The United Kingdom boasts some of the best and most beautiful universities in the world but the application system and process of being admitted to these universities is, perhaps, not as straightforward as in most countries given the fierce competitive nature.
The most important tool that almost any student wanting to apply to UK universities will need is the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). This system is mostly free to use and provides mountains of information regarding UK university applications, not only for British students but for international students too.
UCAS acts as an online catalogue for most courses available at British universities. You can filter courses according to your predicted grades, type of learning (e.g. distance, part-time), geographical location and entry requirements amongst many other things. If you’re interested in applying to a university in the UK, I highly recommend spending a bit of time discovering what’s available here through the UCAS course catalogue. If you’re looking for an outstanding university in the UK based on rankings, the Times Higher Education annual ranking is a good place to start. This is often published annually at the start of the application season.
There are many things to consider when wanting to study a university course here. Most people choose an undergraduate course, which follows on from sixth form or secondary school. Following the pandemic, courses may be offered full-time, part-time, long-distance learning, hybrid learning or in-person. There is often the possibility in the UK for a deferred entry too, meaning you apply for starting a course one year later. Many choose to travel in this “gap year” or work, ready to pay off any university bills. If you’re looking for a second degree at a university, postgraduate courses, such as an MA or MSc, may be the preferred choice.
A great way to decide whether a university really is for you is to attend an open day. In the run up to the opening of the application system, many universities host days with sample lectures, Q&A sessions with former students and teachers and ground tours to see the facilities the place has to offer.
In the UK, students spend months preparing for their university applications. Not only do you need to select your top 5 courses, you also need to prepare the information to submit to the university. The most daunting part for many is the personal statement, which is a 4,000-character, 47-line opportunity to sell yourself to a university.
University applications vary but most have a standard template – providing basic personal information, a personal statement, your predicted grades from your teachers, personal and academic references and a display of your skills to boost your UCAS points (e.g. taking up a musical instrument, doing DofE, taking part in social clubs or community activities). Some universities, particularly the best universities in the country, tend to have practical or theory exams as well as in-person interviews as part of the application process. Those applying to these universities often attend rigorous interview preparation training.
For undergraduate courses, the application system tends to open in September. More competitive courses for Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge) may open in mid-October instead. Through the winter months, teachers at schools will help their students apply for their selected universities. By the end of January most application systems will close and it’s up to the university to make an offer to their preferred students. Most students tend to hear back from their five choices by the end of June.
Universities may reject your application, meaning you were unsuccessful, they may give an unconditional offer, meaning you have a confirmed place at the university regardless of your exam grades or (the most popular by far) a conditional offer, meaning you will be offered a place if you can achieve your predicted grades.
In the United Kingdom, the university application process takes place before exams are sat. Teachers for each subject use their expertise and mock exam results to provide a “predicted grade”. This is the grade that is used on your university application. Once you’ve sat your exam, the real result is then what the offer is based on. Hence, a conditional offer means you will go to your preferred university if your predicted grades were correct and you did actually achieve them in the exams.
If you’re lucky to have received numerous offers from your university choices, you then need to select your preferred university. Ideally, this is the one you’ll end up at but you are allowed to select a back-up choice too in case your first choice falls through.
Results day for A-levels in England, Northern Ireland and Wales and SQAs in Scotland take place on Thursdays in the middle of August. Unfortunately, this means students have to wait all summer to see if their place at university, generally starting in late-September or October, is confirmed. This makes results day a pretty stressful one. If you achieve your predicted grades and have your place confirmed, you can relax a little and complete all the necessary administration. If you didn’t quite achieve your predicted grades and, unfortunately your preferred university didn’t accept your real grades, you may be able to fall to your second-choice of university or you may need to go through the process of clearing.
Clearing is the process where all students who weren’t accepted to their preferred choices or students who had a change in plans can be matched up to the places at universities that weren’t filled. Some students decide to apply to a university last-minute or get better grades than expected and apply to higher-level universities. The course vacancies are listed on the UCAS website where you can apply and are given a clearing number. Typically, many people call the university directly for a telephone interview or to pitch themselves to the university in order to get a last-minute place.
Once you’ve finally accepted your place, there’s a bit of administrative work to complete, such as confirming financing of your course, accommodation and enrolment. Then, finally, you’re on your way to university.