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What Are UCAS Points? A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding UCAS Points and How They Work

06/03/202425 minute read
What Are UCAS Points? A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding UCAS Points and How They Work

UCAS points are equivalent values for grades students earned on different exams or qualifications. If you’re intent on navigating UK admissions, it’s essential to understand UCAS points. In this post you’ll learn from our UK Strategists what UCAS points are, how they work, how you get them, and why they’re important. You’ll also get expert insights on the best ways to use UCAS points to inform your own UK admissions journey.

The UCAS Point System in the UK Admissions Context

If you’re researching or applying to UK universities, you’ll eventually come across the term ‘UCAS points.’ And, if you’re not already familiar with the UK education system, you’ll wonder What are UCAS points? Do they matter? Why do they matter? How do I know how many I have?...

Our UK strategists often hear questions like these, especially from international students looking for prospective universities in the UK.

I can assure you that it is important to understand the unique role that UCAS points play in the UK system if you’re serious about admissions planning and applying to a wide range of UK schools.

  • UCAS stands for Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, a UK platform that streamlines the university search and application process in the UK.
  • UCAS Tariff Points, as they are formally known, play a crucial role in qualifying you for admissions to a smaller but significant number of UK institutions, including a handful of prominent ones.
  • UCAS Points facilitate flexible qualification pathways for students with international educational backgrounds, work-related learning experiences, or otherwise untraditional learning experiences.
  • UCAS points help both institutions as well as students and their parents gauge who has sufficient academic standing or prerequisite qualifications for placement in specific classes after being admitted to a higher education degree program in the UK.

With UCAS Points being central to all these facets of UK admissions, you can see there really are benefits to knowing what UCAS Tariff Points are, how they work, the reasons they’re important, and how you earn and calculate your own UCAS points.

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What Are UCAS Points?

UCAS points are based on a point system administered by UCAS.

UCAS Tariff Points make it easy to translate a wide range of qualifying academic instruments and achievements into universal point equivalencies. For example, it can be difficult to get a snapshot of students' academic readiness in a system with many diverse qualifying exams, such as A-Levels, AS-Levels, and IB exams, just to name a small number, and not to fieldwork or on-the-job learning experiences.

UCAS lists point equivalencies for these diverse qualifications, so they can be viewed holistically and more uniformly.

UCAS point totals are very versatile for this reason, with many admissions-related applications:

  • A point total can provide a threshold (minimum educational requirement) for matriculation to a higher education degree pathway,
  • UCAS points can provide a minimum-requirements threshold for admissions, allowing individual universities an easy way to set or adjust the required benchmark for admissions to a degree program or for satisfying pre-requisites for specific courses
  • UCAS points make it possible for universities to compare the overall academic readiness and preparation of students vying for university admissions, even when students have diverse learning qualifications and backgrounds, inclusive of international students who studied in schools outside the UK

Despite the prominence of some very popular qualifications, such as A-Levels, the pre-university qualifications used across the UK remain remarkably diverse, making the UCAS point system compelling and practical.

“UCAS Tariff Points is a system that translates your grade qualifications into a numerical value. Most qualifications have a UCAS Tariff value, which higher education course providers use to assess whether you meet their grade entry requirements for particular courses.”

- Mastering the UCAS Application, Crimson Global Academy

Of course the whole UCAS point system only works because a wide range of institutions agree to the point equivalents published on the UCAS platform. That said, variations in admissions policies and guidelines can impact which qualifications are honored or how many points are assigned to a specific qualification, creating differences from one school to another.

Despite this limitation, the UCAS point system offers a way to calculate holistic academic indicators that are broadly accepted by UK institutions, making it a convenient tool for streamlining admissions processes, benchmarks, and rankings.

UCAS point equivalents are assigned primarily to Level 3 qualifications — the more rigorous pre-university courses and exams, of which A-Levels are perhaps the most prominent. But keep in mind UCAS also creates point equivalencies for less traditional qualifying instruments and experiential learning opportunities.

For international students not familiar with UK systems, the chart below provides a birds-eye view of how these Level 3 or ‘Further Education’ qualifications fit into the larger UK education landscape.

An Overview of UK Education Levels & Qualifications
LevelAcademic YearsKey Academic MilestonesCorresponding Qualifications
Middle SchoolYears 5–8
Secondary School Level 1Years 9–10 (age 14–15)Beginning of GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education)GCSEs with grade of D–G (Score of 1–3) BTEC (practical business & technology qualification) Level 1 NVQ (National Vocational Qualification) Level 1
Secondary School Level 2Years 10–11 (age 15–16)Take GCSE Exams; End of mandatory educationGCSEs with grade of A*–C (Score of 4–9) BTEC Level 2 NVQ Level 2
Further Education Level 3Years 12–13 (age 16+)Extended learning as a further stepping stone to Higher EducationAS Levels A Levels IB (International Baccalaureate BTEC National BTEC Level 3 NVQ Level 3 T Levels SQCF Level 6 (Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework)
Higher Education — Bachelors or Vo-tech Levels 4–6Foundation Degree Honours Degree BTEC Level 4 BTEC Professional Level 4 HNC (Higher National Certificates) HND (Higher National Diplomas)
Higher Education — Postgraduate Levels 7–8Master Degree PhD BTEC Level 5

The last column helps you appreciate the diverse academic qualification students can opt to pursue in the UK system, even within a single level. Amidst this complexity, UCAS Points provide a uniform way of measuring academic benchmarks and higher education readiness.

How Do UCAS Points Work?

We’ve just seen that the UK education landscape offers students a wide variety of academic and vocational learning pathways. While this flexibility is exceptional for students, it makes it hard to evaluate students’ qualifications with any kind of uniformity.

As I often tell students and parents from outside the UK, UCAS points provide an elegant solution to the age-old problem of trying to compare apples to oranges! Here's how advisors at UCAS sum up how UCAS points work:

The UCAS Tariff is a means of allocating points to post-16 qualifications, based on a simple mathematical model which uses a qualification size and grading scale to generate a total number of points.

In other words, the formula UCAS uses essentially "weights" different qualifications differently, based on how comprehensive and rigorous they are for testing students' content knowledge and skills. The more rigorous and comprehensive the qualification, the higher the point value assigned.

For example, the equivalent grade on a lower level qualification, such as an AS-Level, is only worth about 40% of the point value you'd get for the same grade on an A-Level.

In essence, UCAS points constitute a ‘common currency’ or ‘lingua franca’ of academic achievement for UK university admissions, making them highly relevant for students and institutions.

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How Do You Find Point Equivalents?

UCAS creates and publishes the point equivalents in the form of Point Tariff Tables displayed on easy-to-access Excel Spreadsheets.

The Point Tariff Tables list all the eligible qualifications and corresponding point equivalents.

However, it’s crucial to remember there’s a scoring spectrum for each qualification. A ‘B’ ranking on an A-Level Exam is assigned 40 points, while an A* ranking on the same assessment = 56 points.

UCAS Point Tariff Equivalencies for A-Levels vs AS-Levels
QualificationCorresponding Point Values (based on UCAS Point Tariff Tables)
A-LevelsA* = 56 A = 48 B = 40 C = 32 D = 24 E = 16
AS-LevelsA = 20 B = 16 C = 12 D =10 E = 6

UCAS maintains extensive Point Tariff Tables. Students active on the UCAS platform can access the Tables anytime, but they are also freely accessible to anyone via the UCAS website.

UCAS Points vs Grade-based Metrics

While providing a very practical function in the UK setting, you need to keep in mind that UCAS points are not the only model used, nor the most popular.

Just like Hufflepuff vs Gryffindor in the famous Harry Potter adventures, the UK admissions landscape is complicated by a persistent rivalry between grade-based admissions metrics and point-based ones!

According to UCAS, for example, only about one third of university courses you can search on the UCAS platform have a point-based requirement (a 'Tariff Entry Requirement') listed.

In other words, many UK universities use grades and grade-based offers — not UCAS points — for setting admissions thresholds or admissions minimums.

And, even among schools that do use UCAS points, many have divergent admissions policies.

This means that UCAS point systems notwithstanding, students and parents still need to wend their way through a certain degree of complexity when applying to UK universities.

Grade-based Offers

This is where a university specifies the exact grades a student needs to achieve in their A-Levels (or equivalent qualifications) for admissions or course placement.

For instance, if a university states an offer of ABB, it means the student must achieve these specific grades (one A and two Bs) in their A-Level exams. The subjects required for these grades can also be specified by the university.

Point-based Offers

By contrast, an offer based on UCAS points allows a student to use various combinations of qualifications and grades to meet the threshold.

For example, if a course requirement is 120 UCAS points, students can meet this threshold through various combinations of qualifications and grades, not just A-Levels, endowing the UCAS point system with added flexibility that fosters more inclusive admissions outcomes.

Advantageous for students who have pursued a range of different qualifications or who might not have achieved the exact grades required in a grade-based offer, the more inclusive point system allows for a broader recognition of different types of learning and achievements.

UCAS and UK Admissions: Uniformity vs. Complexity

Remember, each university has its unique criteria — even between and among schools using point-based offers — so I always advise students and parents to be sure to verify specific admissions requirements for each institution.

Here's how UCAS officials describe the variety of admissions policies in effect across UK universities:

Universities and colleges set their own entry requirements and do not have to accept a qualification simply because it is included in the Tariff tables. Universities and colleges don’t have to accept the Tariff value assigned by UCAS either. For example, if a university feels the content of the qualification is not fully relevant for the course you are applying to, they may tell you it's worth fewer points than UCAS has suggested, although most of the time the full Tariff points will be accepted

Obviously, this complexity makes your UK admissions planning more complicated, even with a uniform point system and admissions platform, so reach out to a qualified UK admissions advisor when you need help.

What Are Popular Ways to Get UCAS Points?

Now, here are some of the most popular ways students aiming for leading UK universities earn UCAS points:

  • A-Levels and AS-Levels: These are the most common ways students in the UK accumulate UCAS points. Different grades in these exams have different UCAS point values. For example, an A* at A-Level is worth 56 points, an A is worth 48 points, and so on.
  • Other Qualifications: UCAS points are not exclusive to A-Levels. They can also be earned through a variety of other qualifications like the International Baccalaureate (IB), BTEC Diplomas, and Scottish Highers, among others. Each qualification and grade within these systems has its own UCAS point value.
  • Extracurricular Activities: In some cases, activities outside of traditional academics can also contribute to your UCAS points. These might include graded music exams, dance qualifications, or certain awards and programs like the Duke of Edinburgh's Award.

If you have any doubt about whether you can earn UCAS points with a particular qualification you are studying, you should always check with your course provider or teacher.

How Do You Calculate UCAS points?

To calculate your UCAS points you need to look up point equivalencies on the UCAS Point Tariff Tables for your own relevant qualifications.

  1. Start by making a list of any relevant qualifications you have completed — such as AS or A Levels, or IB exam scores, etc.
  2. Refer to the UCAS Point Tariff Tables to find each qualification you’ve listed and the corresponding point value.

Remember, UCAS point value depends on two factors:

  • the type of qualification (A Level, or IB Exams, for example)
  • the grade you earned for that qualification

Once you’ve made a personal list of all your relevant qualifications and have looked up the relevant Point Tariffs to find your point equivalencies, you can simply add up all your UCAS points to get a point total!

Using the Tariff Point Calculator

While finding and adding up your points is conceptually simple, it's not always so easy to find the right tariff table for your individual qualifications… Fortunately, you can also use the UCAS Tariff Point Calculator, in order to speed up the process of finding and adding up all of your UCAS points!

How to Interpret Your UCAS Point Total?

Typically a UCAS point total of 120 is deemed 'sufficient' for embarking on a path to higher education degree programs in the UK.

However, leading UK strategists at Crimson Education will advise aiming for 150 to 200 UCAS points (or more) to be competitive for admissions at the best UK universities.

Why Are UCAS Points Important?

Due to their flexibility and uniformity, UCAS points help create a more manageable and transparent admissions landscape in ways that are important for institutions, for students and parents planning for university admissions, and for flexible and inclusive admissions outcomes.

The Importance of UCAS Points
For Streamlining Admissions ProcessesFor Students and Parents Navigating UK AdmissionsFor a More Inclusive Higher Education Landscape
UCAS points promote transparent, uniform indicators that serve as benchmarks or thresholds for admissions requirements. UCAS points allow universities a way to assess diverse pools of domestic and international applicants more fairly and uniformly. UCAS points provide a prominent holistic metric (similar to Cumulative GPA Scores in the US) for gauging applicants’ academic merit and potential. Students can reliably calculate their own holistic academic score based on their own Level 3 qualifications and/or other relevant alternative qualifications. A student’s UCAS score can help them gauge their potential for admissions to various UK universities and academic programs that make point-based offers. The reported UCAS average tariff scores of incoming students at diverse UK institutions provides a way for students and parents to map which institutions have more competitive admissions. UCAS point systems provide students who have less traditional learning backgrounds and academic experiences a way to quantify and document their achievements and merit. UCAS points systems provide an inclusive, universal metric admissions officers can use to recruit from a more inclusive applicant pool.

How UCAS Points Help You Rank Top UK Universities

I like to remind students and parents that the average UCAS scores of students admitted to a particular institution — aka the school’s ‘average entry tariff’ — can help them gauge the academic qualifications of students admitted to the school. 

The number can also serve, therefore, as a broad indicator of how competitive the admissions process is at a particular school — the higher the ‘average entry tariff’ number, the more competitive the school is.

For example, our UK Strategist Moira D. points out that rankings of UK universities published by The Guardian include an ‘Average Entry Tariff’ of students admitted that year as one of its many criteria for ranking UK universities.

Consequently, students and parents can use Average Entry Tariff data as a singular metric to gauge a school’s overall rank and the level of qualifications required to compete for admission

2024 School Ranking Survey Data – The Guardian
Institution (in descending order from highest to lower Average Entry Tariff) ‘Average Entry Tariff’ listed in The Guardian Survey (= UCAS Points) Overall All Rank Earned in The Guardian Ranking
St. Andrews2121
Glasgow 21113
Imperial College2045

Given the complexity of the overall UK admissions landscape, schools’ varied admissions policies, and the reliance on grade-based offers at most top institutions, it’s easier to understand why some schools with higher Average Entry Tariff values are not necessarily top ranking based on overall criteria used by The Guardian.

Nonetheless, Average Entry Tariff figures can offer students and their parents a unique window into factors such as:

  • school rank
  • the academic profiles of students recruited to the school
  • overall admissions competitiveness at a specific school

What Are the UCAS Points for Popular Qualifications?

A-Levels, along with BTECs and IB qualifications, are among the most popular ways students in the UK, as well as internationally, seek to qualify for competitive UK admissions.

With this in mind I’ve created a handy table that shows you the UCAS point equivalents for the most popular or common kinds of qualifications used for UK admissions, based on the UCAS Point Tariff Tables we’ve talked about:

Frequently Searched For UCAS Point Values
Common Qualifications Recognized by UK UniversitiesCorresponding Point Values (based on uniform UCAS Point Tariffs)
A LevelsA* = 56; A = 48; B = 40; C = 32; D = 24; E = 16
AS LevelsA = 20; B = 16; C = 12; D =10; E = 6
IB (International Baccalaureate)H7 = 56; H6 = 48; H5 = 32; H4 = 24; H3 = 12; H2 = 0; H1 = 0
BTEC GradesD* = 56; Distinction = 48; Merit = 32; Pass = 16
Access to HE Diploma45 Distinctions = 144; 45 Merits = 96; 45 Passes = 48

How to Get Additional UCAS Points?

Before jumping into an unchecked ‘race to the top’ when it comes to accumulating UCAS points, it’s a good idea to figure out which kinds of qualifications are accepted for by your prospective schools and programs, and which schools use only grade-based offers to begin with.

That said, here’s a helpful reminder with regard to the two essential avenues available for getting additional UCAS points:

  1. Qualifications you’ve already completed… Make sure you aren’t overlooking any qualifying achievements, courses, or activities that could translate into additional UCAS points.
  2. Attaining additional qualifications… Engage with a new academic course, program, or activity in order to acquire additional qualifications and additional points (after inquiring into specific admissions guidelines at your targeted UK institutions).

With that in mind, here are some ideas I recommend to students and parents ready to start brainstorming ways to get additional UCAS points:

  • Take an additional A-Level
  • Pursue online qualifications
  • Earn a Certificate in English as a Foreign Language
  • Enroll in a qualifying Vo-tech program
  • Participate in volunteering programs like the Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (CoPE).

Each option I’ve listed not only has the potential to contribute to your UCAS points but also enriches your educational and personal development.

The Crimson Global Academy is also an excellent resource for students interested in accessing a wide range of relevant educational opportunities in order to earn additional UCAS Points while benefiting from high quality instruction and the flexibility of online learning.

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Final Thoughts

In summary, I hope you feel much more confident in your understanding of what UCAS points are. Hopefully I've also convinced you that UCAS points play a pivotal and very practical role in the UK university admissions process, while also providing a fair and inclusive system that recognizes a wide range of qualifications and experiences.

But now that you're an expert on UCAS Points, what are your next steps?

Wherever you are on your UK admissions journey, my recommendation is always to plan ahead, familiarize yourself with the UCAS platform, research university requirements carefully, and choose a path that aligns with your academic strengths and interests.

And, if you're ready to explore your very best options and strategies stay tuned in and connected! You can read more about our UK Strategists and how they can help, or book a free introductory call so we can learn about your admissions goals and discuss next steps together. You'll also find the Crimson Global Academy to be an exceptional resource if you're looking for challenging learning experiences aligned with your admissions goals in the UK or elsewhere.