Updated on 10 February, 2012.
The University and College Admissions Service (UCAS) is the method almost all students aged 18-21 use when applying for university in the UK1. It is connected to all the universities and colleges that offer degrees and acts as an intermediary, receiving students' applications and redistributing them to the universities. With a few hundred thousand applicants each year, this service is deemed vital in order to ensure that the universities can handle the correspondence with all their potential students. Students from EU countries normally use the UCAS form (for the purposes of university, they count as Home students) but students from countries outside the EU must contact individual universities as each will have their own way of handling international applications.
How it Works
These days, the website is king and the old paper form is a thing of the past2. The UCAS website is an absolute goldmine of information, sorted clearly into sections about the tens of thousands of degree courses available. It contains information about the universities, grades required, some course content and data about employability rates etc. There are also plenty of help sections about how to fill out the form, how to write a good personal statement, information for parents and the various deadlines. UCAS used to publish The Big UCAS Book which contained more information than you could ever need3; this information is all available online now. Particularly useful websites that offer information and statistics are Push and The Guardian as well as the league tables published by the Times newspaper and Virgin Publishing each year.
When it Happens
The online application system goes live at the end of June each year and students can start working on their forms as soon as teachers have set up the system for the school/college. This gives particularly keen students the chance to work on their forms over the summer holidays, ready to submit as soon as UCAS officially opens on 1 September and everyone else a chance to play with the system and figure out what they want to do. For wannabe Medics, Dentists, Vets and Oxford or Cambridge students the deadline for the form to be received by UCAS is 15 October, whilst for almost everyone else it is 15 January4. Please note that these are the deadlines for UCAS to receive your form, not for you to submit it. Schools and colleges will probably have earlier deadlines as they have a section (described below) that they have to complete and this can be quite time-consuming.
Before you start the form there's a pre-registration that you've got to complete which involves giving simple details like address, email address5 and school details. You'll also need your school/college buzzword, which makes sure your application gets joined with all the others from your school, and you may have been told to put your application in a certain group. This period is the time you get to know your UCAS and careers advisors really well as you want them to know who you are and how wonderful you've been in education. Students might also want to use this summer holiday to get some work experience for their chosen field. For certain subjects like Medicine or Law, there may be tests such as the UKCAT or LNAT that need completing before you apply and should ideally be done in the summer.
The form is the bit that you have to fill in to impress everyone in the universities so they'll offer you a place on their course. It is broken down into 7 sections – all of them must be completed before you send it to your teachers and they can pass it on to UCAS. At the bottom of every page is a Save Changes button and a Section Completed checkbox. Save Changes indicates you aren't finished with that page yet, saves all new data put in on that page and will cause three green dots to appear in the tab for that section, whilst Section Completed means you've completed that page and causes a red tick to appear in the tab for that section. Nothing is irreversible until the form is sent to UCAS, so if you realise there's something you've missed, even on a completed section, you can go back and edit it. There's also a verification code link at the top of every page: when you register, a code is sent to your email account. Simply type or copy this code into the box when you follow the link.
The first section contains the standard personal details: who you are, how old you are, where you live and all that. Some of it will have been completed already as it uses information you have entered during the pre-registration but the rest is all very simple and shouldn't detain you for long. Once you complete this section, two new sections will appear: Additional Information and Student Finance.
Additional Information asks about ethnic background, parents' professional background, whether you've been in care and any experience of university you might already have. It's almost entirely optional, but the university experiences can give potential students an advantage and is worth completing. New for 2011/2012 is Student Finance which involves ticking a couple of boxes that allows UCAS to share information with student finance organisations. Hopefully6, this will make applying for student finance easier and more streamlined.
Where Do You Want to Go Today?
Then comes the bit about what universities and courses you want to apply for. This has to be thought out carefully as you'll be choosing where to live and what to do for the next 3-7 years. One of the big advantages of the online system is that universities can no longer see where else you applied for and can't get jealous7. There is a limit of five courses you can put on the form and this can be one course at five different universities, five courses at one university or anywhere in between. You need to know that you definitely want to go to those universities that you put down, all of them, in case you don't get an offer from your first choice. It's also important to have one of your choices asking for lower grades (normally two or three grade boundaries lower so BBC if other choices are around AAB) than the others so that you have a safety net in case you don't do as well as you'd hoped in your exams/coursework.
I Knew I should Have Revised for that Exam
The next major section is your qualifications. Here you must put every major certificate-bearing exam you have ever sat, from GCSEs to AS and A2-Levels, BTECs or, if you are an international student, the equivalent standard. You are not allowed to just put your most impressive qualifications, though. You have to put everything you have sat. This includes the Latin exam that you never took seriously because your parents forced you to do it, or the extra maths exam you did because the school made you do the normal one a year early.
You also have to put any exams you are about to sit in the next year so they can check up on you and make sure your predicted grades are accurate. These predicted grades form the basis of any offer a university will make and this is perhaps the most important section, with only the personal statement carrying anything like as much weight. AS Levels and modular BTECs and AVCEs have made predicted grades more accurate but it's still important to have a back-up plan in case the grades predicted are slightly too high.
Please Take Me
Now we come to the trickiest bit of the form: the personal statement. Ostensibly a way of distinguishing between applicants who meet the entry criteria, this can be a torture method for those not used to selling themselves or writing extended prose. There is a strict 4,000-character or 47-line8 limit and the form will cut you off mid-word if you go above this limit. A bad personal statement will send an application straight to the shredder so pay particular attention to spellings and use of punctuation and grammar. Also bear in mind that your personal statement might be the thousandth one the admissions tutor has read and they might be reading it first thing on a Monday morning or last thing on a Friday afternoon. Avoid clichés, don't be repetitive and you should make it easy for them to like you.
You should include anything that makes you sound interesting, although it's supposed to have a basis in fact. Putting down very unpopular hobbies and saying you have no friends is unlikely to get anything more than a laugh from people reading it. Similarly, lying outrageously is likely to show up eventually, especially if you are asked for interview, and plagiarism will be highlighted for teachers by an automated system and may result in a ban from using UCAS. Basically, be as normal as possible but emphasise those things that make you slightly better as a person than everyone else. A good personal statement will have gone through at least 5-10 drafts and whilst the rest of the form could be completed by a prepared student in a couple of hours or less, this takes a lot of time.
Once you've completed all of your sections, you have to agree to the terms and conditions and then send it to school/college staff. It's their time to step up to the plate.
Teachers Take Revenge
Before the form is sent off, teachers have to put in their say or 'Reference'. This gives them the chance to get back at you for all the years of constant insults and lack of homework for their classes or reward a good student with glowing praise. Luckily for some, teachers aren't allowed to give a bad reference but they can give an uninspiring one that leaves the student at the bottom of the pile. This is a very important part of the form, at least as important as the personal statement, where things such as predicted grades and attendance and punctuality go. Therefore, it is important to be nice to your teachers for the few months prior to handing in the form as the nicer your reference is, the better chance you have of getting into a university. If there's anything from your personal statement that you really want to highlight but ran out of space, speak to your teacher and they will make sure it gets mentioned in the reference. The reference and predicted grades will then get approved and the form will be sent off.
Submitting the Form
The earlier you do this, the better, as, despite protestations to the contrary, many universities will offer you places well before the deadline for all the forms coming in. If you get an early offer, you also have the chance to visit the university to see what it is like again before making final choice. In most cases the school or college will submit the form for you after they have finished putting in their comments9.
And the Wait Begins
Once your form has been sent to UCAS you need to sign up to UCAS Track where you track and respond to offers. It usually takes a few weeks before the offers start coming through. You may be given an offer conditional on obtaining certain grades in your upcoming exams. The offer may either take the form of specific grades you are required to get in upcoming exams or as a points offer which can be made up in any combination of grades. For example, 'BCC' would require you to get a B grade in one of your exams and at least C grades in two of the others. If you did not manage to get the exact grades they could refuse to take you on the course. A similar points offer may specify 300 points. If you do better than expected in one of your exams, you can compensate for doing badly in others.
Full details of the UCAS Tariff points system can be found at the UCAS website.
If you have already sat exams to A-level equivalent you may be given an unconditional offer which you can accept and take up the following academic year without doing anything more. The third option may be an offer of an interview, which will determine your commitment to the course as well as your ability. Always offered when you apply to Oxbridge, in other universities it depends on the course. Unusual applications12 will often result in interviews being offered.
The other option is a rejection being sent to you. Nothing is explained on the email, though you can always contact them directly for feedback, and it effectively tells you that you haven't met their criteria or they don't think you can get the grades they require. Some universities are nastier than others with these rejections, going back to GCSE grades to determine whether you should get on the course. Unfortunately their word is pretty much final and it is next to impossible to overturn the decision.
If you've been unlucky enough to have been rejected by all five choices, don't despair as there's still hope. UCAS Extra gives you the chance to make more choices. These choices will be handled very quickly; if you're rejected or don't hear from a university within 21 days, you can make another choice and another and another until you've got something.
Beware of Junkmail
One problem encountered with UCAS is their tendency to send you junkmail with their correspondence to you. Some of this may be useful in preparing you for university, but the majority is useless waste paper cluttering up your bin. It's an irritating but inevitable factor.
It's Your Turn
You've had to wait for weeks or months for the universities to offer you places. Now you have the power to make a choice about where to go, and make them sweat. It's best to choose one university you hope to get into and one as an insurance choice with lower requirements in case you don't do as well as expected in your exams. Make sure you are happy with these because once made, there is no room to change your mind. You must go to the university your grades dictate. For those accepting unconditional offers you need think no more about UCAS.
Lie back and Think of Exams
UCAS now plays no further part in your life until after your exams. In the background, it continues to alert the university of your choice about your acceptance and will contact the exam board about who to send your exam results to. It also begins work on preparing for next year's entrants. Once the exams are over, however, UCAS springs into action, telling you which university you have been accepted into if you qualified for your firm or insurance choices, or entering you into Clearing.
For those who do not achieve the grades they need to get into either of their choices, there is the option known as Clearing. This process is intended to match up potential students with the available courses but is in fact a method of further torturing those already agonising over poorer than expected results. The universities publish which places still need to be filled in national newspapers and on the Internet. Students may contact the universities by phone or email to see if their grades are acceptable. If you find a suitable course at university you then complete a section on the Clearing section of the UCAS website and you're in. Clearing is a horrible process where you have to make life-changing decisions in a matter of minutes and if you're unlucky enough to be in this position the best thing you can do is stay calm, have all your information to hand and be prepared to say no. If you can't get something that's acceptable to you can withdraw and apply next year.
The process is finally over, and UCAS no longer plays a part in your life. All that remains is to take up a position at university and attempt to do some work among the following three or four years of parties.