Mastering the UCAS Application: Your Comprehensive Guide to the UK University Admissions System

30/01/202321 minute read
Mastering the UCAS Application: Your Comprehensive Guide to the UK University Admissions System

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) is the centralised university application system for international and domestic students who wish to study in the UK. With this guide, you will learn about UCAS, the key application sections, important deadlines, the number of courses you can apply to, and more. Understand the UCAS system and prepare yourself to make the best application possible.

What is UCAS?

UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) is a UK-based organization responsible for managing the centralized application process for prospective students seeking admission to UK universities.

Through the UCAS platform, students can create an account, browse and compare various courses, and submit up to five applications to their preferred universities.

UCAS also provides a tracking system for applicants to monitor the status of their applications and receive updates on any offers, waitlist positions, or rejections. Once all responses have been received, students can then decide on their final choice of university, which can either be a firm choice (their first preference) or a backup choice (a secondary option in case they do not meet the admission criteria of their first choice). The backup choice serves as a safety net to ensure that students have a confirmed place to study even if they do not receive an offer from their first-choice university.

How many courses can you apply to through UCAS?

UCAS allows you to apply to up to five courses, excluding Medicine, Dentistry, Vet Medicine, and Vet Science, where you can only choose four.

Another restriction to note is that you cannot apply for Oxford and Cambridge simultaneously in one application cycle, you can only choose one to apply to.

Please make sure you choose the five carefully. In choosing your five courses, you should take note of the following:

  • Your predicted grades;
  • The different courses and entry requirements;
  • The location of the university;
  • The rigour of the course;
  • Overseas exchange/ internship/ placement opportunities offered by the courses (e.g., some courses offer 1 year exchange to another country, hence increasing the degree length from 3 years to 4 years)
  • Scholarship/financial aid opportunities available

When making your five choices, it is essential to have a combination of reach, safety, and target schools.

Reach schools are top schools you may not be confident in getting into (e.g., Oxbridge, LSE, UCL, etc.), which are challenging to get into even if you have all As in high school).

Target schools are schools whose offer requirements meet your predicted grades.

Safety schools are schools whose offer requirements are below that of your predicted grades, and hence, you would be confident of getting into those schools. Having a spread of these types of schools in your five choices will minimise risk and ensure that, you will be able to get into at least one of your five choices in that UCAS application cycle.

What Are UCAS Tariff Points?

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. The value is a standardised tool for the course providers, to compare different types of academic qualifications amongst applicants to ensure a fairer decision-making process in making offers.

You may calculate your UCAS Tariff Points here:

Please note that this calculator is indicative only, and course providers have the final decision-making power in making offers.

What is the UCAS Personal Statement?

The personal statement is a crucial part of the UCAS application and will apply to all five course choices. So, it is important to tailor the UCAS personal statement broadly to apply to your five choices. Personal statements contain a maximum of 4000 characters or 47 lines. The personal statement should outline your motivations and desire to pursue a particular academic course(s) and aim to convince course providers why they should offer you. UCAS uses Copycatch software to detect plagiarism on personal statements. Hence, it is important to ensure your personal statement is an original piece of work done by yourself.

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How to Apply Through UCAS?

To apply to UK universities, you must submit an application through UCAS. The application process is fairly simple, but the content requires thorough preparation. It's important to take your time as each step requires specific documents, and deadlines are rigid. See the table below for important UCAS application deadlines.

To apply to universities through UCAS, you need to follow these steps:

Step 1. Register with UCAS

To start the UCAS application process, sign up on the UCAS Hub and answer the registration questions, specifying the year you wish to begin your studies and that you're interested in the undergraduate level of study. You'll then access your UCAS Hub dashboard with a tile labelled "Your application.” Click "Start" to initiate the process.

While filling out your application, ensure to enter your first name and middle name(s) as they appear on official documents, such as your passport, birth certificate, or driver's license.

Pro tip: If you have a single name, enter it in the application's first name and last name fields*.*

Step 2. Fill Out Personal Information

This section covers your personal information, including your name, address, and residency status. It also asks about your circumstances and how you plan to pay for your studies. Some required fields must be completed.

Pro Tip: If you'd like someone else to help you in your application process, you can nominate a parent, guardian, or advisor to have access and speak to UCAS for you*.*

Step 3. Add your education history

In this section, you must provide a complete list of your educational qualifications from secondary school onwards, including completed and ongoing exams and results.

Pro-tip: UCAS will transmit some exam scores to universities, but you'll need to send others yourself.

Step 4. Complete your employment history

In this section, you can add details about up to 5 paid employment experiences. Include full-time or part-time jobs.

Pro tip: Don't include volunteer or unpaid work; save it for your personal statement.

5. Choose Courses

Select up to 5 courses (all at once or some later). There’s no preference order, and your colleges/universities won't see other choices until you reply to your offers.

Expert Tip: Choose challenging, realistic, and safe options. Applying for all challenging courses may result in not getting into any. UCAS applications can only be made once per year, so choose wisely. Avoid applying for multiple variations of the same degree at the same university, which may limit options.

6. Write a personal statement

The personal statement is your chance to tell universities and colleges why you’d like to study with them and what skills and experience you have. It’s got to be at least 1,000 characters long – but you have up to 4,000 characters/47 lines – whichever comes first.

7. Get a reference

A reference is a written recommendation from a teacher, adviser, or professional who knows you academically. Your application can only be submitted once your chosen referee has completed and added your reference to the application.

8. Pay your application fee

The application fee for 2023 entry is £22.50 for a single choice or £27 for more than one choice.

9. Submit your application

Once you’ve completed all sections and are ready to submit, you’ll be shown your entire application – make sure you review it and make any edits before finally submitting.

Pro tip: Make sure you read and agree to the declaration – this allows UCAS to process your info and send it to your chosen universities/colleges.

Key UCAS Dates for 2023
17 May 2022UCAS opensUCAS Undergraduate application opens for 2023 entry
6 September 2022Applications openApplicants can pay and send their applications to UCAS, and universities and colleges can start making decisions on applications.
15 October 2022Early Entry DeadlineEntry deadline for the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and most dentistry, medicine or veterinary science applications.
25 January 2023Entry DeadlineThe entry deadline for all other undergraduate courses. Internal deadlines change based on different schools or colleges.
23 February 2023UCAS Extra opensUCAS Extra opens for students who have not gained an offer from any of their five chosen universities. This allows the students to add an extra choice one at a time until an offer has been made.
May 2023University choice deadlineThe deadline to confirm the first and insurance university from the offers that have been made. A later deadline may apply if you are still awaiting a decision from a university.
30 June 2023UCAS Extra closesFinal date to apply in Extra for 2022. After this date, all applications must be made through Clearing.
July 2023UCAS ClearingClearing opens - students can begin researching available universities and courses prior to knowing if an offer has been confirmed.
August 2023A Level resultsA Level results are released - although some universities may have confirmed or denied their place prior to this.
21 September 2023Final deadlineThe final deadline for applications to 2023 courses.
17 October 2023Clearing deadlineThe deadline for adding Clearing choices.

Note: Certain deadlines change based on specific colleges. Make sure to check your choice so you don’t miss any important dates!

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The UK University System

The UK educational system emphasizes in-depth knowledge in a specific study area, with undergraduate programs typically lasting three years. While they are more traditional and less concerned with a student’s non-academic pursuits, they want to see evidence of a student’s passion — what matters to them and why, and how they intend to pursue these passions to make academic progress and contribute to the university in question.

By including a personal essay question, asking for references, and often interviewing top candidates, leading UK universities gain a deeper insight into the human qualities of their applicants — qualities which are often crucial to gaining acceptance in an increasingly competitive academic field.

What are UK universities looking for?

Unlike US universities, UK institutions are looking for a scholar – someone who is a capable academic and passionate, rigorous, and resilient in pursuing knowledge. That means candidates should have good grades in a rigorous curriculum and in-depth extracurriculars showing an understanding of and commitment to the subject discipline.

Your personal statement should display a passion for the subject area while demonstrating motivation, enthusiasm, and the skills and experiences that will enable you to succeed at university. The essay should also show your ability to articulate yourself fluently and accurately in writing. Finally, you should have a relevant reference.

Here is a basic breakdown:

  • 75% Academics –
  1. Highers/A-Levels/IB
  2. UK Entry Tests
  3. Class Rank/Academic Transcripts
  4. English Language Test Scores
  • 15% Supercurriculars – Extracurriculars, Leadership, and Innovation
  • 10% Essays and Interview

Learn more on how to get into UK universities.

Tips for Preparing for the UCAS Application Process

Here are five tips for preparing for the UCAS application process:

  1. Research: Research the universities and courses you are interested in to ensure you meet the entry requirements and to gather the information that can be used in your personal statement.
  2. Plan your personal statement: Your personal statement is an important part of your UCAS application, so start planning it early and give yourself enough time to write, revise, and edit it.
  3. Get references: Find teachers, lecturers, or other relevant individuals who can provide references that support your academic ability and suitability for higher education.
  4. Gather necessary documentation: Make sure you have all the required qualifications and documents, such as your academic transcripts and English language test scores, ready to include in your application.
  5. Proofread and check your application: Double-check your application, including your personal statement and other supporting materials, for errors, typos, and inconsistencies. Have someone else review it to catch any mistakes you might have missed.

Additional tips

  • Unlike US universities which are more concerned with the holistic development of a student in high school, UK universities tend to only look out for academic aptitude in the UCAS application. So, it is essential to show that you are committed and interested in the course(s) that you are applying for or, instead of, non-academic extra-curricular.
  • If you have a disability, specific learning difficulty, long-term health condition, or mental health condition, you can disclose it to UCAS for consideration by course providers.

What Happens After You Submit Your Application?

Once you’ve completed your application, UCAS passes it on to your chosen universities and colleges. They’ll review and consider before deciding whether to make you an offer. There are a few different possibilities that could happen:

  • You might get an invitation to an interview rather than receiving an offer immediately. After you've attended the interview, they'll decide if they will make you an offer.
  • You could get a conditional offer which means you will gain admission as long as you meet the requirements – usually exam results.
  • You could get an unconditional offer means you've got a place, although there might still be a few things to arrange.
  • A withdrawn application means a course choice has been withdrawn by either you or the university/college.
  • You could also get an unsuccessful application. If you are denied admission to all five choices, UCAS offers an Extra service where you can add one more choice to be considered.

Once you review your offers and options, you will send in your acceptance. Make sure you do not miss any deadlines!

Final Thoughts

Applying to university is a daunting task, and it is important to be organised, so you don’t miss any important dates or requirements for submission. Hopefully, this blog has given you some insights into how to prepare for successful admission. If you have any additional questions regarding the UCAS or applying to UK universities feel free to contact one of our expert admission advisors below!

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