions. By the time January comes around, they might have given away a large number of their places already. Just because January is the last time you can submit your application, doesn't mean that's when you should submit it. Get your application in as soon as possible as University admissions teachers are going to have a massive pile of admissions to go through, so you need to make sure that yours stands out, and stands out in the right way.

This is where your personal statement, references, and predicted grades are going to work out whether you are accepted straight away; get asked for an interview; or you get rejected and whether the offer they give you is conditional or unconditional. A conditional offer means you will have to get specific grades to go into the course, whereas an unconditional offer: means they thought you were amazing and they will accept you no matter what your results are. Once the university has made this decision, they will tell UCAS, and then UCAS will inform you. Once you've received all of your offers in, that's when you can start to pick one.

You choose one firm choice, that's where you really want to go, assuming you get the grades, and one insurance choice, that's where you want to go if you don't get the grades for your firm choice. So make sure the grades for your insurance choice are lower than the grades for your firm choice. Then, the rest is just hard work, making sure you get the grades that you need to get into the place that you want to go.

On results day, you're going to need three plans. A plan for what happens if you get better results than expected because then you might be able to apply for an adjustment place; an idea as to what happens if you get the results that you need; and then what happens if you get worse results than expected. 

The UCAS Application Timescale

Applying to university is a long and complicated process. You need to get it right, so you end up in the right place.

You need to start at least a year beforehand, but if you're thinking about applying somewhere really competitive, Oxford, Cambridge, Medicine, you need to start much, much further before that, so that your UCAS application, your personal statement, looks impressive. But let's assume that you've done that bit, and you've got all the work experience and all the different bits you need in your personal statement.

It's summertime, and school has broken up, and what I want you to do is to start thinking about your university choices. Start doing a bit of research into courses, universities, start thinking about your personal statement. Start making a big, broad list of things about you, don't start writing it yet, but start thinking about what sort of things you could put in there. Loads of university open days happen in about June/July time. So take a sneaky day out of school if you can, and go and visit places. See what it feels like to be there. Do you get a good feeling when you're there or do you not get a good feeling when you're there? University applications open early September, but universities do not wait around until the deadlines to start handing out places. They start handing out positions straight away. So the more organized you are, the sooner you can get your application in, the better. That's why it's terrific to have spent the summer thinking about the course, thinking about university, starting to think about writing your personal statement. You also need to start nagging your referees, and I mean gently nagging, you don't want to bother them too much and annoy them, but your application can't be submitted until your referees have added the reference. So even if you're super organized, and you've written your personal statement, and you're ready to go at the beginning of September, your referee may not be. That's why it is a bad idea to leave your application til right before the deadline. Because if you tell your teacher the day before the deadline that you want to apply to Oxford, they have to write you a reference quickly and they may not do an outstanding job if they don't have much time. They may not even get it done at all.

The deadline for Oxford, Cambridge, Medicine, Veterinary, Dentistry is mid-October. That's mid-October the year before you start. The deadline for the rest of the courses is going to be mid-January. That's the same year that you start. If you straight off get rejected by all five places, you can add some more on in about mid-February. Art and Design courses have slightly different deadlines, that's going to be around mid-March. After you've received all of your five decisions, you have roughly a month to decide which one you're going to accept as your firm and which one is going to be your insurance choice. For example, if you have them all by the end of March, then you have to make your decision by the beginning of May. If you have them all by the end of May, you have to make your decision by the beginning of July.

In July, Clearing is going to open. So if you don't have any offers and you didn't want to put any more on, then you can apply through Clearing. Or if you didn't apply at all the first time around, you can apply through Clearing. This is where the universities put everything that they have left over, they just put it out there and see who's available. In mid-August, we get to A-level results day, and this is when Adjustment places open. So if you did better than expected, you could apply for an Adjustment place, or if you did worse than expected, you might have to go through the Clearing system. 

Anna's story - What I know now...


My name is Ana and I’m a student at the University of Nottingham, currently finishing off my final year of Pharmacy. As well as having experienced the UCAS application process myself, I’ve helped friends and family with their applications, and volunteered for the University during interview and applicant days, which has left me with lots of experience with university applications on the whole.

Now that I’ve been through it all, the only thing I regret is not doing more reading around before submitting my application. This was vital especially since, at first, I was on the fence about whether or not to go to University at all. Whilst I wouldn’t change a thing about the past few years and ultimately I’m happy I ended up here, it would’ve been nice to know what other routes there were into my chosen career path. The one thing I did do in terms of research was attend a UCAS University Exhibition day, where representatives from different subjects and universities come along to sell their course to prospective students. These sorts of events are the best ways to gauge your interest in a course or a subject matter, and attending one definitely made me certain that University was where I wanted to be.

Another thing I’m glad I researched is the individual course breakdowns once I’d decided which course I wanted to go into. Whilst many people may tell you a degree is a degree, this is only true to an extent. Different universities can teach similar subjects in very different ways. I’m definitely more suited to coursework and it was important to me that I didn’t end up doing a course where the majority of my grade was based on performance during exams. Nowadays course breakdowns are available on the University’s website, but when I applied a few years ago the information wasn’t as readily available – so I phoned up and asked. While it did take a while for some departments to get back to me, it was definitely worth it.

Another thing I wish I’d done is spend a little bit more time in the cities I was considering studying in, just to see what living here would be like. At the end of the day, University isn’t just about the course – essentially you're moving home, so the city around it is just as important. My course has about 30 timetabled hours per week, and during term I spend all of the rest of my time in libraries, cafes, restaurants, the gym, or out in the evenings. When I was making my choice I focused solely on the university itself, not its surroundings, and whilst I’ve finally learned the ins and outs of the city I wish I’d factored it in when I was picking between courses. Having said this, if you end up really falling in love with a university even if the city it’s in doesn’t quite appeal to you, you could always take public transport or taxis to neighbouring cities.

The last thing I wish I had done was pay more attention during my interview day. The people who interviewed me were the same people teaching me when I returned in September, and the building where I was interviewed was the exact same building I found myself back in during first year. Getting to know the campus a little bit better during my interview would’ve made settling in during first year much less daunting.