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Unlike the system in the US, where universities do not publish required grades to get accepted as a student, universities in the UK publish entry requirements for any course they offer.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









British University Jargon Explained

So you’re thinking about going to study in the UK – excellent! If you’re anything like I was then you’re probably assuming it will be relatively similar to college in the US. While there are some ways in which that’s true, in many other ways the UK university experience is very different.

One key way that this is true is in terms of their terminology.

For starters, in the UK the terms schoolcollege, and university (or uni for short) all mean different things and are not interchangeable. In the UK, school most commonly refers to what Americans would call high school (‘secondary school’ in the UK).

Although the term ‘high school’ is used in some parts of England, and British people will know what you mean if you say it, the term ‘school’ by itself is never a substitute for ‘college’ or ‘university’.

To a British person, a college is a type of secondary school, similar to a technical college or community college in the US. British colleges may offer vocational courses in addition to academic subjects, or might focus solely on certain trades/vocations.

The term for what Americans would call college is university or, much more commonly, uni. So if you want to know where someone goes to college, ask them where they go to uni.

The differences don’t stop there, though. At UK universities there are no majors or minors, instead, the degree you study for is known as your course. An individual class is known as a module and when you go to class you go to a lecture. Although you might refer to the person teaching the class as a professor, it’s much more common to refer to the professor as a lecturer, regardless of whether or not they are a full professor.

Moving right along, although the term ‘grades’ would be understood in the UK, it’s much more common to speak of your marks. Most universities in the UK do not use letter grading (i.e. A-F) but rather a different classification system. Instead, UK universities use levels of classification.

The highest level is a First class or First (70%), followed by an Upper Second class, commonly called a 2:1 (read “two-one”) for 60-69%. Then comes the Lower Second class or 2:2 (read “two-two”) for 50-59% and the Third class or Third for 40-49%. Below a Third  is usually a fail. For more information on the British grading system, and on how it corresponds to American GPAs, see my post here.

As there are no A’s, B’s, or C’s, there is also no such thing as the GPA system (or if there is, I’ve never encountered it) in the UK. Instead, the marks across all of your modules will be averaged according to a formula set by your university or your specific department.

Usually there is some weighting involved, and typically you only need to pass your first year of uni, with those marks not being factored in to the overall classification of your degree. In other words – the first year doesn’t count! However it is still advisable to try hard in your first year as those marks will be on your transcript and many employers look for evidence of consistent strong performance. In other words make sure you do lots of revision (the UK term for studying) in first year, and every year.

One last bit of terminology: the terms freshman/sophomore/junior/senior are meaningless in the context of UK higher education. In your first year of uni you’re called a first year or fresher; in your second year you’re a second year; and so on. As a typical UK undergraduate degree is only three years this keeps things pretty simple.

To recap:

  • A major is a course
  • A course is a module
  • A class is a lecture
  • A professor is a lecturer
  • A college isn’t a school or a college, it’s a university

Good luck! Be sure to have a browse of my other posts on making the transition to studying in the UK and leave a comment below if you have any questions.


Explained: UK Grading System (Undergrad)

With some variations, you’ll probably all be used to the good old fashioned American GPA system. An “A” is four points, a “B” is three points, a “C” is two points and so on down to F – nice and easy so it’s probably the same in the UK right? Nope.

Although many secondary schools in the UK do use the traditional A-F system (though they don’t use GPAs) this is not the system employed by universities. Instead, there are different classifications that correspond to what marks you get. Though the grade boundaries may vary based on your course and university, the basic system works like this:



Mark Range

First Class Honours



Upper Second Class Honours

2:1 (read “two-one”)


Lower Second Class Honours

2:2 (read “two-two”)


Third Class Honours



Ordinary/Unclassified (No Honours)




Under this system your marks in each class will be put through some sort of formula to determine an overall classification for your degree. So rather than saying, “I have a BA in History with a 3.9 GPA,” you would say “I have a BA in History with First Class Honours.” Or perhaps more colloquially, “I got a first in History.” Any degree that is third class or higher is an “honours degree” and so you will also see people write, for example, that they studied for a “BA (Hons) History”.

One important point to note is that the first year of university is almost always assessed pass/fail and thus does not count toward the classification of your overall degree. Typically second year is weighted less than third year, and so on, with the idea that you should be given more credit for more difficult material. Yes, you read that right, first year doesn’t count.

Another key difference between the US and UK systems is that for most arts and humanities subjects your grade for any given class will probably be determined by a single, hand-written exam. The concept of midterms and finals (and multiple choice tests with Scantrons) is not really a thing in the UK. Instead it all rides on that one exam. This may not be the case at every university or for every course, but it is a good indicator of the general trend.

If those percentages are making you feel complacent then be careful! Getting a 70 on a test in the US might not be difficult (and wouldn’t be much to brag about either) but in the UK a mark of 70% is much harder to obtain, hence it corresponds to a grade much better than the C it would get you at an American school.

For reference, here’s a rough table of how the UK classifications equate to a range of American GPAs:


UK Module marks

UK degree classification




First class honours (First)




Upper-second class honours (2:1)




Upper-second class honours (2:1)




Lower-second class honours (2:2)




Lower-second class honours (2:2)




Third class honours (Third)




Third class honours (Third)










Source: The US-UK Fulbright Commission

[NB: This is not an official conversion chart. Neither the US-UK Fulbright Commission nor Tales of Tier 4 are credential evaluators and cannot guarantee how individual UK universities will interpret US qualifications.]

This post should have given you a rough idea of how grading works for undergraduate degrees in the UK but if there’s something you’re still confused about please do leave a comment below!