Applying to Universities: Undergraduate Degrees (UCAS)

Once you’ve decided that you want to apply to a university in the UK the next step is to send out applications. This post will walk you through all the steps necessary to get your applications sent out to UK universities and explain how the process works.

Step 1: Picking Universities

Before you can actually send out applications you will of course have to decide which universities you want to apply to. In the UK, applications for undergraduate degrees (BA, BSc, LLB, etc.) are made through a centralised system called UCAS (short for the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service).

There will be more about using UCAS below but for now you just need to know that UCAS will only let you apply to a maximum of 5 different courses (meaning degrees, if you haven’t already then now might be a good time to check out our UK university jargon guide). These can be combined in many ways, e.g. apply to 5 different universities for a BA in English, or apply to one university for 5 different BA’s.

So, the first step is to narrow down your list of potential universities to a list of 5. One way to come up with a short list is to check out a ‘league table’, which is a ranking of UK universities. Many different British newspapers publish annual league tables which you can browse by subject.

Some of the more reputable league tables are linked below:

You can browse these league tables by subject area or see how a university performs across all subjects.

In general league tables can be very informative, especially with regard to student satisfaction/teaching quality. However, we advise that you take them with a grain of salt and do your own independent research on universities’ websites.

Step 2: Check the entry requirements

Once you’ve narrowed down your list you’ll have to consider the entry requirements for those particular courses.

Unlike the system in the US, where universities do not publish required grades to get accepted as a student, universities in the UK publish entry requirements for any course they offer.

This system of entry requirements is perfect for UK-schooled students, but it gets a bit complicated for people from the US. You can check the entry requirements for any given course either on the website of the university offering it, or through UCAS directly.

Let’s go through an example:

A senior in high school in the US who wanted to apply to the University of Bristol to study for a BA in Philosophy would first have to go check the entry requirements for that course.

Start here with the UCAS search tool, select “Undergraduate” and search for “Philosophy”. Then in the sidebar under “Where do you want to study?” type “Bristol” and select the “University of Bristol”.

You would then see a results page like this one:

Screen Shot 2017-07-13 at 15.23.58

Source: UCAS

In this case we just want to know the entry requirements for a BA in Philosophy, so we would click “View” under the first result. Here we find a link for international students to view entry requirements on the University’s website (NB: Not all universities do this, some will just list it on UCAS).

Following this link leads us to a page with a list of countries, where we can then select “USA”.

Now, we can finally see what we need to study a BA in Philosophy at the University of Bristol:

Screen Shot 2017-07-13 at 15.32.20

Source: University of Bristol

As you can see, you’ll need to graduate with a minimum of a 3.2 GPA and then achieve certain scores on the SAT/ACT or AP exams. Once you’ve identified up to 5 courses with entry requirements you expect to meet, then you can move on to the business of actually applying.

Step 3: Preparing Your Application

If you haven’t already done it by now you’ll need to sign up for a UCAS account to go any further. The UCAS website has a great guide on a how to fill in and send your application, which you can find here.

The gist of it is that you’ll need to enter the following information:

  • Personal information
  • Full education history (i.e. all your high school grades and any SAT/ACT scores you already have)
  • Employment history (if applicable)
  • Personal statement
  • Your course choices
  • A reference

The first three are fairly self-explanatory. Writing a personal statement may be new to you, and if so you might benefit from this guide on how to write one.

Once you’ve got those done you’ll need to pick your courses and obtain an academic reference for your application.

Step 4: Choosing Courses and Getting a Reference

As mentioned above, you can choose up to five different courses to apply for. If you choose to only apply for one course at one university then the fee is £13 or about $17 as of July 2017. Otherwise, the fee is £24 (~$31) for up to five courses.

Choosing courses can be tricky and is ultimately a personal decision, be sure to keep in mind that you’ll have to meet the entry requirements published for any course you apply for, otherwise your application will probably be rejected. There is some flexibility but on the most popular courses and at the most popular universities the requirements are usually enforced strictly.

Once all of that is done you’ll need to nominate someone as a reference for your application. Your reference should ideally be a teacher or principal at your school, and cannot be a friend or family member.

You can read more about how to get a UCAS reference here.

The final step after entering the details of your reference on the UCAS form is to pay the application fee – then you just have to wait to hear back and see what comes next!

Step 6: Hearing Back

The time it takes for your application to be processed and responded to by the university (or universities) that you’ve applied to may vary considerably from applicant to applicant and university to university.

There are several outcomes that may result from your application:

  • Unconditional offer – this means you’ve been offered a place on the course without any conditions.
  • Conditional offer – this means you’ve been offered a place on the course as long as you satisfy certain conditions; usually the conditions are that you have to make certain grades, e.g. graduate with a 3.4/4.0 GPA. Most offers are conditional.
  • Rejection – you have been unsuccessful in your application.
  • Request for interview – for some courses, such as Medicine, universities routinely interview applicants.

Step 7: Responding to Your Offers

If you’ve got some offers in the bag, congratulations! Assuming you make the grades you’ll be all set. If you receive multiple offers, however, you’ll have to make some decisions.

Specifically, UCAS requires you to nominate just two offers: one as a firm choice and one as an insurance. The offer you choose as your firm choice will automatically commit you to attend that university if you satisfy the conditions of the offer (or if it’s unconditional).

Your insurance choice will be reserved as a backup in case you don’t meet the conditions for your firm choice. For this reason, people typically make their firm choice the offer with the highest entry requirement, so that if they miss it they can go to their insurance choice.

Once you’ve chosen your firm and insurance offers that’s it! And once you’ve satisfied a conditional offer, or agreed to an unconditional one, this stage of your journey will be over and you’ll have to move on to consider funding and applying for a student visa.

There will be guides posted on those topics soon, in the meantime, as ever, feel free to comment below with any questions!









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