University applications: a guide for parents

Getting a university application right – and understanding the options if things don’t go to plan – can make all the difference to your child’s future. Chris Speedy explains the process and highlights stages where parental support and guidance may prove particularly helpful.

Music, dance and drama

Many HE institutions offer music, dance and drama courses via the standard UCAS system.  For some specialist dance and drama courses you apply directly to the institution.  For courses at a conservatoire, you apply via CUKAS.

Studying art

Most students who study A-levels rather than a vocational art course, usually choose to take a preparatory one year Art Foundation course at a local college before going on a degree course.

Foundation courses offer an opportunity to try out different techniques and methods before deciding what to do at university. You apply directly to the college for these courses.

Researching options

The process of university application starts quite early in Year 13, so students need to have a good idea of what they want to study and where by the end of Year 12.

Most students select their course to fit their career choice (if known) or the subject(s) they enjoyed at school. For the undecided, UK Coursefinder has a short online questionnaire that aims to match students’ interests, abilities and skills to courses.

Many schools arrange for sixth-formers to attend free higher education fairs, where universities answer questions and hand out prospectuses. If your child’s school doesn’t, you can usually turn up on the day.

 

Applications and UCAS 

All applications to UK universities for full-time courses are made through UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. It is not just universities that provide degree (and HND) courses. Many colleges also offer higher education and you apply for these via UCAS too.

UCAS applications are made online,  using a system called ‘Apply’ (see below).

Students who want to study part-time courses need to contact colleges or universities individually to find out how to apply.

 

Applying to university: a guide timetable

PLEASE NOTE: the list below is intended to give a general indication of timings – please ensure you CHECK WITH UCAS for exact dates.

Year 12

Spring onwards

Research and make choices about universities and courses – open days and HE fairs/conventions usually take place between March and September/early October.

Visit universities and university cities/towns.

Summer holidays

Students should start thinking about their personal statement.

Year 13

Autumn term

UCAS applications open around mid-September.

Deadline for applications to most UK conservatoire courses via CUKAS
(Conservatories Admission Service UK). This is a separate application system for certain music, dance and drama courses.

Deadline for UCAS applications for:

Cambridge or Oxford; or
medicine, dentistry or veterinary science/medicine in any university.

January

Deadline for all other UCAS applications (except some art and design courses which may be later – again, please check). Applications are accepted after this date but are marked as ‘late’.

February

UCAS Extra opens, for students with no offers (see left).

Student finance

Students should apply for student finance at www.gov.uk/studentfinance. They don’t need a confirmed place so should just use their first choice of course and can always update this later if necessary.

March-June

Decision time

Students receive offers from universities and colleges via UCAS.

STUDENTS MUST CHECK THE DEADLINE TO RESPOND TO OFFERS OR UCAS WILL DECLINE ON THEIR BEHALF.

Late applications

UCAS will send late applications to chosen universities and colleges until Clearing opens but institutions will only consider applications if they still have vacancies.

Results time, Clearing and Adjustment (see more, left)

BTEC and International Baccalaureate results. Students taking these qualifications do not have to wait until the August Clearing process to confirm their place or check for vacancies.

August

Scottish Highers results – and the start of the Scottish Clearing vacancy search.

A-level and Advanced Diploma results – and the start of the full Clearing vacancy search.

UCAS Adjustment opens for registration.

September

The Clearing vacancy search closes toward the end of September.  Clearing applications can still be made, but contact unis and colleges direct to discuss vacancies first.

Taking a gap year

Students wishing to take a gap year can apply for a deferred place (subject to university agreement) but still have to meet the deadlines for the year in which they apply.

 

Writing a personal statement

The trickiest part of the application process is the personal statement, where students get to sell themselves to the university. Most candidates won’t be interviewed so, apart from exam results and a short reference, the personal statement is the institution’s main chance to assess the student’s suitability and enthusiasm for their course (plus their ability to spell!).

Writing a personal statement can be pretty daunting, so be prepared to provide advice and moral support. It’s worth starting early, jotting down ideas and writing a first draft during the summer holidays.

 

Using UCAS Apply

Students usually need to register for Apply via their school or college, although some are more on the ball than others so it pays to double check. They can apply for up to five courses. If they choose fewer, they can add extra ones later.

There is no order of preference and universities are not told which other institutions the student has applied to.

Entry requirements for most courses depend on applicants’ exam results. Most take A-levels but 49 types of qualification are officially recognised by UCAS, including BTEC, Scottish highers and the International Baccalaureate.

UCAS Apply lists details of all the courses available, including entry requirements.

 

Entry requirements  and UCAS Tariff points

Different courses and institutions have different entry requirements.

Each grade of each qualification earns students a defined number of UCAS Tariff points (for A-level it’s 120 points for an A, 100 for a B and so on). Universities usually demand either a total number of Tariff points or minimum A-level grades (for example, ABB).

Read the notes carefully as there may be restrictions, such as: points must be earned from only three A-levels; General Studies doesn’t count; or students must have at least a B in Maths.

Schools tell students their predicted grades, but it still makes sense to choose one or two back-up universities, or courses whose requirements are less stringent.

 

Submission timings

UCAS applications open in September. The deadline for Oxbridge universities and certain courses is in the autumn term, but the deadline for most courses is in January.

Many schools and colleges will encourage students to apply well before the deadline for good reason, with early November a common school/college deadline.

This allows the school to add things such as references, and check personal statements and choices.  Although universities are obliged to consider all applications received by the deadline, many start making offers in the autumn.

 

Understanding offers and making firm and insurance choices

Students don’t have to do anything until all their university choices have responded. UCAS will then prompt the student to make their decision by a set deadline.

Unconditional offers are simple. Accept one and you’re in. But if a student’s first choice is a conditional offer, they can also accept a second choice if they wish (usually conditional on lower grades). All other offers are formally declined and cannot be reinstated later.

UCAS calls the first choice firm and the second choice insurance. Note that students can’t choose between their firm and insurance offers once they get their results: if their firm choice accepts them, they cannot plump for the insurance choice instead.

Although universities must issue an offer or rejection by early May,  many do so much sooner. Students who have already got A-levels (or equivalent) will receive unconditional offers, but for the rest any offer will be conditional on academic success.

Conditional offers may ask for a set number of UCAS Tariff points, or exact grades in specific subjects (or even modules). Study the offer carefully, as it may not entirely match what you read in the course prospectus. A minority of courses also invite candidates for an interview.

 

UCAS Extra

Students with no offers can apply for another course that has vacancies, via the UCAS Extra service. If rejected, they then apply to another, and so on.

 

Results time

It’s vital that students are at home at results time. Most exam results (including A-levels) are sent direct to UCAS, which automatically notifies universities. If the student gets the grades required by their firm or insurance choice, that’s the job done (unless they want to make use of Adjustment – see below).  If they have just missed the required grades, they might still be offered  a place, although this is by no means certain.

 

Increasing students’ options

For both Extra and Clearing students may increase their options by considering joint or combined degrees covering two or more subjects.

Students who want to enter Clearing should ensure they’re in the UCAS system before results time. Otherwise, while they are writing and submitting their application they may miss out on places to people already in the system.

Clearing

Clearing is the time when any empty places are up for grabs, and generally runs from the end of June to mid-September.

For Scottish universities, peak time is early August when Higher results are published.

In the rest of the UK, it maxes out a couple of weeks later when A-level results are issued and thousands of spaces are freed up by applicants not making the grade, or not taking up insurance offers.

Generally, it operates on a first come, first served basis, but most universities still want the best applicants and won’t compromise on grade requirements.

Students without a confirmed place automatically go into Clearing, which tries to match them with courses that still have vacancies.  Course availability is shown on the UCAS website, but things change fast and students need to be quick. They must contact the university’s admissions office to see if it will consider them, and to clarify anything about the institution and course. It can be daunting for an 18-year-old, so they’re likely to need parental support. It is important however that the student and not their parent makes the phone call!

 

Adjustment

Adjustment is a service within UCAS for candidates who have done better than expected which gives them a chance to reconsider where and what to study. If they’ve had a firm conditional choice accepted – and therefore made into an unconditional firm choice – they could potentially swap their place for one on another course.  It’s entirely optional. And a lot of competitive courses will be full, but other applicants might have missed their conditions or swapped a course too, so it could be worth seeing what’s available.

Chris Speedy is an independent careers guidance consultant and manages the website Careers Advice for Parents and Young People.

Find out more

UCAS Advice for Parents and Guardians

The Complete Universities Guide

Which? University

And see universities’ own websites for further advice and information.