If you know that you would like to go to Uni after sixth form – or even after a planned gap year – you’ll have heard of UCAS and know that this is how you apply. You’ll probably also realise that your school or college completely understand the process and that you are unlikely to have to start any of it until year 13. However, we’ve had a lot of student/parent requests for a high level early explanation and so here it is …

A well-oiled machine

UCAS is the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. It is a registered charity with a clear mission to “inspire and facilitate progression in education through information and admissions services” – you can read more about this on the UCAS website.

In practice it is a well-oiled machine and it works very efficiently and reliably. However, the easiest way to demonstrate the practical benefits is probably to first reflect on the potential for chaos without it.

Imagine that you are in year 13 and are planning to go to Uni next year. Where would you look to find out about all the different courses you could consider? How would you find out about the different Unis? How many courses would you apply for – One? Ten? Fifty? What would you include in your application and would it be different for each course? When would you apply and would the deadline be different for each Uni? How would you manage the replies you received – or didn’t receive? How would the Unis know whether to expect you or not if you’ve had a lot of offers?

With literally millions of applicants every year, thousands of courses and hundreds of Unis, something had to be done to streamline and simplify the process. And that started a very long time ago so it is now extremely efficient and polished so you can have faith in the system and know that it works.

Simple process

There’s a lot of information out there and you’ll have time over the summer to read through it all, but the underlying process is very simple: you and your school/college register, you search for courses and research the different Unis, you apply for up to five courses, you track the replies – hopefully offers of a place – from the Unis and end up with no more than two offers at the time you get your results in August.

Clear timetable with deadlines

The process of applying is handled centrally by UCAS which provides a middle-man role rather like a filter or funnel. To be able to handle such huge numbers of applications each year, there are rules in place, a very clear timetable and a structured application process which everyone is – or soon becomes – familiar with.

There are deadlines for your application to be submitted – the main one being in mid-January. Then there are deadlines for the Unis to reply to you, and for you to narrow down your final choices to no more than two based on the offers that you – hopefully – receive.

But it’s still flexible

There’s early flexibility in the form of UCAS Extra for those who don’t get any offers – see earlier blog – and Clearing in the summer months provides opportunities for those who risk applying very late, who still do not have any offers or who do not get the exam grades needed for either of their final two choices. We’ll cover Clearing in more detail in a future blog.

Standard template application form

As with the rest of the process, the application form has been standardised. This makes it easier for your school/college to guide you and much quicker for the Unis to read through because everyone is familiar with the layout.

There are two distinct parts: the first contains standard information such as the academic subjects and grades you have already achieved as well as details of the courses you are studying at the time of applying.

The second part is known as the Personal Statement which is a sort of free-form CV which allows you to express why you are applying to study the subject and why the Uni should consider you. Again, we can cover this in more detail in a future blog, but if you get this right you increase your chances of getting either called for interview and/or receiving an offer.

Simple searching from the outset

The UCAS website has a great search tool which allows you to look for a particular subject, but then filter down so you can make a more informed choice. It allows you to narrow it down to a particular provider – say, for example, you wanted to study Modern Languages at the University of Bristol.

And options on the left enable you to separately filter by the different types of degree. For example, you might want to filter down to combined honours degrees – such as Film and Spanish. Another option is to filter down to sandwich degree courses on which – depending on the subject – you might spend a year either abroad or out at work.

The search tool also allows you to search by location and this can be helpful if you want to study at one of the fantastic universities, university centres or colleges offering degree courses located in here in the Bristol and Bath region.

Able to compare the different courses and Unis

Stay with the search tool and click on courses of interest because they open up onto pages telling you how long the course is for, where it is, what entry requirements you need to apply, what the course fees are, and a great summary of the course itself. Here you’ll also find the code that you’ll need for your online UCAS application.

To find out more about the different Unis, click on the name of the Uni alongside the course. It will reveal a wealth of really useful information about the provider including how many students they have which may be important if you prefer a smaller student population, for example. The data also shows the percentage of mature students which may be important if you are hoping to mix with a lot of younger undergraduates. And all the detail can be then explored further on the provider’s own website.

And finally …

UCAS continues to evolve and in addition to the well-oiled admissions service machine for higher education applications, it also provides information and inspiration as set out in the mission statement, above.

There is a telephone helpline, an online facility to browse by category rather than individual course, excellent overviews of the different types of apprenticeships, high quality advice and information about post-16 options, a career-finder service, tips on applying for apprenticeships and much much more.

Most of the information is on the UCAS website(s), but there are also fantastic videos on YouTube which are worth a look.

Another great way to find out more is to go along when your school or college arranges a parents evening on higher education choices. This will probably be in year 12 and is a fantastic way to hear direct from the school who will be providing a reference with your application as it also provides an opportunity to ask questions.

As with all our blogs, there are always exceptions – we couldn’t fit it all in otherwise – and we would therefore strongly encourage you to discuss your personal circumstances by seeking either advice and guidance online or from your local careers adviser.

Other websites – such as Which? University, the Complete University Guide, Unistats, Compare the Uni, University Compare – offer comparisons of the different courses and Unis, applications for medicine and similar need to be in by mid-October, and some of the more specialist providers don’t work with UCAS, but you’ll discover these quickly from their individual websites. There will always be exceptions, but UCAS still deliver the well-oiled machine which is efficient, effective and reliable for the overwhelming majority.

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