Applying to university
Once your child has found their five favourite courses, it’s time to get their interest down in writing by making an application.
For undergraduate courses, your child’s application will generally go through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). This is a Good Thing because you only have to complete the form and write the personal statement once, not five times.
"Filling in the form wasn't that complicated especially since Andre got his personal statement completed early on. Waiting for the universities to respond seemed to take forever but that was just because we were biting our nails over it!"
Andre's mother, Danika
Your child is most likely to apply online via UCAS; if your child is applying through their school or college, they will need the college 'buzzword'. Application submission opens in mid-September and the deadline for submissions is mid/late January. For 2023 entry, there is a £27 charge for a multi-choice submission (£22.50 for single choice). From the 2024 applicant cycle, this changes to a flat fee of £27.50 for up to five choices (no single-choice submission).
The application form has the following key sections:
- Personal details
- Education history including completed qualifications, pending qualifications and estimated grades
- Employment history
- Choices - up to five courses
- Personal statement
- Reference - usually supplied by the school (or, if your child has left school, an independent referee)
It's a good idea to scan the form quickly first, noting down the additional information your child is going to need, gathering the information then settling down to complete the form fully. Your child’s personal statement should be already written so it can be copied and pasted into the form.
This is your child's opportunity to sell themselves, to explain in their own words why they are applying to university and for this course. If a course is popular, and has lots of applications from students with similar grades, then your child's personal statement may be the deciding factor in whether they are offered a place or not.
UCAS stipulates the personal statement must be no longer than 4,000 characters (including spaces) which is about two sides of typed A4 paper. So your child needs to be clear and concise.
Our Top Ten tips for writing a personal statement
- Don't leave writing it to the last minute – our students almost always say it took them longer to write than they thought it would
- Have a plan and structure: this will help your child 'tell their story' better and avoid repeating themselves. Set aside time to brainstorm ideas together then put them into a logical order. UCAS provides a useful template [writable PDF]. We've also produced a short video guide to UCAS and writing your personal statement which you could watch together to get the process started.
- Try to include these elements:
- why your child is interested in this subject/why it's right for them including details on relevant research they have done, skills and experience
- why they want to study at university
- why they are ready for higher-level study: independent worker, motivated, track record of academic ability
- future career aspirations and why they are suited to this field
- work or volunteering experience including placements and community project work
- other interests, positions of responsibility, abilities and achievements (certificates, awards etc) to show your child is well rounded; relate to their course choices if you can
- Keep in mind that what you write has to work for all five of the courses so don't name universities or be specific about an individual course
- Be positive and enthusiastic! It's easy to forget this when you're grappling with words. Don't be over-formal, either: the people reading it want to feel like they are getting to know your child, not the dictionary
- Avoid cliché – your child has to stand out among all the thousands of applications universities see. The most overused opening phrases are: 'From a young age I have been….'; 'For as long as I can remember I have….'; and 'I am applying for this course because…'
- Don't just list what your child has done; say what they got out of it – the skills it's given them, the ways in which it's stretched them, the knowledge or understanding they gained. The more they can reflect critically on their achievements and experience, the better
- The personal statement must be written by your child and not contain any material copied from another source. UCAS will know and it could lead to your application being thrown out
- It leaves a bad impression if there are spelling or grammar errors so a second pair of proofreading eyes over it before it's submitted is essential. If you don't feel confident doing it yourself, ask your child to approach their college tutor or teacher
- When you think it's all done, wait a day then review it. Most professional writers find time spent away from a piece of writing makes it easier to see how to improve it or spot errors and repetition
Your child will receive a welcome email from UCAS and be able to follow the progress of their application via their UCAS Hub
The universities they have applied to will consider their application and get back to them with 'offers'
- An unconditional offer means the place is theirs, whatever results they get
- A conditional offer usually means they have to achieve certain grades in their exam results
- If none of their five choices have offered them a place or they are not happy with the offers they have received, they can join UCAS Extra, a free service that allows them to apply for different courses, one at a time
- If they haven't received an offer through Extra by the end of June, they can apply through Clearing
A university may also ask your child to attend an interview before an offer is made. Read our tips for preparing for and giving a good interview
If your child is lucky enough to receive offers from more than two of their five courses, they now need to decide which two courses will be their firm (first) choice university and their insurance (back-up) choice.
If their firm choice has given them an unconditional offer, they don't need to give an insurance choice - their place is guaranteed.
Make sure your child responds to their offers via UCAS within the deadline set. They should also decline any offers they received but are not going to take up.
Before your child makes their final two choices, you might all want to refresh your memory about the two universities. Please attend any applicant and offer-holder events the university holds; you can also go to Open Days and campus tours, even if you've already been on them. You will notice more second time around, propelled by the thought that this could be the one.
If your child has got the grades they need, UCAS will inform their firm choice university and the university will confirm their place. You can follow this process online via your child's UCAS Hub
If your child hasn't got the grades they need for their firm choice, UCAS will approach their insurance choice.
If your child hasn't got the required grades for either of their choices, your child can use Clearing to apply for other courses.
If your child hasn't got the grades they needed, reassure them it doesn't mean they cannot go to university. Clearing is an excellent system for fitting courses to students and the majority of students who attend university via Clearing say they were happy at, and satisfied with, their final placing. It really isn't the end of the world!
- Bursary Money given by universities to students that does not need to be paid back
- Campus The grounds and buildings of a university or college, sometimes including student accommodation
- Clearing When universities make their remaining course vacancies available to students who are already in the UCAS system. Students call universities directly to find out what vacancies they may have
- Conditional offer An offer for a place on a course that has certain conditions which need to be met (usually certain grades need to be achieved)
- Deferral After applying to university, some students choose to take a gap year. They need to request for the university to defer their studies for a year
- Extra The UCAS system for students who have applied to universities but not received any offers or don't like the offers they have received. It enables students to reapply to different courses/universities one at a time
- Firm choice Once your child has received offers from universities, they need to select a first choice (their preferred offer)
- Graduate Someone who has completed their undergraduate degree course and graduated from university
- Halls Halls of residence are one of the most popular accommodation options for students; they are often arranged in blocks of flats with shared kitchen/dining areas
- Insurance choice Once your child has received offers back from universities and after they have selected their first choice, they need to select their insurance or second choice
- Postgraduate A graduate who goes on to study for their Master's degree
- Scholarship Money given by universities to students that does not need to be paid back. Often there are specific criteria that need to be met before the student can qualify for this money
- Student Finance In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the organisations that run the government student loan scheme. In Scotland it's the Student Awards Agency
- UCAS Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, the agency through which students apply to universities for the majority of courses
- UCAS tariff The number of points a student needs to achieve before they are accepted on the course. For 18-year-old applicants, points are most commonly accrued through exam results
- Unconditional offer A place offered without any requirements – in effect, your child has a confirmed place
- Undergraduate A student studying for their first degree
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