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Many young people choose to go to university each year, and the number is increasing. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, there were 2,751,865 higher education students in 2020/21, an increase of 9% from 2019/20 and a 10% increase in first-year enrolments between 2019/20 and 2020/21.
During the last year of sixth form or college, A-level students wanting to go to university will need to start thinking about what course they want to study and the universities they wish to apply to. They will then need to prepare their application via UCAS.
Applying to universities can be complex, overwhelming and daunting for A-Level students. However, with proper guidance, preparation, and knowing what to expect, they should find it easier to navigate the process.
This blog post aims to provide A-level students with a comprehensive guide to the university application process. It will demystify the application process, break down its components, and give step-by-step instructions and tips.
Understanding the University Application Timeline
The deadline for A-level students to apply to their chosen university will differ between universities and course types. For example, top universities such as Cambridge and Oxford and most medicine, veterinary medicine/science, and dentistry courses have earlier application deadlines.
Here is a typical timeline for undergraduate course UCAS applications:
- May – courses and entry registration become available on UCAS.
- May/June – students can start to work on their application between mid-May and the start of June and will typically:
- Choose universities and courses.
- Write personal statements.
- Organise an academic reference.
- September – students can submit applications to UCAS from early September.
- October – final deadline for submission for Oxford and Cambridge, and most courses in medicine, veterinary medicine/science, and dentistry. It is usually around the end of the second or the start of the third week of the month at 6 pm.
- January – final deadline for submission for most undergraduate courses, usually at the end of the month at 6 pm.
UCAS has key dates for 2024 applications here.
If an A-level student is applying via their school or college, they need to check with them and confirm when the deadline for applications is.
It is essential for A-level students to plan well in advance of their application for the following reasons:
- It enables them to choose the universities and courses that meet their aspirations, academic ability and values.
- It gives them sufficient time to prepare properly, start their application early, focus on any weaker areas and resolve any queries they may have.
- It helps them to feel more confident and less stressed when completing their application and during interviews and admissions tests.
- It increases their chances of a successful application and receiving an offer from the university of their choice.
- It helps them to secure a place early, as many fill up quickly.
A-level students should set realistic and achievable goals when planning their university applications to help them stay on track.
Choosing the Right Universities and Courses
All universities differ in their ranking, the courses they offer, and their entry requirements, facilities, ethos and values. Therefore, A-level students need to conduct thorough research to choose the right universities and courses that align with their interests, career goals, and A-level qualifications.
When students are researching universities and courses, they could use the following to help them:
- University rankings and league tables – students can check league tables to see where universities rank. The Complete University Guide has 2024 university rankings and league tables here.
- University websites and prospectuses – all universities have websites and online prospectuses with information about:
- Courses and entry requirements.
- Open days and tours.
- University facilities, campus, accommodation
- How to apply, and fees and funding.
- Open days – A-level students can visit universities to learn more about the university and the courses offered.
- Student reviews – there are many websites where past and current students review their university, which can gauge the culture. STUDENTCROWD has reviews from verified students on their website. There is also UCAS Unibuddy, where young people can speak with other students.
- News and social media – students may want to check whether the universities they are considering have had any recent issues, which they could look for on news pages and social media platforms. They could also look at university social media accounts.
A-level students have a lot to consider when looking at universities and courses, and it can be a tough choice to make. Some of the factors they should look at to assist their decision are as follows (this list is not exhaustive):
Distance from home
They must decide if they want to go to a university closer to home or a farther one. They may even want to consider overseas options. If they are likely to get homesick or have difficulty with travel arrangements, they may want to look at universities close to home or consider distance learning courses.
There are universities in cities, towns and rural areas. If they want more amenities and nightlife, they may be better off choosing a city university rather than one in remote areas where they may need to travel to get provisions and entertainment.
As stated, UK universities are ranked in league tables and will differ regarding their reputations. Oxford and Cambridge are the most prestigious and highest-ranking. They must decide whether a university’s reputation is important to their career goals, as going to higher-ranking ones can enhance opportunities.
They can choose to do courses that are delivered face-to-face, distance learning or both. Distance learning may be a good option if they want to stay at home. There are also full-time and part-time courses; the latter may be useful for those who want to work alongside studying.
They need to enjoy the course they choose to study at university. They should look at the course content to ensure they will find it interesting and can remain committed for potentially three to four years.
Universities and courses will have different entry requirements. Higher-ranking universities will expect students to have excellent A-levels or equivalent. Some courses will also require top grades, such as medicine, veterinary medicine/science, and dentistry. Students must be realistic regarding the grades they can achieve and align them with courses they are interested in.
University is expensive; courses can range from around £28,000 to over £60,000. While students can get loans, they must weigh the cost, benefits and affordability.
Preparing Application Materials
Most A-level students wanting to go to university will apply through UCAS, and they must carry out certain application steps and have specific documents and materials for admission teams to consider their application.
During the application process and as part of the declaration, students must submit various documents, such as:
- Passport – part of the verification process for proof of identity. Students without a passport can upload a copy of their UK birth or adoption certificate.
- Qualification certificates and transcripts – provide evidence of the student’s grades for each subject. International students should send a certified English translation of their qualifications.
- References (letters of recommendation) – students must get a reference, which is a written recommendation, from someone who knows them academically, e.g. a teacher, lecturer, adviser or another professional, such as a tutor.
- Admission (entry) tests – specific courses, such as medical, law and mathematics, and certain universities require students to sit an admissions test, which they usually have to register for separately from their UCAS application. The results of these tests will be taken into consideration by admissions teams.
Crafting a Compelling Personal Statement
A personal statement is an essential part of the application process. It allows A-level students to shine and stand out from other applicants, especially if there is competition for placements. It makes the difference between a successful and unsuccessful application.
Here are some tips and strategies for students to write an effective personal statement:
- Use online tools and ask for advice.
- Students must check that any tools they use do not result in plagiarism, e.g. ChatGPT or other AI tools.
- Students can also ask for advice and guidance from their teachers, lecturers, tutors, parents, friends and other students.
- Make it their own.
- Students can refer to previous personal statements to get inspiration for their own. However, they must ensure their personal statement is their work and written in their style.
- UCAS will check applicant’s personal statements for plagiarism by putting them through their Similarity Detection Service.
- If a student plagiarises someone else’s personal statement, it does not set a good foundation for further study at university and can jeopardise their chances of getting a placement.
- Universities may also ask students about personal statements in their interviews, making it difficult to answer if the work is someone else’s.
- Make it engaging and personal.
- Students should use their personal statements to sell themselves and tell admissions why they are interested in the course and want to study at that university. They can use the university’s values and their interests as a guide.
- They should cover how their personality, academic achievements, relevant skills and experiences, extracurricular activities and ambitions relate to their chosen course.
- UCAS has further information on what to include in a personal statement here.
- Quality over quantity.
- UCAS requires personal statements to be a minimum of 1000 characters long. However, students have a maximum of 4000 characters/47 lines.
- The maximum is not a target; students should choose quality over quantity when writing their personal statements.
- Save, save and save.
- Whether students write their personal statements in Word first or directly into their UCAS application, they must regularly save their work.
- There is nothing more demoralising than completing a fantastic personal statement, only to lose it and having to start again.
- Check for errors and proofread.
- Spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors can reflect poorly on students.
- The personal statement section in the UCAS application does not have a spell checker. Therefore, students could complete their personal statement in Word and copy and paste it into their application online.
- They could even use an online spelling and grammar tool such as Grammarly.
- They should read and re-read their personal statement before marking the section as complete.
Some examples of successful personal statements are on:
- St Mary’s University.
- The Student Room – personal statement examples by subject.
- King’s College London.
- UniAdmissions – Successful Oxbridge Personal Statements.
It is important to note that UCAS is changing the personal statement with a series of questions in 2025 entry, which will affect 2026 applicants. The tips and strategies above will apply, but the personal statement format is changing. UCAS has further information on these reforms here.
Securing Strong References
A-level students must secure a robust reference (written recommendation) as part of the UCAS application process. Referees must be someone who knows the student academically, for example:
- A teacher or head teacher at school.
- A lecturer at college.
- A personal tutor.
- An adviser, mentor or another professional.
It is essential for students not to use family, friends or acquaintances for a reference, as it can result in cancellation of their application.
A-level students must decide who they want to write their references. They should choose someone who knows them well, can provide supporting information for the courses for which they are applying and can provide predicted grades for current qualifications. Referees should also be able to comment on a student’s personal qualities, their strengths and weaknesses.
Once a student has decided on who they want to be their referee, they will need to approach them and ensure their references are compelling and relevant by:
- Politely asking their referee, face-to-face or via email, if they will be happy to provide a reference and do so well ahead of the deadline to give them enough time.
- Informing their referee of the course they intend to take so the reference can be tailored and specific.
- Discussing any information relevant to their application and reference with their referee, e.g. predicted grades. Ensure they have all of the information they need.
- Informing their referee that they must complete the reference section of their application online in English or Welsh for courses in Wales.
- Ensuring the referee includes anything that potentially impacted their studying and attainment, e.g. illness, personal problems, COVID-19 pandemic, etc.
- Signposting their referee to further advice and guidance, such as UCAS reference information.
- Give their referee sufficient time to complete the reference as they may also be busy providing references for other students. However, students should not be afraid to give them a little nudge and follow up with them if it may delay their application.
It is worth having more than one referee in mind just in case a referee does not feel they know the student well enough and is uncomfortable about providing a reference.
In some cases, referees will arrange for a reference to be sent to UCAS, e.g. if students are applying through a school, college or an alternative centre.
Navigating the UCAS Application System
As stated, all students must apply to university via the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) and their online application system.
Register with UCAS.
Students must register with UCAS via their hub and select register to set up an account. They must add their email, first name, and last name, create a password and tick to say they have read and understood the Terms & Conditions. Students should not use their school or college email addresses due to deletion after the results day. They should use another email address, which must sound professional, i.e. no nicknames.
Complete the registration questions.
Students must complete a series of questions to access their UCAS hub page and be able to start their application, which includes:
- The year they want to begin their studies.
- The level of study, i.e. undergraduate for A-level students if choosing a degree.
- Whether they also want information on apprenticeships or conservatoires.
- Where do they live?
- Their preferences regarding information.
- Their mobile number.
- The subjects they are interested in studying (can be changed later).
- Whether they are at school/college and the name.
Start the application.
Students must click Start on the applications button on their hub page to begin their application. Once they have done this, the system will ask them what type of application they want to make, e.g. undergraduate, and if they are applying from a school, college or centre. If they tick yes, they will need to enter a buzzword given to students by their school, college or centre, and UCAS will ask them to confirm that this is correct.
Fill in the application.
Students will see a homepage with various tabs, and they must fill in each section and mark them as complete. These sections include:
- Personal details – fill in their title, first name, last name, date of birth, gender, etc. Students must ensure they fill in their names as they appear on official documents, such as passports, birth certificates and driving licences.
- Contact and residency details – fill in their contact email and telephone number, postcode, postal address, nominated access and residency details, such as area of permanent residence and residency status.
- Nationality details – fill in their country of birth and nationality.
- Supporting information – confirm whether they have ever lived or worked in the EU, EEA or Switzerland or their parents and step-parents EU, EEA or Switzerland nationals.
- English language skills – confirm if English is their first language. If they tick no, they can detail whether they have sat any English proficiency tests.
- Finance and funding – confirm their main source of funding for their studies and student support arrangements.
- Diversity and inclusion – fill in their ethnic origin, national identity, and occupational background. There are other optional questions; students can select ‘prefer not to say’.
- More about you – it is an optional section that covers additional student support.
- Education – add school/colleges where they studied and qualifications, e.g. GCSEs, AS levels and A-levels or equivalent. UCAS has some FAQs on adding AS and A-level qualifications to applications here.
- Employment – add any paid jobs in the past; those without experience should leave it blank. Students should not add unpaid work experience, e.g. voluntary positions, internships and placements, in this section. They can include this information in their personal statements if relevant.
- Extra activities – add any other activities relating to the application, e.g. summer schools.
- Personal statement – it is recommended to do the personal statement in Word and copy and paste it into this section. This section must be marked as complete to send it to referees.
Choose university courses
After completing the application form, students must select the courses they want to study at university, which should relate to their personal statement. They must click the add choice button, giving them a page to select the university, course, location, point of entry, living arrangements, etc. Students can select up to five courses, which are not in order of preference on the application.
Submit their application
After completing every section, marking them as complete, reading through to ensure everything is accurate and there are no mistakes and signing the declaration, students can submit their UCAS application when applications open in September.
It is important to note that if a student applies through a school, college or centre, their application will go straight to their referee to complete the reference section before submitting. Other students must pay online, and their applications will be sent directly to UCAS after their referee has completed the reference section and after payment.
Monitor their application
Students can monitor the progress of their applications in the UCAS Hub at any time.
Preparing for Interviews and Admissions Tests
After submitting their UCAS application, universities may invite students for an interview with admissions teams or course tutors towards the end of the application process and before the university makes an offer. Universities will send interviews directly to students or via their UCAS application, so they must check for invites. Many universities are still doing online interviews via Zoom or Microsoft Teams, so students may need to download these and have a strong WIFI connection.
Interview form and length will differ between universities, but they send information to students about what to expect during the interview in their invitations. If students haven’t received information, they should contact the university to find out more. For some courses, e.g. creative ones, students may attend an audition instead or bring examples of their work, e.g. a portfolio.
It is difficult for universities to reschedule interviews, so students must try and make the given date. If they have to rearrange for specific reasons, they can log in to their UCAS account and propose a new date via the hub. They will then receive an updated invitation from the university.
Some universities and courses may also require students to complete an admissions test; they can check if this is the case using the UCAS search tool. These tests have deadlines, so students need to confirm when they are. They may need to register for tests separately from their UCAS applications and with the university.
There are numerous admission test types depending on the university/course, e.g. the National Admissions Test for Law (LNAT), the BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT), the Mathematics Admissions Test (MAT), etc. UCAS has further information on admissions tests here.
Interviews and admissions tests can be a daunting prospect for some students. However, there is no need to worry if they are prepared, as they will know what to expect, which can boost their confidence and increase their chances of success.
Here are some tips to help students prepare:
- Refer to the personal statement to refresh themselves, as they may need to embellish some points they put in their application.
- Do further research on the university and the course they are applying for, especially on why they want to study there and that particular subject.
- Ensure they are up-to-date with any news and current affairs regarding their chosen subject.
- Identify some of the common university interview questions and identify some practice answers. A mock interview with a teacher, tutor, family member or friend can help. UCAS has some example questions here.
- Before the interview, sort out travel and accommodation arrangements and find out where it is taking place and who to ask for. If the interview is online, check everything is all set up to avoid ‘hiccups’ on the day, e.g. laptop, webcam and internet connection.
- Write down some questions to ask to clarify anything they are unsure of and to look eager and passionate.
- Identify the tests they must sit before they apply, as some may require students to register for their admissions test before application submission.
- Leave plenty of time to prepare and plan for these tests and treat them like any other examination.
- Check the marking scheme for the specific test they will take to understand how it is marked.
- Identify what grade/score is needed to pass, not the top, and use it as a benchmark.
- Do some practice tests or past test papers online and time themselves, for example:
- LNAT Practice tests.
- Mathematical Institute Maths Admissions Test.
- Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing Preparing for STEP.
- Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing BMAT Practice Papers.
- UCAT Consortium Prepare.
- Visit university websites for further advice and resources.
- Confirm where and when the tests will be to avoid being late.
- Use admissions test experts and tutors to help with preparation.
Properly preparing for university interviews and admissions tests will help students perform well and increase their chances of receiving an offer.
Going to university costs a significant amount of money, and very few students and their families have the finances to pay off fees straightaway. It is a massive financial commitment, so students and their families must consider these aspects when applying for university. Here are some costs to be aware of:
- UCAS application fee – UCAS charge a fee to cover their administrative costs. For 2024 entry, the application fee is £27.50 for up to five choices, which students must pay to submit their application.
- Tuition fees – the fees universities charge depend on the university, the course and the country within the UK. Fees can start at £9,250 a year for undergraduate tuition (in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland) and £9,000 in Wales. International students will pay much more.
- University living costs – students living away from home and at university will also have additional costs, e.g. accommodation, utilities, food and drink, travel, books, etc.
There is help available for students who do not have the funds to pay for fees immediately, for example:
- Tuition fee loans – paid directly to the institution, but students must pay it back. If they are full-time, they can get up to £9,250 towards their fees.
- Maintenance loans – are paid into the student’s bank account to help with living costs at the beginning of each term. The amount they receive depends on where they live and if they are with their parents. They pay it back and must provide certain information to be eligible.
- Scholarships – help with tuition fees and living costs and do not need to be paid back, as they are donated. Students are awarded these for achievement or excellence in academics, sports or music.
- Bursaries – are one-off payments to help students with living costs and are typically given to those from low-income households or those with specific personal circumstances, e.g. disabilities. They do not have to be paid back by students, as the money is donated.
- Grants – are given for specific purposes, e.g. studying overseas, and also to help with living costs for those from low-income households or those with specific personal circumstances, e.g. disabilities.
Further information on student finance is on:
- Student finance for undergraduates.
- Apply online for student finance.
- Student finance: how to apply.
- Student finance for undergraduates: Extra help
Finalising Choices and Accepting Offers
Students can check how their application is progressing via the UCAS hub. If they receive an offer, they must log in to accept. Offers can be:
- Unconditional firm (UF) – students get a place.
- Conditional firm (CF) – students get a place if they meet the university’s conditions, e.g. specific grades.
- Conditional firm (CF) and conditional insurance (CI) – students get a place at their first choice if they meet the conditions or one at their second choice if they do not meet the conditions of the first but meet the second.
- Conditional firm (CF) and unconditional insurance (UI) – students get a place at their first choice if they meet the conditions or definitely one at their second choice if they do not meet the conditions of the first.
Some students may receive multiple offers. Therefore, they must think long and hard before accepting an offer to make the right decision. They should consider:
- The type of offers they have received – students may have a mix of different offers. Do they want to choose the university that has made an unconditional or a conditional offer?
- The conditions of the conditional offers – they should read the university’s conditions to see if they agree and can meet them.
- The course – they should consider whether it is suitable for them and if they are happy with how it is assessed, i.e. coursework, exams or both.
- The university they would prefer to go to – it is not just considering the course, but the modules within the course, the accommodation, the area, the clubs and societies, and other aspects of university life, e.g. nightlife. Does the university look like a good fit, as they will be studying there for at least three years?
- Cost and finances – some universities and courses are more expensive than others. If students are living away, they should also consider the cost of living where they will be staying, e.g. London is very expensive to live in.
- Their career aspirations – they may want to look at the rankings of the universities that have made offers, as higher ranking ones may help them secure a better career.
Once students have made their final choice, which should be their preferred choice, they should go to the UCAS hub and reply. They have deadlines, so they must check their personal application to confirm when they have to reply. There are two types of replies:
- Firm acceptance – students accept their first choice.
- Insurance acceptance – the backup choice to a conditional firm acceptance. Students can use it if their grades are lower than expected or if they do not meet the conditions of their first choice.
To reply, students must do this via the UCAS hub. They can only accept a maximum of two choices, e.g. one firm and one insurance, and must decline the other offers. UCAS has further information on replying to offers here.
Students can change their minds about their university choice but must do so quickly. After 14 days, the process becomes more complex, and there is also a deadline when they cannot swap. They can withdraw their application if they no longer want to attend university that year, which they can do via the UCAS hub.
Preparing for University Life
When students started their A-levels, they probably found that it was a big jump from their GCSEs. However, during these qualifications, they developed the knowledge, skills and confidence to prepare them for university and transition more easily into academia. There is no doubt that the gap between A-levels and university is also significant, but with preparation and planning, it can make it less daunting and more exciting.
Once students confirm their place at their preferred university, they will have summer to start thinking about this new chapter of their journey and prepare for university life and the new term in September. They will likely receive information from their university, which may include:
- Any support they can expect to receive.
- Transition materials before the course starts.
- Access to support services and social activities.
- Details about induction programmes at the start of term, including Freshers Week.
- The societies they can sign up for.
Every new university student will be in the same boat come September. Students should remember how they felt on their first day of sixth form or college when starting their A-levels and how far they have come. It is normal to feel nervous and unprepared, but universities will help students settle in, and there is plenty of support on and off campus. The Department for Education has information on what students need to know about transitioning into higher education here.
Students living away from home while at university must find accommodation, which may include student halls of residence and privately rented flats and houses. They must consider their accommodation arrangements early as spaces, especially for halls, fill up quickly. The university usually sends information to students wanting to reside in halls. There is also information on websites, such as Accommodation for Students, UCAS, Mystudenthalls.com, and others. It is advisable to go and look at accommodation beforehand to check if it is suitable.
Students should start to prepare for their course. They could ask for reading lists or course specifications and start reading up on their course to know what to expect when they start in September.
Getting necessary resources
Students living away should consider the equipment and supplies they need for their living and studying arrangements. UCAS has a list of what to take to university here.
Finances and budgeting
Students must learn to budget and manage their finances while at university, and it is better to get things in order before the term starts to reduce money worries and stress. They must consider costs, such as tuition fees, food, accommodation, utilities, phone bills, supplies, books, transport, toiletries, clothing, nights out, etc. The MoneySavingExpert student budgeting planner and UCAS can help students with budgeting. Look out for costs that are not obvious, such as a TV licence and contents insurance.
Some students may want to consider applying for a part-time job to boost their income and get additional experience and skills.
Get on social media
Students can check their university social media accounts for any updates and news, as they may have information on induction programmes, Freshers Week, timetables, etc.
Students should find and chat with other students on social media who are also starting their first year of university. They may also find people on the same course as them and arrange to meet in the summer to discuss their first term.
Students should make the most of their university experience, as it is an exciting time. Being prepared and knowing what to expect can make their first year run as smoothly as possible.
Applying for university may appear to be an overwhelming and arduous task. However, it is not if A-level students keep track of the deadlines and know the requirements, carefully plan and prepare, and understand how to navigate the UCAS system. If they have any difficulties or concerns, there is plenty of information, support and advice online and help from teachers, lecturers, tutors, advisers and other students. Therefore, there is no need for students to struggle alone.
Students must approach the university application process with thoughtful decision-making, as there will be many tough decisions to make, which can impact their time at university and future career choices and lives. They should also be confident and believe in their abilities, as they have gotten this far and have the potential to put together a successful university application and receive offers from their preferred institution.
On accepting an offer, planning and preparation over the summer are key to ensure a smooth transition from A-level to university and to reduce nervousness, stress and worry. Students should embrace their university journey and look at it as an exciting opportunity where they will really come into their own and will develop the knowledge, skills and experience to help them have successful careers and fulfilling and happy lives.
Please use the comments section to share experiences, questions, or additional tips related to university applications. Use the space to foster a supportive and informative community of students and educators.