UK Admissions FAQs Answered by a Former Oxford Admissions Officer | Part 2

04 JUN 2021

In Part 2 of our UK ‘FAQs Answered by FAOs’ series, Hannah describes common mistakes made by UK university applicants, the advantages of applying early, and what to consider when choosing which universities to apply to.

This blog is the second in a four-part series of Frequently Asked Admissions Questions answered by former University of Oxford admissions officer, Hannah Rowberry. In part two, Hannah answers the following questions:

  1. What are some common mistakes you’ve seen from otherwise qualified applicants?
  2. Which UK application deadline should I aim for, and does this affect my chances of success?
  3. When choosing where to apply, how many universities should I choose, and how should I choose them?

After graduating from Cambridge with a degree in Natural Sciences, Hannah worked as a scientist, science teacher and College Outreach Officer for the University of Oxford. She has also been an Academic Registrar and an Admissions Officer there, experiences she now draws upon in supporting Crimson students in preparing for university life.

1. What are some common mistakes you’ve seen from otherwise qualified applicants?

The most common mistakes are often strategic. Applicants may have chosen to apply to courses where they would not be a viable or competitive applicant, or may have been overly ambitious in their choices overall and not chosen a good spread of reach, target, and safety schools across their 5 UCAS choices. Applicants also may make errors in their course choice, often not thoroughly exploring all the available options (potentially hundreds of courses at each university, and tens of thousands across the UK), and picking very oversubscribed options with lower chances of success. That’s not to say a student shouldn’t apply to a popular course if, after researching all options, that’s their best fit; but a great first step in thinking about university is broadening your academic horizons — the subject you’d love to do may be something you haven’t even heard of yet! 

Other errors may arise in the personal statement. For example, not understanding what the course you’re applying for is really about: I’ve seen otherwise strong applications where the personal statement indicates a student has misunderstood what they will be studying. Students may list impressive-sounding supercurriculars and achievements in their personal statement, but fail to add depth to these, such as explaining what they’ve learnt from an experience or providing their own reflections and insights. 

In the interview, a common error is the failure to demonstrate intellectual curiosity and flexibility — students may wrongly assume that it will be impressive to argue their opinions and stick to them at all costs, whereas interviewers may actually want to see that they can take onboard new information and come to a reasoned conclusion having done so.

2. Which UK application deadline should I aim for, and does this affect my chances of success?

Oxford and Cambridge, alongside Medicine, Veterinary and Dentistry courses, have an early UCAS application deadline of 15th October each year. The deadline for other UK universities and courses is 15th January. These deadlines are called ‘equal consideration’ deadlines — i.e. all applications received by the relevant deadline will be considered. However, the early deadline can be advantageous, even for universities and courses that don’t require it. Universities cannot see your other school choices on your UCAS application, but an early application will indicate you are likely to be an Oxbridge applicant, and thus potentially of a high academic calibre. Therefore if universities are impressed by your application, there is a possibility that they will make you an offer before the January deadline for other applications. 

Applying earlier also means there are fewer applications already submitted at that point, so the admissions officers may have longer to consider your application, which may be to your advantage. Applying early in the UK is not binding in the way it is in the US; you can wait for decisions from all 5 choices before choosing a firm and insurance choice to accept — your favourite, usually with the highest academic requirements, and then a back-up, in case things don’t go according to plan with meeting the grades for your firm choice.

3. When choosing where to apply, how many universities should I choose, and how should I choose them?

You can choose 5 universities to apply to through UCAS in the UK. As UCAS streamlines the process into one application form, it’s easy to apply to 5 universities at once. If applying to Oxbridge, you have to choose between Oxford and Cambridge — you can’t apply to both! If applying for Medicine, you can only apply to 4 medical schools, but you still have the option to choose a different course for your 5th choice. Other than this, it is usually advisable for students to apply for the same or very similar courses for all 5 options. 

When it comes to choosing universities, it’s best to pick a range of academic requirements and competition rates to optimise your chances of success. A typical range could be two “reach” options (those with ambitious but achievable academic requirements and high competition rates), two “target” options (those with comfortably achievable academic requirements and slightly lower competition rates), and one “safety” option (very comfortable academic requirements, and higher offer rates). 

Other things to consider are factors that will determine your best fit for the university — the courses on offer, the content and structure of the course, the location and type of university, the styles of teaching and assessment, and any particular facilities, activities, or opportunities you might be looking for. UK universities can be broadly split into collegiate, city and campus universities, and their locations range from huge cities like London, to historic university towns, and idyllic countryside settings. There’s something for everyone!

NEXT WEEK: Read what Hannah thinks are the most important parts of the application, how she thinks SAT changes and COVID-related obstacles will affect the next admissions cycle in the UK, and her advice for writing an impressive UCAS personal statement!

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