Looking to apply to university in the UK? This is the ultimate guide to the UK university application process. From making a decision about your university choices, to writing a good personal statement, this step-by-step article explains everything you need to apply to uni through UCAS.
1) Register with UCAS
UCAS stands for The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. UCAS operates the application process for universities in the UK and is the tool you will use to choose your options and send off applications.
In order to apply to universities you need to be registered with UCAS. This process can take a little while as you need to find out information from your school to sign up for an account.
So you may as well get the ball rolling and start this process as you don’t want to miss any deadlines because you forgot to start the registration! You can also fill in all your details now as it’s just information about you and doesn’t relate to any choices (that comes later on).
2) Decide what you want to study
A good way to go about choosing what course you’d like to study is to think further ahead about career options and what you’d want to do in the future. Many careers require specific courses for applicants to have completed, for instance, medicine or civil engineering. You are more likely to enjoy your course and get the most out of it if you know it will lead into your ideal career path and potentially set you up for a job you love.
If you can’t decide on what you want to do yet (you are in very good company!), you can potentially choose something more general which allows a wide array of career paths.
Some courses require grades in specific A-Level subjects so make sure you are eligible to apply.
A great way to help you decide on a course is to choose a topic that interests you. If you’re still stuck, consider a particular subject that you really enjoyed studying in school or college. Or read through the specific course and module detail for a course and see if you find it interesting.
You should remember that you will be studying a course for 3 or 4 years so try and consider if you will continue to stay interested and motivated throughout university life.
After you have chosen a subject you would like to pursue further, it’s time to choose a specific course. Courses can differ drastically between universities so don’t just assume all Business Management courses are the same!
Read the course outlines provided by the universities and consider wider reading on the courses, potentially from other sources like student reviews. The course content doesn’t just differ but so can assessment and teaching styles and whether a course is coursework or exam-heavy.
Even if you love a course at a specific university, ensure that your predicted grades are within the entry requirements.
Finally, have you considered… alternatives to standard degrees like degree apprenticeships and sponsored degrees? Depending on your achievements or circumstances, these may appeal to you more.
3) Read student reviews
Student reviews are a powerful tool for prospective students. These are the real opinions of students studying at university on the courses you will be choosing. Student reviews are honest and give a balanced opinion of university aspects which may be left out from official websites.
They can give you a sense of what certain universities may be like and if the people attending them are enjoying their experience. They are also a useful resource to compare different university experiences to find one which would suit you the best. If you cannot attend any open days either, these can be a useful alternative to get a deeper insight into what university life is really like there.
Over 1,000,000 people read reviews on StudentCrowd last year, so check out reviews for universities here and courses here.
4) Know your university application deadlines
There are a variety of dates you should take note of through the application process to ensure you’re fully prepared. Here are the major dates for 2023 entry:
★ 17th May 2022 - UCAS applications open for 2023 entry
★ 6th September 2022 - students can pay and submit applications to UCAS. Universities can start making decisions on these applications
★ 15th October 2022 - 6pm deadline for applications to Oxford, Cambridge and most courses in medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine/science
★ 25th January 2023 - 6pm application deadline for all other university courses
★ 23rd February 2023 - UCAS extra begins (for students who have not received any offers)
★ 30th June 2023 - applications before 6pm will be sent to universities, whilst applications received after that time will be entered into clearing
★ 21st September 2023 - 6pm is the final deadline for applications to 2023 courses
★ 17th October 2023 - the deadline for adding clearing choices.
5) UCAS points system explained
The UCAS points system, now referred to as the UCAS tariff, is a way of converting your alphabetical grades into a numerical score. This number makes it easy for universities to see your total score and compare applicants more easily. UCAS Tariff points are allocated to qualifications studied between 16 and 18 years old, which could be A-Levels but might also be AS levels, BTECS and Diplomas.
Here are what each A-Level grade is worth as UCAS points in 2022:
6) Entry requirements
All universities will have unique entry requirements for different courses so it is important you do your research and find out what they are. They will set the entry requirements to ensure that you are a suitable fit for the course and you have the ability to complete it. Entry requirements can include:
★ Applicants’ suitability. Courses often come with descriptions outlining the skills, interests and experience you should have for the course. For the more competitive courses, meeting all these requirements is absolutely essential
★ Qualifications. Minimum exam grades from A-Levels or equivalent qualifications. Sometimes these are set as a minimum number of UCAS Tariff points whereas some require grades in specific subjects that relate to the course. Courses will usually also require GCSEs in Maths, English, etc.
★ Admission tests. Some courses have tests which have to be passed to check the suitability of applicants for specific courses
★ Interviews. You may have two types of interviews: portfolio-based interviews and performance-based interviews (which we cover later). UCAS will inform you if you are invited to an interview
★ Additional requirements. Some courses require further prerequisites to be met. This can be health, financial, DBS or PVG checks, which will be outlined in the course description.
You will need to pass all of the course’s entry requirements to be offered a place on the degree program.
7) Choose your place of study
Once you know what course you would like to study, the next step is choosing the location or university. If your chosen course is only offered at a select number of institutions, this choice is made much easier.
However, if you choose a course like Law or Sociology, lots of universities offer these courses so you will need to narrow down the options to just a handful. Here are some ideas that may help you to figure out what you want from your place of study.
Campus or city?
★ Campus universities have accommodation and learning facilities bunched closer together, along with university facilities like rugby pitches, swimming pools, Students Unions, shops, cafes, etc. This can create a cosy student atmosphere as the area is specifically for students, you have easy access to facilities (cutting down transport costs, at least in first year) and often there are accommodation options on campus too so it’s like its own student bubble with campus security teams providing peace of mind. There are also often larger green spaces on campus.
★ City universities have arguably better leisure options, are busier, more diverse and there are more things to do. Usually there will also be bigger clubs and bars and more of them! These will also run year-round unlike Student Unions which will only run during term time. There will be great transport links within the city as well as intercity transport and there will be more job opportunities closer to where you are living which can help to squeeze in shifts around study time.
How much will it cost?
There are significant differences in price between locations as can be seen from our cheapest cities article here. Your accommodation can vary from an average of £4,472 to £13,728 a year depending on where you live (comparison between Bradford and London). That is a huge difference and with the cost of living rising all the time, students can no longer afford to leave this important research to the last minute.
Home or away?
If you like to see your family often and know you will rely on mum-laundry-services, then you may want to consider choosing a university within an easy distance of your parents’ home. If you are already working and want to choose a part-time course or you would like to live at home, this will help to narrow down your options too.
Some other things to consider to help tease out your preferences:
★ Seaside vs rural
★ Small town vs big city
★ Is the university group important to you? E.g. Russell Group universities
We think the best place to look to get a feel for a uni or location is student reviews. Type in the course or uni name onto our homepage and dive into some excellent research!
8) Open Days/Campus Tours: what they are and why they are important?
Campus tours are simple! You’ll get a guided tour around the university, usually by students, who show you specific areas on campus that you’ll need to know about, and they sometimes show you around accommodation too.
On the other hand, open days are much more involved events which will usually give you the option of touring the campus too! Open days offer you a chance to attend talks on the subjects you're interested in, to allow you to find out whether it’s a good fit for you. They allow opportunities to talk to lecturers and current students in specific degree programs. You can also walk freely around campus and get involved in different activities and events.
Before you go to any open days, here are a couple of things you must do! Do some research into the courses and degree programs so you can be sure they’re offering something that would interest you. It’s good practice to prepare some questions about the course, whether it's about the modules and opportunities offered or assessment style and contact hours you’ll receive.
When you’re there, get stuck into any activities being held and chat to students to get their opinions on the university. Check out the campus, see what the Students Union is like, what transport options are available, what the food prices/places to eat on campus are like and what support is available.
Be mindful that there may only be a couple of open days per year so make sure you know when they are well before they occur! We list all of them here.
9) Write your personal statement
What is a personal statement? It’s a piece of content you write about yourself which sums up all your strengths, experiences and skills and why you are passionate about a particular course. Your personal statement supports your application and helps differentiate yourself from other applicants. You should note that you can only write one personal statement, so you should leave specific university names out of it and if you’re applying for different courses, you should keep it more general.
Here are some things to include:
★ Research course descriptions and look at the requirements, skills and experience applicants should have. You should then demonstrate how you have these qualities and tailor your personal statement to them. Use relevant experience, skills and achievements to show why you’re suitable for a course.
★ Write about why you're interested in studying a particular course and why you're interested in university generally. Talk about your career aspirations and your interests.
★ Include clubs and extracurricular activities you take part in to help show how you’re unique. These can include sports clubs, musical instruments you play and other creative activities.
★ You should talk about any relevant employment and volunteering experience you have. This includes paid and unpaid work experience. This can really help set you apart from other candidates and show skills such as dedication, drive and initiative.
★ Mention any other awards or achievements you have, whether this is the Duke of Edinburgh awards, NCS, young enterprise or other qualifications. All of these help set you apart so be sure to mention what skills you have developed whilst achieving them.
★ If you’ve completed any online courses relevant to the subject you wish to study, or any generic ones like higher education taster courses, you should include them too!
Writing your personal statement is an iterative process which will take a while to make changes and get it reviewed. So it’s better to start sooner rather than later, even if you just write little bits at a time!
10) Apply through UCAS & confirm your reference (sending off your application)
You should have already registered with UCAS and filled in your personal details (step 1). Next, you need to add your education history, which includes all qualifications from secondary school upwards. You will also need to get your referee to enter your predicted grades if you are currently studying.
Then you will need to fill in your employment history. This will include information for up to five paid part/full-time jobs you’ve had or are currently working at. Voluntary and unpaid work should be included in your personal statement, not here.
You will then enter your final course choices for up to five universities. There is no preference order and you can either choose them all at once or keep changing them until the final deadline.
Finally, you need to upload your completed personal statement.
After you have completed your application, your referee needs to add your reference before your application can be processed and submitted to your chosen universities.
What is a reference? A reference is a written recommendation from a teacher, advisor or professional who knows you academically. It should include your career goals, experience, academic achievements and how well you’ve done in course components. Your reference needs to be written and uploaded to UCAS by your referee as part of your application.
If you are applying through a sixth form or school, it will be notified when you submit your application. The school will complete your reference for you to finalise your application.
If you are applying independently (i.e. not through your school), you need to request a personal reference. Prior to sending off your application, you should contact previous employers, teachers or advisors to request a reference. Do this step in advance to ensure your reference is submitted on time. Send an email to explain you are looking for a reference for your university application. Once your contact agrees to complete your reference, add their details to the reference section of the UCAS portal. UCAS will then contact them with instructions on how to submit your reference. After your reference has been completed, UCAS will send you a confirmation email. If you have not heard back from your contact, you can add additional referees in the UCAS portal.
11) Receiving offers and replying
Universities take varying amounts of time to make decisions about your application. Some are quick and some don’t respond at all, however there are deadlines which they must abide by.
If you applied by 26th January 2022, then the deadline is 19th May 2022.
If you applied by 30th June 2022, then the deadline is 14 July 2022.
If the university has not made you an offer by the deadline, then the choice will be marked as ‘unsuccessful’ on your application dashboard.
You can receive four kinds of offer:
★ A conditional offer - certain conditions will have to be met to confirm your place at the university. These conditions are usually specific grades or subjects, meaning you will have to wait until results day to know if your place is confirmed.
★ An unconditional offer - you have a place confirmed at the university, if you want it. You may still have to complete some preparations before you can start, for instance you may need a DBS or PVG check or you may need to prove your qualifications / results to the university.
★ A withdrawn offer - this is when a course choice has been withdrawn by either you or a university. The reason for the withdrawal will be shown on your application.
★ An unsuccessful offer - the university has chosen not to offer you a place on your chosen course. They may give a reason for their decision, but not always.
After you have been given offers by the universities you would like to attend, you must now pick two choices.
Your firm acceptance is your first choice. This is the course and university you would most like to attend.
If you received an unconditional offer, you now have a place at that university. You can also set an insurance choice which is the backup to a conditional offer (offers are explained in the Results Day section below). Your insurance options should have lower grade requirements than your firm choice. This means that if you do not achieve your firm choice’s grade requirements, you still have a chance to go to another university you like.
It is important you keep tracking your application so you know what the conditions are for the offers you receive and don’t accidentally miss interviews. There are two main types of interviews which are explored in the next step.
12) Performance and portfolio interviews
Depending on your choice of course, you may be invited to an interview. This could be a performance audition or portfolio interview where you will be required to bring examples of your work. Remember to take time to prepare for the questions you may be asked. A good place to start is to answer the question, “why do you want to study this subject?”
13) Offer-holder days
After you’ve been to an open day, submitted your application and been offered a place, you may be invited to an offer-holder day. These day-long events allow you to visit the university and get a deeper look into your chosen course, with a range of activities usually being offered. You will be around other students who have been given an offer to study the same course, so it is also a great opportunity to meet your potential cohort.
Offer-holder days also ease you into university life a bit more, rather than being thrown in at the deep end when you start in September. Offer-holder days give you a much deeper look into your chosen course than open days as they are subject-specific and they are also tailored to you. You will get to meet your degree programme’s staff and be shown around the facilities for your subject.
14) Apply for student finance
You can complete your student finance application as soon as you have received your offers for university. You can find out more and start the application process on the government website here.
Student Finance can help to fund your university experience and there are a few options available. Most students will have two costs to cover: university tuition fees and living costs.
A tuition fee loan of up to £9,250 is paid directly to your university to cover the costs to attend that university.
A maintenance loan contributes towards your living costs (accommodation, food etc.). It is based on where you live and your family’s household income. If you’re living away from home, outside London, your maintenance loan from 2023 can vary from between £4,524 and £9,706. Your maintenance loan may not cover all your living costs, so it is important to explore ways of supplementing the loan.
There are grants and allowances available depending on your specific circumstances.
15) Results day and Clearing explained
If you have received an unconditional offer, A-Level results day is not so important as you already have your place secured. However, like for most students, if your offer is conditional then your place will depend on the entry requirements being met. If you have achieved the grades for your firm (first) university choice, then that offer will be accepted.
If you have not met the conditions for your firm choice but have met the grade requirements for your insurance (second) choice, then that place will be automatically accepted. You cannot choose between the two options when you receive your A-Level results. It may be worth calling up the university to confirm your place for the next academic year.
However, if you have not achieved the results for any of your offers, you still have another option: Clearing! Clearing allows you to find a place on courses which have not been filled up yet. It may not have been your ideal choice, but many good universities will still have spaces as no one can accept both their offers. We have a full article explaining the ins and outs of Clearing, check it out here.
If you have achieved far better grades than expected, then you can go through UCAS’s Adjustment process to release yourself from your current offer and explore new offers in Clearing.
If you studied in Scotland, the Scottish Highers results day occurs a week before A-level results day.