Summer has come and gone, A Level results are released, dreams are realised or broken.  And so the carousel that is university admissions starts all over again.

558,000 students applied for university in the most recent cycle.  As universities adjust policies to deal with the sweeping changes the government has made to higher and further education, this number looks set to increase.

For those people applying to university, there is a process to all of this….

  • All admissions are done through the University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), who work with universities to manage admissions.  You’ll have to register on their site and fill out all of your personal information – it’s also massively important to put all of your qualifications in there too.
    Some universities will look at GCSE grades and the like (and many will appreciate things like musical instrument qualifications) so be sure to include them too.  If you don’t know a grade, mark it as ‘pending.’  Don’t put a predicted grade in, as this will imply to the university you’ve achieved it!  If you’re continuing a subject at A2 level from AS you don’t need to include the AS as a separate achievement, just put in the A2 and mark it as pending – you’ll be able to add in individual modular grades to the system, including those you’ve already got marks for.

  • UCAS allows you to select a total of up to five courses.  All five can be at the same university or they could be at five different places.  The courses can all be the same or entirely different (obviously this will depend on your preferences of course etc.)  You can apply for one if you choose, it’s up to you.

  • There is a fee associated with applying to UCAS – if you apply for just the one course you’ll need to pay £12.  If you apply for two or more the total is £23.  In the vast majority of cases you need to pay this yourself, though some schools may offer to help students in difficult circumstances.

  • Your personal statement is included on the application too – once you’ve written and perfected it you’ll be able to cut and paste it into the application form.  Beware though – there is a character limit (mine was limited to 4,000 characters or 47 lines, whichever was less.)

  • Your tutor will write you a reference and will include your predicted grades.  You won’t likely see what they have to write though be sure to check they have go the right subjects and grades (I discovered that my tutor who filled out my application had included several subjects I no longer studied…)

  • Once it has been sent, it is sent to the admissions services at the relevant universities.  Contrary to popular belief, one university cannot see where else you’ve applied for – that information is private and it will have no bearing on your application to an institution.

  • A university admissions centre will consider an application based on the strength of your statement, your current and predicted results and any other extra criteria they have, such as your extra-curricular activities.


If you apply to courses at Oxford or Cambridge, things are slightly different.  When you apply, you tell UCAS which college within the university you are applying to.  As it is, these two institutions, along with any medical degree and competitive courses like law, require lots of thought and applications have to be sent off earlier than normal applications.  Why?  Simple, an interview is normally required.

Interviews and auditions are famously associated with Oxford and Cambridge, though they are often required with things like dance and drama too.

Once a university has conducted all the investigating and considering they need, they will come to a decision.  Once they have, they will notify you via the UCAS Track section of the site.  You will receive an email informing you of this.  On the Track section you’ll be able to see the details of an offer if you receive one.  With Oxford and Cambridge you will receive news of their decision with an old-fashioned letter through the post!

Once every university or college has come to a decision about your application, you will have to narrow it down to two:

  1. Your firm choice – this is the offer that, if you meet the entry requirements for it, you are going to for the next academic year.

  2. Your insurance choice – if you miss the conditions of your firm offer but make the conditions of this one, you’re going there instead.

  3. Any other offers you receive are automatically rejected.

Any offer that is subject to conditions, like entry requirements based on grades, are called Conditional Offers (CO.)  You may find that there are other conditions to fulfill too, such as a CRB clearance for certain professions.  Medical degrees and teaching are two such examples.  

Sometimes, you will receive what is called an unconditional offer (UCO).  This is where you have already met the terms of the offer and so can theoretically start regardless of what happens.  This is more common among students who opted for a gap year instead of travelling, though the exceptionally talented have been known to get such offers while they are still studying.

If you choose to make a UCO your firm choice, you cannot have an insurance choice.  By choosing a UCO as a firm offer, you’re basically declaring you’re off there.  You can of course make a UCO an insurance offer if you hold conditional offers.  That means, if something goes wrong, you still definitely have somewhere to go.  Come results day, everything hinges on what’s written on the piece of paper…

If you have met the terms of firm offer – You will receive an email notification informing you of this.  Log on to track and follow the instructions given.

If you didn’t meet your firm offer, but met the terms of your insurance offer – It’s more or less the same, just that you will be notified you feel short of your top choice.

If you missed both your form and insurance offer – panic not….


If something hasn’t gone to plan and you haven’t met the terms of either of your top offers, you can enter something called clearing.  This is where students get the chance to pick up whatever they can with the results they have achieved.  It’s a mad dash and I’m told is a very stressful experience, but you might find that you pick up something you like.  A mate of mine went through it when he missed the terms of his offers – he ended up in Essex studying History and he couldn’t be happier.

I am no expert with clearing, so follow the instructions on the UCAS site and you will be able to access the database of courses with places going spare.


Sometimes you just have a good day.

If you far exceed your offer and want to look for a ‘better’ course, you can use Track to find a course that more accurately reflects your grades.  From when you apply for Adjustment you have 120 hours to find a course.  It’s tough and more often than not there isn’t anything out there, but if you applied for a course with entry requirements of CCC and you find yourself with AAA, it might be worth looking about.  Up to you.

Hopefully this covers all of the main points to applying for university and what happens next.  Let the madness begin…

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