The Hell of UCAS (Applying to Uni in the UK) Part 3: Applying to Uni (UCAS)

-> To read the Part 2 about GCSEs.

-> To read the Part 2 about College & A-Levels

The final part starts down below.

ucas website

This is the bit that’s ACTUALLY confusing. At the end of Lower Sixth (or beginning of Upper Sixth), your school will make you set up an account with UCAS, the (arguably) terrible university application system that every university makes you apply through, even though it’s terrible. But first, I’ll explain the other components.

Universities will expect applicants to achieve certain grades for each course (depending on how good/competitive the university’s course is), for example one university might demand for AAB (1 A and two Bs) as a minimum to study Mechanical Engineering but another, ‘more prestigeous’ uni might ask for A*AA. These grades will probably be subject specific, for example, the case of most engineering courses, the higher grade(s) will need to include Maths and/or Physics.

Screen Shot 2018-09-05 at 20.10.25

A page from the Imperial College, London website showing their minimum requirements for one of their Engineering courses this year.

Students will receive predicted grades from their teachers in each subject, essentially allowing them to have a good guess of where they have a chance of being accepted to before applying. For example, if you get predicted A*A*A*A*, you have a pretty good shot at Oxbridge, but if you get DDE, you might have a much scarcer choice of universities that will even look at your application.

The Actual Application

You can apply to up to 5 different course on UCAS and they don’t have to all be the same. For example, you can apply for Mechatronics at Southampton University and maybe, Computer Engineering at Nottingham (sorry I’m focusing on engineering, but it’s what I’m applying for).

The only kicker is that you can only submit ONE personal statement of 4,000 characters or 47 lines (inlcuding spaces and lines between paragraphs), whatever limit you hit first.

This is basically a “Why you should accept me” essay that gets sent to all the university departments you apply to. It’s here you get to talk about all the cool stuff you’ve done that makes you an excellent philosopher, lawyer, politician or whatever you’re applying for, for example, being the captain of your French debating team or getting work as the personal assitant to James Dyson, or whatever.

Let me tell you now that, as someone who isn’t a fan of boasting about myself, this is really hard. I’ve spent pretty much the whole of summer writing mine, but I’m only about half way through (my teachers want to see my draft tomorrow, as I write this).

For reasons unknown, they also ask you things like whether you’re applying for a student loan (basically everyone), your ethnicity, etc. as well as every level 2 (GCSEs) or level 3 (A-Levels) qualification you even have taken or will take in the forseeable future, something that is particularly time consuming, once you get into the details, of the differences between exam boards, course streams and iGCSEs are thrown into the mix (fours hours of work, right there).

Anyway, along with your personal statement, your chosen universities will receive your painstakingly entered GCSE results, predicted A-Level results and a few other things, like your school history, a glowing teacher’s reference (you dont get to choose who writes it) and whatever.

More deadlines, dates and tests

For anyone applying to Oxbridge (that’s Oxford OR Cambridge – you can’t apply to both) or for Medical School, these need to be submitted by the 15th October (that’s the year before you plan on studing) and everyone else has a few more months until January 15th, also some schools will have slightly earlier deadlines (in my case, the end of this month).

From here it’s where system is a bit different depending on what you choose to study. It used to be only Oxbridge, Medical and some Law applicants that had to have additional admissions tests and interview but now it seems like everyone wants in on a bit of the fun (*silently cries*).

Anyway, once you submit you applications (and maybe take a test, like the TSA or PAT, and/or interview), you wait a little bit for universities to make you offers (or reject you) If you receive an offer, it will give you conditions; the exact grades you need for them to actually give you your place on ‘Results Day’. These are usually similar to the minimum requirements mentioned earlier, but they can be higher, or lower (to the point of non-existence in the form of ‘unconditional offers’), depending on how much they liked you.


Once you get in all your offers, you choose ‘firm’ first choice to accept and an ‘insurance’ backup in case you dont quite get the grades of your first choice and miss your offer.

You see, all of this takes place before you actually sit your A-Level exams in May and June. That mean that in mid-August, when your results are released (on Results Day), if you’ll only have a place at university if you meet your offer, or you were so close to meeting it that the university takes pity on you and accepts you anyway.

It’s when you miss your offer and your first choice still decides not to take you in that you’re left at the mercy of your insurance choice. Most people choose an insurance choice that has lower conditions than their firm choice, just in case something like this happens, but there are instances where people predicted AAA can end up with CCC or worse (if the spend too much time partying rather than studying).

So if the entire process were a basic conversation, here’s an optimistic form of events:

Student: “Hey Uni X! I want to study course Y! Here are the grades I have and will probably get and why I will make an amazing student!”

University X: “That looks great. Can we have an interview? Oh, and maybe this test as well, please?” (Only some universities ask for interview)

Student: “Sure…”

Some time later…

Uni X: “We’ve decided you can come to study Y as long as you get A* in Physics and Maths and an A in that other subject you’re taking.”

Student: “Um, ok. I’ll accept your offer!” *student puts Uni X down as their ‘Firm’*

Student sits exam at the end of the school year and waits for results day in mid August…

At around 8:00 AM

Uni X: “Congratualtions on meeting your offer!”

At 9:00 AM, the school either sends an email containing the student’s results or asks them to come into school to find them out.

Teacher: *hands over envelope to student*

Student: *excitedly rips open envelope to see that they got A*s in all their subjects* “Oh wow, I did even better than I thought I did!”

(Please note that neither I, nor my older sibling was ever bothered enough to go into school to collect any results ever (be it GCSEs or A-Levels) , so I don’t actually know how it works. but, that’s basically it.)

If you’re unlucky enough to be rejected by both your firm and insurance universities, have no fear! There is a hope called clearing, but I know little to nothing about that…

May I wish good luck to any fellow Year 13s (or High School Seniors) going through similar struggles! (May we all get into our first choice universities!)

But anyway, I think that’s about it in a nutshell! I’ll try not to complain about school again at least until exam season (probably because I’ll be too busy applying to uni to do so)

Normal hobby-based content will return this weekend (probably)!


1 thought on “The Hell of UCAS (Applying to Uni in the UK) Part 3: Applying to Uni (UCAS)

  1. Pingback: The Hell of UCAS (applying to Uni in the UK) Part 2: College and A-Levels | shoujo ramen

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