UCAS Applications: Applying to University in the UK

For international students hoping to study at a British university, the UCAS application system can be a tricky and daunting process. UCAS, standing for Universities and Colleges Admissions Services, is the UK education system which provides the application process for almost all British universities.

In order to apply to university, students are required to submit a single application through the UCAS online portal, which requires students to fill in their personal details, choose their top five university preferences, select a course and write a personal statement. Once you have completed the above requirements, the application is forwarded by UCAS to the universities, who then decide whether they wish to offer you a place.

The universities will then grant students either an unconditional offer (where the student will definitely receive a place) or a conditional offer (where the student will receive a place depending on whether their grades meet the university's entry requirements.) All correspondence and offers between yourself and the universities is made through UCAS, so it is important that you check your UCAS portal regularly.

Although the application sounds simple, it is often complicated and time-consuming, especially if you are an international student and are applying as an individual without the aid of your school or sixth form. To ease your application, read on for our top tips and our guide to UCAS applications.

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When applying to university through the UCAS system, students are able and advised to apply to five universities. The application spots are quite varied, and allows you to apply to five different universities, or to apply for a number of different courses at the same university. Students are not required to apply for five courses or universities, however the more universities you apply for, the more choice you have.

Once a student selects their top 5 universities, they are then required to choose a ‘firm’ choice, which you commit to attending if the university offers you a place, and an ‘insurance’ choice, which is where you agree to attend if your first choice university does not offer you a place. Essentially firm and insurance choices are your first and second choice university preferences. The application process is confidential, so other universities cannot see where else you have applied, and therefore their final decision cannot be influenced by your applications to other universities.

Personal Statement

Aside from your grades, your personal statement is the most important part of your application. Your personal statement is a virtual representation of yourself and all of your achievements, and is one of the biggest factors in persuading admission tutors to offer you a place at their university. In order to set yourself apart from other students and to grab the admission tutors' attention, make sure your personal statement addresses the following:

  • Why you want to study your chosen course, and why you want to study at their particular university. Your passion for the course is perhaps the most important part of your personal statement, so it is important to show that you have a genuine interest in your chosen course. Talk about what triggered your interest in this course, and what you have done to further your knowledge of this topic. If you want to study history, mention books that inspire your studies and what museums you like to visit. If there is a particular university that you would like to attend, tell the admission tutors why. Are there particular lecturers that you admire? Then mention this. Showing that you want to study there because of its teaching staff will impress the admission tutors far more than saying that you want to study there because of the area’s nightlife.
  • What qualities you possess which will help you to excel on the course? Want to study English? This would be a great time to mention how you’ve previously written for your school paper, or entered local writing competitions. Hoping to study a language? Talk about the barriers you have had to overcome since learning the language, and the steps that you make to ensure you are constantly progressing and challenging yourself.
  • Your ambitions and career aspirations. Admission tutors love to hear about what their potential students aim to do in the future. If you dream of studying medicine and saving people’s lives, then mention this. Remember, the more passionate you are the better.
  • Details of work experience placements. Nothing shows admission tutors how dedicated you are to your course more than hearing about voluntary work placements or internships. Whatever industry you have worked in, it’s important to mention how you have sought unpaid employment to increase your experience within this industry, and the skills that you have learned during your placement. Working in a professional environment indicates maturity and dedication, which universities look for in their students.
  • Extracurricular activities. Although your personal statement should mostly be made up of academic motivations, admission tutors like it when students demonstrate that they are well rounded individuals, and have interests outside of their courses. Regardless of whether your extracurricular activities are related to your degree subject, it is important to mention these within your personal statement. Do you enjoy sport and play for a netball or football team? Mention this and draw attention to your ability to work within a team. Have you acted as a Prefect or Head Girl? Don’t forget to highlight your levels of maturity and responsibility.
  • Employment. Even if your employment history isn’t relatable to your degree subject or career aims, all employment is relevant. The best way to put a spin on your employment history is not to focus on what you did during your job, but instead on the transferrable skills that you learned during your job. Most part time jobs will help individuals to work on their organization, communication and team working skills, so draw attention to these attributes.
  • Gap Years. If you have taken a gap year, or intend on taking one before starting your studies, it is worthwhile mentioning what you plan to do on your gap year and how you feel this will benefit you as an individual. Are you going to a third-world country to help rebuild local communities? Or perhaps you’re going to travel the world to learn more about yourself. Whatever your plans, be sure to mention how this will aid your personal development and develop your independence and skill sets.

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Application dates and deadlines

Each university and application is different, and therefore there are varied application deadlines for different universities and courses. If you are planning on applying to either Oxford or Cambridge, the application deadline is October, which also applies to anyone who is applying for Dentistry, Veterinary or Medicine courses. Any applications that are received after October will be automatically rejected, so it’s important that you start your personal statement early, and finish your application before the deadline. For almost all other universities and courses, the generic deadline is January. Many students underestimate how long UCAS applications take, so start early and avoid a last minute rush to complete your application!

Results

Once you have submitted your application, there are a number of different processes. If your offers are conditional on your results, you will have to wait until results day in August to find out whether you have been accepted. If you have received the exam results that you needed, you will be awarded a place at your firm choice, and you will be notified through the UCAS portal. If your grades did not meet the necessary requirements, some universities may still offer you a place, or you have the option of going through the universities' ‘clearing process.’ The clearing process allows students to search through and make last-minute applications to a list of universities that have course vacancies. Although this may not have been your original plan, it gives you the option to look at alternative courses and universities and gives students who did not achieve their required grades the option to still attend university.

For students who have unconditional offers or are applying to UCAS after receiving their exam results, you will still receive your offer through the UCAS portal, but will not have to wait until results day.

General Tips

  • Make sure your email address is professional and sensible – email addresses such as [email protected] may be fine for friends and family, but potential professors and teachers will think that you’re juvenile and immature. Even if it means creating a separate email account for your application, this is a small and necessary step in presenting yourself in the best light.
  • Proofread your application for errors. Sending an application that is riddled with small errors will indicate to the admission tutors that you are careless and lazy. Print the application out and check for spelling mistakes, punctuation and inconsistencies. Don’t let small mistakes hinder your chances of attending your dream university.
  • If you are using an email address that is connected to your school's IT system, make sure you can access it outside of school. Universities use email as their main form of communication, so make sure you can access your emails, and check them regularly.
  • Make sure that your home address is up-to-date. Once your place at university has been accepted, the university will send important documents, brochures and start date times to your home address, so make sure this is correct to avoid missing out on vital information.

From helping you to write your personal statement, to helping you with the terminology used by UCAS, we hope this blog post has been useful in writing your UCAS application. Perhaps you're joining the working world instead of going to university? Then check out our tips on how to write a professional email here.

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