How the UK university application system works

In the UK, every prospective university students has to apply through a service called UCAS ( UCAS is effectively a mediator between yourself and the universities you apply to. The role of UCAS is not covered in detail here as a few quick searches will provide sufficient explanation to the workings of UCAS. A great place to start is the ‘Students’ section of the UCAS website, found here.

Components of your Application

Your UCAS application is made up of effectively 3 main components which most universities will consider when making their decision:

  1. Academic Results

    GCSE or equivalent grades and AS-Level modular grades if available as well as predicted grades. Actual marks need not be provided, just grades.

  2. Personal Statement

    4,000 characters (not words!) explaining why you want to study chosen course and subject and a place to express your interest in the subject (e.g. by describing participation in subject-related activities such as competitions [to be covered on Econ@Uni at a later stage]) and a brief paragraph on your extra-curricular interests. The same personal statement is sent to all 5 of our choices so only subtle references to a course at a particular institution can be made. An in-depth guide on writing your personal statement will be created in the near future.

  3. Reference

    Also known as teacher’s statement this will be completed by your tutor/teacher and often highlights outstanding marks (e.g. any 100% modular results) and gives a further indication of academic ability as well as personality/passion for chosen subject.

Some universities (name Oxford and Cambridge) also have entrance tests (such as the TSA – Thinking Assessment) and will interview a sizable proportion of applicants before coming to a decision.

There are also places to list other qualifications on the UCAS form too, but the components highlighted above are likely to form the bulk of you application.

UCAS applications can be measured in points where, for example, one grade A at A-Level is worth 120 points, one A grade at AS-Level is worth 60 points, B at AS-Level is worth 50 points etc. However, only some universities make offers based on the UCAS tariff and most make offers requesting certain grades, often in specified subjects (e.g. A in Maths, A in Economics and B in French as opposed to 120+120+100 = 340 UCAS points)

Application Deadline

The deadline for any student applying to either Oxford or Cambridge is around the middle of October whereas for all other applicants it is in January (the next year). However, generally speaking, the sooner the application is sent off the better. At least this way focus can once again be shifted onto academic matters as writing and re-drafting your personal statement will take up a lot of your time.


Applicants are only allowed to apply to either Oxford OR Cambridge – no one can apply to both, due to high competiton at these two institutions. Additionally, applications can only be made for a single course – you cannot apply for multiple courses at either of these institutions in the same academic year.

After you’ve applied…

Once you have made all 5 choices (you can apply to less than 5 institutions if you wish) and sent off your application, universities will begin to respond. The time taken for this varies greatly but is usually around 2 weeks upto 5 months.

Universities will either reject your application or they will make either a conditional or unconditional offer. Usually, unconditional offers are only made in situations where applicants (and therefore universities, through UCAS) have got their grades already. Conditional offers are more common. These offers are based on a particular grade requirement which will be detailed. So if you get the grades requested a place is guaranteed but if this is not the case, offering a place is at the university’s discretion. UCAS will update to show the status of your application and will display any replies received.

After all replies have been received, applicants can designate one option as ‘firm’ and another as ‘insurance’ so that even if the conditions of the firm offer are not met, the insurance is still there to fall back on (usually has a lower offer).

So, hopefully you've got a brief overview of how to apply to universities and courses here in the UK and how the system works. What to do and submitting the application itself has not been covered as it is detailed in full glory on many other websites. If there's something you'd like to know however, just leave a comment (below) and a reply will be posted as soon as possible!