As sure as summer follows spring, the majority of students approaching the end of their secondary education phase are contemplating their future.

Thoughts like what they will do with their life, what career aspirations they’ve secretly harboured and which areas of study will most likely get them there are regular fodder around the dinner table.

You may also discuss your options with your school counselor or among your circle of friends; not every family gathers ‘round the table for their meals…

In the past, the figurative stampede of college admissions and tracking offers made by universities across the country had overwhelmed the online application system known as UCAS, causing it to crash repeatedly.

Fortunately, that situation has been remedied. Now, thanks to cloud computing, the UCAS portal is safe from swamping; no matter how many prospective students log on at the same time, the system will not fail them.

In the past, avoiding such system backlogs was reason enough to accord the question of when to apply for admission substantial weight. Now, it takes a backseat to other considerations.

Your Superprof now looks at all of the factors that might decide when to apply to university, including circumstances that have nothing to do with the admission process.

Understanding UCAS

The concept of a university application clearinghouse dates back to the mid-20th Century.

The penury of the war years was finally easing; by the middle of the 1950s, more and more students were applying for higher education. They could apply to as many universities as they wanted and often delayed accepting an offer until they’d heard back from every school they’d applied to.

Sometimes the wait for their application status would cause them to miss out on university altogether.

Academic programs were much harder to choose fifty years ago
In the old days, before the Internet, the common application for university was a more cumbersome process! Image by andreas160578 from Pixabay

On the other side of the fence, admissions committees were unable to screen every single application and respond on time. Another admissions process stumbling block was a lack of overview of all the applications made.

And, because admission requirements varied from school to school, students often overlooked a crucial part of their admission application.

Often, while prospective students dithered over which offer they should accept, schools failed to fill all of the seats they had to offer.

The whole system was inefficient. Something had to be done!

The Committee of the Vice-Chancellors and Principals, formerly known as CVCP and now operating under the name Universities UK, studied these and other problems relating to university application at length, ultimately resolving to set up an entity that would connect students with schools.

What we know as UCAS grew out of two forerunners: the UCCA for university applications and the PCAS for polytechnic school applications.

Tertiary schools were not compelled to subscribe to either of these organisations but, when they saw how streamlined the applications process became; they couldn’t sign on fast enough!

Today, except for two notable exceptions, everyone – ‘home’ or international student must apply to university through the online system.

For step by step instructions, you may refer to Superprof’s ‘how to apply to university’ guide.

The two exceptions to applying through UCAS are if you plan to study only part-time or if you will engage in online education.

The UCAS Timeline

Naturally, getting a national clearinghouse for university enrolment off the ground was not without its hiccups; the system crashes mentioned earlier are a remarkable example of such. Still, with every passing enrolment season, the UCAS system gets better and better.

It helps that computer technology has advanced to the degree that it has; also, student input is enormously valuable in tailoring the system to meet the needs of all parties concerned. That is the best reason for filling out the student surveys, don’tcha know!

Perhaps the handiest utility provided to you on the UCAS website is ‘Key Dates’, a listing of dates and deadlines that impact university applications.

For instance, if you’ve not gotten any offers from your January 15th application deadline for undergraduate admissions, you should keep your eye on the Extra opening date. February 25th is when you may add another school to your list of choices.

The UCAS calendar of events relating to university applications clearly highlights what happens (or should happen) on or by any given date.

Another key feature that makes this schedule easy to decipher is colour-coding: information for undergraduates is highlighted in bright red while students vying for a spot in a conservatoire should look for a lovely blue shade.

Teachers are relegated to bright yellow; their events are hard to miss!

Once you’ve registered with UCAS, do keep a keen eye on their calendar of events; it will proclaim activities you should be aware of as well as deadlines you shouldn’t miss.

Join the discussion: what is your method for choosing a course?

Factors That Impact Students’ Application Filing

Ideally, every student anticipating higher education should start formulating their plans before they leave secondary school.

As you sit GCSEs, give some thought to becoming an undergraduate student
Even as you prepare for your GCSEs, you should be giving thought to how you will be admitted to university Image by Анастасия Гепп from Pixabay

Indeed, your GCSE selections should be made based on your proposed university degree plan. For instance, if you intend to study microbiology at university, you should probably select biology as your science component.

Another factor of university education to consider as early as possible is financing: how will you pay for your education?

Finding out how grants and student loans work, how to apply for them and how to determine if you qualify for financial assistance should be done long before you apply to university.

Of all the reasons students file late university applications, these two dominate.

Naturally, there is nothing wrong with being undecided over what you’d like your future career to be or for having financial concerns. Still, neither condition should keep you out of the running for the best university choices.

Other reasons that students file late applications include:

  • Uncertainty over the direction your life might take
  • Plans for a gap year: perhaps working or travelling before starting university
  • Uncertainty over marks – you’re not sure your test scores will be high enough
  • Inability to get any letters of recommendation
  • Your chance to study abroad fell through
  • Uncertainty over admissions requirements
  • Uncertainty over your prospects for any reason, from financial aid to academic performance
  • International students may have to wait for IELTS or Baccalaureate results or worry about their English proficiency
  • Uncertainty over whether higher education is wanted or warranted
  • Uncertainty over which degree programs to select
  • Procrastination

Of all of these reasons, only the last is completely within your control.

If the only barrier between you and higher education is your habit of putting off till later what could be done now, it makes any other reason you might have for filing a late application moot.

Well, there is another reason…

The Best Time to Apply for University

Obviously, to have the best shot at the course of study you want, the best time to apply for university is as early as possible – meaning as soon as UCAS permits it.

To do that, you should have already looked at all your financing options, from supportive family members to tuition loans. Don’t forget to see if you qualify for any grant money; every little bit helps.

Also, you should have already written a draft personal statement.

The admissions office at university requires you to submit a personal essay that describes your experiences and why you want to enrol at university. The personal statement portion of the UCAS application process stymies most students.

However, if you get a very early start on it, maybe brainstorming ideas and writing a skeleton essay that can be fleshed out later, that is one less aggravation (and stressor) that you have to worry about come application time.

Even writing a few practice essays wouldn’t hurt; you could get started now if you knew the guidelines for writing a personal statement.

Unlike universities in other countries whose admittance is done on a rolling basis, our UCAS application system gives important dates for open application seasons, when your application would be considered late and what you can do about that.

You may request information early, before you begin your application process
You might start drafting your statement of purpose while still preparing for your GCSEs Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Late Applications

Clearly, it’s more advantageous to apply for university in a timely manner; some university admissions boards consider a late application a strike against you because you didn’t comply with application deadlines.

If you were hoping for a spot in a popular course of study, applying late virtually guarantees you won’t get one.

Still, there are instances when being late can benefit you.

You may, in fact, hope to select your courses through Clearing, when universities look for students to fill (usually less popular) courses. If you were undecided about what your future holds, you might just wait to see what washes out from the main wave of applicants.

If such a deal still doesn’t suit, why not wait for UCAS Extra?

If you’ve received no offers from any universities you’ve applied to or you didn’t like the offers you were made, you might make use of this function to apply for any still-open classes available.

Small warning: you will only be able to apply for one course at a time and must wait for a decision on your application. Nevertheless, thousands of students found their place at university this way and, if all else fails, you can too.

You have to admit: UCAS and our universities are very generous in their offerings, deadlines and compromises.

Really, it’s up to us to beat the application deadline so we can make the best of what’s offered…

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A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.