University Applications: Our guide to UCAS

Applying to university is an exciting if slightly daunting task. For students in the UK and around the world, this is where UCAS comes in. UCAS, which stands for Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, is the central system that students use to apply to university. Anybody looking to study an undergraduate degree in the UK will use this service. 

You can think of UCAS as an online dating service but for courses and universities. By the end of the process, you should end up with your perfect match! The entire application takes place online and requires detailed research and planning to ensure your application is the best it can be. In this blog, we’ll outline the key things you need to know in order to nail your application!

Step 1: Research

Research is crucial to ensuring you have the best university experience possible. It’s important that you start thinking about this early to meet the application deadlines. For all students applying there are two deadlines to be aware of. The first is the 6 pm on the 15th of October for Oxford and Cambridge admissions as well as most courses in medicine, veterinary medicine/science, and dentistry. The second deadline is 6 pm on the 15th of January for all other courses. 

Before you even think about logging into UCAS you need to consider what and where you want to study. There are over 50,000 courses available in the UK from over 395 institutions! If you have no idea where to begin then there are two ways you can go about it. The first is to look into subject areas that are relevant to your future career. Certain careers will require you to study certain subjects meaning you should research courses related to this. If you're unsure of your future career then the second option is to look into subject areas that are of interest to you. From here you can explore career options and make a decision on what subject area feels right for you. 

Once you’ve discovered your subject area you now need to look at the courses available at different universities. Picking which universities you’re interested in studying at should help you narrow down which courses you actually want to apply to.

When it comes to researching Universities one of the main ways is through open days. These are days where you can visit the university, attend course talks and get an overall feel for the place. Due to the pandemic, many universities are now offering virtual open days which allow you to have a similar experience from the comfort of your home, which should save you on train fares! This is also great for international students who previously may not have had the opportunity to attend. You can find a lot of information about the universities on their own websites too.

One thing to look at when researching what courses you're interested in is the entry requirements. These will be based on either set UCAS Tariff points or grades. When searching on UCAS, only UK grades are shown as requirements. For international students universities will normally take at the equivalent qualification instead and you will be expected to provide proof. 

Step 2: The Application

This is probably the easiest step of applying to university. For UK applicants the majority will apply with the help of their sixth form or college however it’s also possible to apply individually. For International Students you can either apply independently or use a local adviser. A local advisor is someone who provides information about studying in the UK and can sometimes help you with your applications. 

During this step, you will need to fill out all your personal details including your full education history, your course selection and any student finance information. You can exit the application at any point and your information will be saved. It’s a good idea to plan a time to sit down and go through this section slowly ensuring you give the most accurate and up to date information. 

Step 3: The Personal Statement

Probably the most important part of your application is your personal statement. This is where the university and course teams will get to know you. There’s lots of helpful information available online to help you write it including free guidance from UCAS. Remember you can only write one personal statement so make sure you don’t address any specific universities or courses.

The first step to a great personal statement is to be prepared. Make sure you find out what skills and qualities the universities like and match those with any you have. You should also include information about yourself that’s relevant to the courses you’re applying for. It’s a good idea to brainstorm the information you want to include and then you can pull out the best bits. Knowing what to include is important and if you’re stuck for ideas here’s a list to get started:

  • Why you’re interested in the course, show enthusiasm.
  • Highlight your relevant previous studies.
  • Any activities, hobbies and side hustles.
  • Any work experience or training related to the chosen subject.
  • Your best skills and qualities as an individual to highlight what a great candidate you are.

If you’re an international student you should also consider including these:

  • Why you want to study in the UK.
  • Your English Skills including any tests you’ve taken.
  • Why you want to be an international student.

When it comes to writing your personal statement it’s important to be clear and concise. You need to show enthusiasm to stand out but remain professional to show you’re a serious candidate. A good tip is to start with a strong opening sentence that catches the reader's attention. 

The overall structure is up to you but consider what the university is looking for and try to create an order that showcases your best skills. You may end up trying a few different structures before settling on one that flows the best. The conclusion is important for reinforcing your enthusiasm and qualities as a candidate.

Make sure you leave enough time to proofread your statement multiple times and get feedback. You need to check all grammar, spelling and punctuation to make an error-free statement.

Here are some do’s and don’ts to consider when writing your statement:

Do

  • Do plan what you want to include to help ensure it’s relevant to the courses you're applying to and to make sure you don’t forget any important points. 
  • Do highlight your strengths and show enthusiasm. Sharing your interest in the course may help you get a place. 
  • Do be prepared to produce multiple drafts before being completely happy with it. 
  • Do get feedback from people you trust. Your school or college may offer a service for this.

Don’t

  • Don’t let spelling and grammatical mistakes ruin your statement, make sure you’ve proofread as many times as possible and used a spellchecking tool. 
  • Don’t exaggerate or make things up. You risk being caught out in an interview if you get asked to elaborate. 
  • Don’t be tempted to buy a personal statement or copy someone else's. All statements are checked for similarity so if yours is flagged as similar it may affect your chances of being offered a place. 
  • Don’t leave it until the last minute, take time to plan so it doesn’t feel rushed.

Now for the technical details. Your personal statement can only be up to 4,000 characters or 47 lines of text. This includes spaces and blank lines. Whilst it sounds like a lot, 4,000 characters isn’t actually that long which is why it’s so important to take the time to research and plan what you want to include. 

Once you’ve written your personal statement there are just a few final things to do before you send off your application. Firstly you need to review everything. Double-check all your details and proofread your statement one final time! You want to avoid making mistakes as this could slow down or even jeopardise your application.

Step 4: Finishing touches

You then need to add a reference. For UK students this will usually be provided by your college or sixth form. For international students, you will need to source this yourself from either an adviser, teacher or another appropriate person (not a relative) who knows you academically. The application can’t be sent without a reference so don’t leave this until the last minute!

The final step in your UCAS application journey is to pay and send it. The payment amount is the same for both UK and international students and costs £20 for one-course choice or £26 for multiple course choices. Once you’ve paid and sent the application then it’s just a question of waiting. We know it’s a nerve-wracking time but you’ve got this! Make sure you follow us for more information and advice on interviews and more following the 15th of January deadline.

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