For the Chinese, it’s called the Gao Kao and in the US, they’re called SATs. The International Baccalaureate final exam process is called the DP Assessment; DP representing Diploma Programme.

Here, in the UK, we sit A-Levels, rigorous exams in subjects of our choosing for the same reason that students in other countries do: to mark our readiness (and eligibility) for higher education.

For some, a good A-Levels result means three to four more years of study (more, if you plan on graduate and postgraduate studies); for others, it signifies that they are well and truly done with academia.

Whichever side of that fence you stand on and especially if you’re currently straddling that fence, you might want to hedge your bets by registering with UCAS to see what’s available to you.

Doing so doesn’t necessarily signal an intent to enrol at university; it merely shows that you are clever in examining every option open to you before discarding anything that might benefit you, now or down the road.

That’s true even if you have no intention of pursuing higher education.

In that spirit – the idea that, for perhaps the only time in your life, all choices are laid out before you, your Superprof talks about going to university.

If only to be well-informed, we invite you to join this discussion.

How to Apply for University

We are fortunate that there, in the UK, we have a central entity for all things university; at least, as they pertain to undergraduates.

Through UCAS, we can see what schools are open for enrolment and what courses they have to offer. We can see enrolment requirements and draft the dreaded personal statement.

We can even find out our A-Level results!

Not too long ago, students must submit handwritten applications
It wasn't so long ago that students had to write each university's office of admissions to request a place in their degree programs Image by stempow from Pixabay

It wasn’t so long ago that prospective university students had to apply to each institute they hoped to attend, endure the agonising wait for an acceptance (or rejection) letter and, upon accepting one university’s offer, having to write letters declining all other offers.

Or not. That’s what made university enrolment such a mess: nobody knew, until courses started, who was actually going to be there. What a nightmare!

UCAS has made life so much simpler: you register for your UCAS account, fill in your personal details on the UCAS application (mindful of following application instructions), draft your UCAS personal statement, and pay your application fee of £20 (£25 if you are applying for more than one course of study).

And then, you get to sit back while UCAS does all of the work. You only have to log in occasionally to check your application status.

If you are an international student hoping to attend university in the UK, you would apply for admission in much the same way. However, you will have to provide an acceptable IELTS score when you register.

You will also have to provide proof that you have money to cover your living expenses.

Naturally, there is plenty of other things you should know about applying for university

How to Beat Application Deadlines

Our online application system is generous in its information sharing; among other pertinent facts about university applications, UCAS maintains a calendar of dates and deadlines that you should keep an eye on if you want your admissions application to be seen in the best light.

On the whole, that means registering and applying as soon as you meet the admission requirements; you shouldn't wait until you receive your A-Level test scores.

Filling out the common application in UCAS is generally not a problem; most students apply online fairly quickly and easily. If you are an international student, you may have a bit more to information to furnish but you too can make quick work of it.

The extra admissions requirements are what slow most people down: getting letters of recommendation from someone who knows you academically, choosing courses of study and writing a personal statement.

Of all the application requirements, those two seem to stymie applicants the most. We’ll go over them briefly later in this article.

If you are undecided about applying for admission to university, you may choose to wait past the mid-January application deadline; in fact, many students wait to choose any areas of study until early July, when Clearing opens, to see which courses are leftover.

That’s when they make their selection.

There are other tactics you can use to maximise your undergraduate admissions advantages; we’ve listed them all in our companion article.

Freshman students want to know what student life is like on campus
Many new students want to know what life will be like at university before accepting an offer Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Choosing Your Course of Study

Degree-seeking students sometimes know exactly what field they’d like to study; others are all over the board.

Biology might appeal, but then Drama and Literature are so stimulating! And then, there are those fields of study that virtually guarantee financial success later in life...

Out of the wealth of degree programs on offer, how is anybody supposed to choose?

You may opt to:

  • go with your passion – which topic is closest to your heart
  • go with your interests: if you are full of curiosity, you might broaden your horizons while slaking your thirst for knowledge
  • bet on your skills: whether your talent lies in drawing or maths, you can find courses to further develop your talent
  • go with what might be most rewarding: aim for the career field that will bring you the most satisfaction in the long run
  • find flexibility: consider degree plans that offer the broadest employment potential rather than narrow degrees that don’t translate well into other fields.
  • don’t forget the financial returns: always consider your future earning potential when selecting your course of study.

These are all individual points to consider in the wide spectrum of concerns that every university applicant thinks of – or has pointed out to them by friends, relatives and other concerned parties.

Believe it or not, some undergraduate students actually select their course of study by the reported quality of student life at any university.

The wise undergraduate student considers all of those points and more when selecting university courses; they also talk with people outside of their immediate circle to get a bigger picture of what each course has to offer.

You may talk with your school counselor and maybe even an admissions counselor to get an idea of the potential of interesting courses – employability, financial reward and your chances of being given a place in that study programme.

You may also talk with people who work in those fields to find out if their experiences are what you’re looking for before you begin the admissions process.

And, before you submit your application, you should get more advice on how to select your courses.

Writing an Effective Personal Statement

How is it that universities can boldly make unconditional offers to students they know practically nothing about?

Think about it: when UCAS forwards your application package to every university you’ve selected, A-Level results aren’t yet published.

Those schools know next to nothing about you. They’re not looking at your academic transcript or attendance record to see if you’re a good student. They don’t know about your financial aid requests (if any) or if you are SEN when they offer you an unconditional place in their school.

The admissions office know nothing about enroling students
The admissions office makes their application decisions largely based on students' personal statements Image by free stock photos from from Pixabay

Sure, it could be that some recruitment restrictions have been lifted and now it’s an all-out race for universities to attract students; some schools even offer enticements for accepting unconditional offers, such as a new laptop or a possible scholarship.

Still, that would account for only a portion of the unconditional offers made by universities to prospective students.

If you receive an unconditional offer of enrolment, it’s far more likely that your personal statement has struck a chord with the admissions committee and they really want someone like you to attend their school.

How do you write a statement that convinces total strangers, people whose careers centre on reading such expressions by the thousands… how do you write a statement that impresses a body who has likely ‘read it all’?

First, by being sincere.

Many students believe that coming on ‘wow’ - with hyperbolic statements or humour as an attention-getter will put them atop the heap but soon find themselves at the bottom of the selection pile.

What really grabs the attention of the selection committee is a well-phrased statement with a ring of truth pervading it.

Authenticity is the second criterion to weave your personal narrative out of.

It goes without saying that plagiarising is out of the question but the quality of being original goes beyond merely copying another’s words.

Incorporating well-known quotes into your statement would seem like a no-brainer – wouldn’t it show how well-read you are? On the contrary; you may well be erudite but you’re still spouting someone else’s words; the admissions body wants to hear your words, not others'!

Likewise with trite phrases and tired words: you may well be passionate about your academic pursuits but, for a refreshing change, why not describe why you’re passionate rather than simply saying ‘… and it awoke in me a passion...’ or some variation thereof.

For a university to make an admission decision based purely on an admission application and a roughly 700-word narrative, that narrative has to be really good.

It would behove you to pick up more tips on how to write your personal statement

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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.