Applying to UK Universities: An Essential Guide to UCAS

All Souls College in Oxford, UK

Applying to university is daunting. Whether you are filling in a UCAS application, trekking around the UK for open days, or toiling over a personal statement, it often feels like there is a lot to keep on top of. 

University applications don’t have to be stressful, however, for teenagers or parents. Our essential guide to UCAS aims to give you a full overview of the process, including a breakdown of key dates and requirements. 

Choosing where to apply 

Choosing where to spend the next three or four years is a big decision for anybody. When it comes to narrowing down university choices, it is important to be both ambitious and realistic.

Students are allowed five choices so think carefully and do your research. Lots of universities host open days in the summer —they typically kick off in June –and this is an ideal time for parents and teenagers to explore what’s on offer. The UCAS website is a handy tool to find out when different open days are taking place.

On open days you will get a tour of accommodation and catering facilities, as well as of lecture halls and libraries. You also get a chance to explore the city or campus and university staff will give you an insight into the different courses on offer. 

Tours are usually conducted by current students so you can fire off all the questions you are burning to ask, and you are likely to get an honest response. 

If you can’t attend an open day, there is always the option to send off for a prospectus in the post. 

Once you’ve found some universities you and your child are keen on, and a course has been decided upon, check what A Level grades those universities typically expect for the subject your child would like to study. 

Bear in mind that within the same university, offers vary dramatically between different courses.

In brief:

  • Hit the open days! Nothing beats seeing universities in real life. 
  • Send off for a prospectus. 
  • Find out what grades different universities expect (it varies according to course). 

Campus or city? 

As you probably know, UK universities are situated either on campuses or within cities. At campus universities, accommodation and lecture halls are all within easy reach on one site, whereas at city universities everything is more spread out. 

When you are talking to your child about where they would like to study, think about which sort of lifestyle they would naturally be drawn to. Cities are bustling and fun but friends could live on the other side of town and life could become lonely. On the other hand, campuses feel very safe and sociable, but they can feel claustrophobic once you have settled in. 

In brief:

  • Think about what sort of lifestyle would suit your child best. 

The UCAS form

First things first. UCAS stands for Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and it is the body that handles all university applications. 

UCAS looks complicated at first glance, but once you know what is required it starts to get a lot easier. 

To send off a university application, a student first has to fill in a UCAS form. The form asks for mountains of information, including: personal details, student finance information, university choices, education and grades, employment history, references and a personal statement. 

Applicants also have to pay a small fee. For 2020 entry it is £20 for one choice, or £25 for multiple choices.

Once offers start to come in, students are allowed to accept a maximum of two: a firm choice and an insurance choice. For an insurance choice, it is sensible to pick a university that asks for lower grades. As well as being practical, on a psychological level this can often ease stress as teenagers feel like they have a safety net.

This might mean compromising on course slightly. For example, if your child is applying for Law at Russell Group universities, they are likely to demand very high grades. Law and Criminology could be a good insurance insurance option. 

Pretty much everything is done online through the UCAS portal nowadays (your child’s school will provide them with login details). Students submit their application form online, and their offers will come through the portal as well (with the exception of Oxbridge offers, which often come through the post first). 

In brief: 

  • Fill in the UCAS form.
  • Pay the fee. 
  • Pick one firm option and one insurance option – be tactical!


Nobody wants to be cutting things fine. Make sure to put these dates in the diary if your child plans to start university in Autumn 2019.

  • For Oxbridge/Medicine/Dentistry/Veterinary medicine applicants: 18:00 15th October 2019. Your application has to be submitted by this date and time or it won’t be accepted. 
  • Main university admissions deadline: 18:00 15th January 2020. Your application has to be submitted by this date and time or it won’t be accepted.

Be sure to leave some extra time in case of technical difficulties! 

Personal statement 

It’s very easy to overthink personal statements. The most important thing is to be truthful and enthusiastic. 

The word limit for the personal statement is around 500 words (47 lines of text, or 4000 characters) and statements should include why the writer is drawn to their chosen subject and how they have displayed your interest in it. Why would they be an asset on the course?

It is also a good idea to write about your skills and your ambitions. If your child does any extra-curricular activities —or has taken part in schemes like the Duke of Edinburgh award or CCF –encourage them to include that too. 

This page on the UCAS site is a great starting point () but if you feel like your child would benefit from some extra support, our tutors can also provide tailored help. 

In brief: 

  • Be honest and enthusiastic. 
  • Write about skills, ambitions, extra-curricular activities and why you have picked the course. 
  • Word count: around 500 words. 
  • Don’t overthink it.

Applying to Oxbridge 

Applying to Oxford and Cambridge makes lots of students –and parents –feel nervous. It is important to realise that applying to Oxbridge is different to applying to other universities. Most importantly, you have to apply earlier, in mid-October rather than mid-January (see above). 

This is because students go through several more application stages. First, they have to sit a test. For example, Law students have to take the Law Aptitude Test (LNAT) and English Literature students have to sit the English Literature Admissions test (ELAT). 

These tests occur on specific dates and can be sat at school or in external exam centres. They usually take place in October or November, after UCAS applications have gone in.

For arts subjects, teenagers may also be asked to submit some school essays. Don’t worry,  they can usually submit coursework or normal class essays –it does not require hours of extra work! 

For Cambridge applications, the list just goes on. Students also have to submit an additional statement called the Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ). Here students give yet another breakdown of their personal details and grades, and write another mini personal statement. Again, if you feel you feel like your child would benefit from some extra help with this, our tutors can guide you through the process. 

Depending on whether their application is successful, your child may be called to interview. In Cambridge students will have to attend at least two interviews but these will take place on the same day. In Oxford, however, the interview process can last two or three days and your child may have to stay overnight. 

On the day of the interview your child could be asked to take some more tests. An English student, for example, may have to write a timed essay. 

Don’t panic. This all seems very overwhelming but the process is designed to be as smooth and stress-free as possible. Do some preparation, grit your teeth and just try your best!

In brief: 

  • Applications have to be in by mid-October.
  • Students have to sit additional tests. 
  • An additional questionnaire is sometimes required. 
  • Interviews take place in December.

Applying for Medicine/ Dentistry/Veterinary science/Law 

Like with Oxbridge, if your child is hoping to study any of these subjects they will have to apply early, so don’t be caught out. Teenagers also have to sit aptitude tests —the LNAT for Law, the BMAT and/or the UKCAT for medicine–and medics have to attend interviews which test their academic and practical abilities.

It is important to remember that for medicine, dentistry and veterinary science work experience is crucial, so don’t just focus on grades.

In brief:

  • Remember to apply early. 
  • Be sure to do some interview prep. 
  • Be ready to sit some additional tests. 

Student finance

When your child is thinking about applying to university, bear in mind they will be taking on a large student loan. Currently they will be liable to pay this back for much of their adult life, depending on their earnings. 

Also remember that the cost of living varies a lot between universities. If someone wants to study in London, for example, their overheads will be much higher than elsewhere. 

If you need help with any stage of the application process, you can seek guidance from our school tutors and our university personal statement tutors here.