UCAS (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) is the UK’s university admissions platform. Regardless of whether you’re a UK or international applicant, if you’re applying to study an undergraduate course in the UK, you almost always have to go through UCAS.
The UCAS application process is relatively simple, but there are things you need to be aware of, especially if you’re applying to Oxbridge or medical school. This guide will take you through the 10 key stages of applying to university through UCAS, including top tips along the way from The Profs’ Head of Consulting, Joseph Robbins.
If you need support with some of the more challenging areas of your university application, including developing your personal statement, taking admissions tests and attending interviews, get in touch with our admissions team today.
If you are a UK school student, many stages of the UCAS application process may be handled by your school. These stages are marked in red below If you’re not sure which stages are required of you, check with your school.
1. Register with UCAS
The first step of the UCAS application process is to register your account using the online UCAS Hub. Next you need to confirm when you’re looking to start your studies (e.g. in 2023) and select ‘Undergraduate’ as your level of study. Then, you will be directed to your UCAS Hub dashboard, where you can begin your application.
Joe’s tip: If you want to take a gap year before starting university, you can still apply for the upcoming year of study to secure an offer. You will then need to defer your entry by contacting your top universities to ensure that they can accommodate you delaying your start year. In 2020, many people deferred their applications due to the pandemic and thus future starting years were fuller than normal, so always check directly with your chosen universities before choosing to defer.
2. Fill out your details
Once you’ve started your application, you will first need to fill out your personal information. You must complete all of the mandatory questions UCAS asks you and you cannot skip any sections. Depending on whether you are an international or UK student, different sections will be mandatory (i.e. questions about your ethnic origin, national identity, and occupational background are mandatory for UK students).
If you’re applying with the support of a school, you will be given a ‘buzzword’ that links your application to your school or college. This allows them to track your progress and submit your reference to UCAS. You can add your buzzword to your application at any time from your application.
Joe’s tip: Make sure you provide a personal email address and that you keep it up-to-date at all times. If you are required by your school to supply a personal school email address, ensure that you are able to access your account over the school holidays. Any updates on your application will be sent through to this address and you don’t want to miss out on any important information!
This section is also where you are asked how you will be funding your degree. Most school leavers in the UK will be entitled to student finance, however you must apply for this separately as student funding cannot be arranged through UCAS. For international students, there are a few ways you may be able to fund your studies or get financial support, including scholarships, grants and bursaries.
3. Add your education history
After you have entered your personal details, you must provide details of all of your qualifications from your secondary education. For UK students, that includes your GCSEs (or equivalent) and A levels (or equivalent).
If you’re applying to university in your first or second year of college or sixth form, you won’t have received your A level results yet. Your referee will therefore be responsible for adding your predicted grades to your application. Your predicted grades are based on your performance in any assessments and exams you have taken during your A level studies. These grades will help universities determine whether you meet their entry requirements for your chosen course.
If you’re an international student and not studying GCSEs or A levels, you will still need to include as much detail about your secondary education as possible. On UCAS, most qualifications are listed by name and country, so you should be able to find yours in the list. If not, don’t worry – you can simply add yours into the ‘other’ box.
4. Add any employment history
Once your education history is completed, you will need to add any paid work experience you have. Include the names of companies you have worked for, their addresses, your job descriptions, and the start and finish dates of your jobs there. Do not include unpaid work experience or volunteering in this section – these should be included in your personal statement.
5. Select your course choices
You can now move on to selecting the courses you wish to apply for. It’s important to do plenty of research before this stage of your UCAS application to ensure that you have a good understanding of what courses and universities would be a great fit for you. The more you think about your reasonings now, the easier writing a well-tailored personal statement will be.
How many choices do you get?
UCAS allows you to choose 5 courses to apply for. It is recommended that each of these courses is at a different university, rather than multiple courses at the same university.
If you’re applying for Medicine, you are only allowed to apply to a maximum of 4 medical schools. Usually, students applying for Medicine choose a non-medical (but scientific) fifth course to make the most of their final choice.
Joe’s tip: You cannot apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in one year, so if you’re thinking of applying to Oxbridge, make sure you do your research beforehand. Each university offers different courses and has different pros and cons, and which is the right fit depends entirely on your individual interests, academic background and preferences.
Oxford and Cambridge are also two of a handful of collegiate universities in the UK. Each college offers different courses and benefits, and your UCAS form will give you the option to specify which college you would like to attend by adding the college’s campus code. If you don’t have a specific college in mind, you can submit an open application and be placed in any college that offers the course you’re applying for, however we advise researching each college before you apply to see if one is a best fit for you.
For more information on deciding between Oxford and Cambridge, get in touch with our experienced Oxbridge consultants.
Do you need to put your choices in preference order?
You do not need to put your choices in preference order at this stage in your application. Only when you receive offers from universities must you state which university is your firm choice (first) and which is your insurance choice (second). Until this stage, your universities will not be able to see where else you’ve applied.
King’s College in Cambridge, photo by Chris Boland
6. Register for any admissions tests required by your chosen courses
At this stage (or before), always check which admissions tests are required by the courses you’re applying for. This is especially important if you are applying for Oxford or Cambridge, or if you’re applying to study Medicine, Law or Mathematics, because these are the most common universities and subjects to require an admissions test.
The reason it is important to check now (rather than leave it until the end of your application) is because the registration deadlines for admissions tests are often different from the UCAS deadlines. For example, the deadline to book a date to sit the UCAT (University Clinical Aptitude Test) for Medicine is the 22nd September, however the UCAS deadline for Medicine applications is the 15th October.
Joe’s tip: You are required to take some admissions tests, such as the UCAT, long before the 15th October deadline. It is important that you do not wait until you have submitted your application to prepare.
The average candidate leaves preparing for these tests too late and underperforms, leaving them at an insurmountable disadvantage to other candidates. An average successful applicant we work with takes at least 10 hours of one-to-one test preparation support with an experienced tutor, so it is best to get in touch with our admissions team early on in the process to reduce the additional stress and maximise your chances of success.
7. Write your personal statement
Your personal statement is a crucial part of your UCAS application. It is the only chance you get to tell your chosen universities why you want to study there, what your motivations are, and give context to any qualifications, skills and experience you have.
Your personal statement will be considered in combination with your academic performance, work experience, and performance in any admissions tests or interviews to help determine whether to offer you a place. Your personal statement should be unique to you, so you cannot have anybody else write it for you. However, you can ask tutors, teachers, and family members to proofread your drafts. You can also receive support and suggestions on how to build your experience and academic profile to help your personal statement stand out.
Joe’s tip: Your personal statement should be tailored to the course you’re applying to, and each course (and university) looks for different aspects more than others. If you’re applying to study Medicine, for example, work experience is an extremely important part of your personal statement, as it shows you have invaluable real-life experience of the industry.
LSE likes to see a consistent track record of excellent grades, while Imperial particularly rates work experience and students with an idea of what career they are interested in after graduating.
Important changes to the UCAS personal statement: Note that all students applying to university for 2023, 2024 or 2025 will still be required to submit a UCAS personal statement as normal. However, from January 2025 onwards (October 2024, for Oxbridge applicants), there will be changes to the UCAS application process and students will no longer be required to write a personal statement. Instead, all applicants will answer a series of shorter, more tailored questions provided by UCAS.
How long should your personal statement be?
Your UCAS personal statement must be between 1000 and 4000 characters long. It is best to use as many of the 4000 characters (approximately 47 lines) as possible in order to showcase all of your best qualities and experience.
Joe’s tip: Your personal statement is part of your UCAS application as a whole, so the deadline for completing it is essentially the same as whicher UCAS deadline your application is due by. However, schools often impose their own personal statement deadlines that are a lot earlier. If you feel like you are going to submit a poor quality personal statement to meet this early deadline, speak to your school.
8. Submit your application by the deadline
After completing all of the stages above, you will be shown one last final copy of your full application again and this will be your last chance to review it, make any edits, and ensure you’re happy with it. You’ll then be asked to read and agree to the UCAS declaration.
The general deadline for UCAS applications is the 25th January. This deadline changes slightly from year to year, so make sure you check the deadline earlier in the application process. If you’re applying for Medicine or Oxbridge, you’ll need to submit your application by the earlier deadline of October 15th. This deadline stays the same every year.
If you’re applying through a school or college, you will be asked to pay the UCAS fee to them so that they can submit your application on your behalf. If you’re applying without the support of a school or college, you will need to pay the UCAS fee directly to UCAS.
How much is the UCAS fee?
The UCAS fee for 2022 applications is £22 for a single choice or £26.50 for more than one choice (up to the maximum of 5 choices).
9. Get your reference
If you’re applying to university through a school or college, then your reference will likely come from your tutor, teacher, head of year or head teacher. If you’re not sure who will be providing your reference, speak to your school.
Once you’ve paid your UCAS fee to your school, they will have a reference written for you by a staff member who knows you well. You won’t have access to your reference, so you don’t need to do anything for it. Your school or college will then send your completed application to UCAS on your behalf.
If you’re not applying through a school or college, you have a couple of different options. You can ask an employer, volunteering supervisor or trainer for a reference independently. Make sure you give them plenty of time to provide a reference via the email sent to them by UCAS. You could also speak to a previous teacher and see if it’s possible to link your application back to your old school or college and obtain a reference through them.
Joe’s tip: Your personal statement is limited to 4000 characters, so there’s only so much you can include. Your academic reference is therefore a great chance for you to include additional information that you may not have had space to include yourself.
If there’s something in particular you’d like the university to know about, like an achievement you’re proud of, extenuating circumstances (such as a physical or mental health condition) or weaknesses in your application, then reach out to your referee to ask if they would be willing to mention this in their reference. This leaves you with more characters in which to focus on highlighting your strengths.
10. Take any admissions tests and attend your interview(s)
If you haven’t already taken them, some courses will now require you to sit an admissions test. Some admissions tests are external and have set dates – you will need to register for these tests before you submit your application. Interviews may then be offered based on your performance in those tests.
Other admissions tests are at-interview, such as many of Cambridge’s admissions tests. You do not need to register for these tests and will only have to sit them if you are invited for an interview with the university. Check our guides to general university admissions tests and Oxbridge admissions tests for more information.
Joe’s tip: Note that one admissions test is sat after the interview stage: STEP (Sixth Term Examination Paper). Although it is sat in the final summer of sixth form or college, around the same time as your A levels, you do need to register for it in advance. Your performance in it will also be taken into account when Cambridge comes to review your final grades and confirms your offer of a place.
What happens if you are invited to an interview?
If you are invited to an interview, make sure that you find out which type of interview it will be and prepare in advance. Interviews for Medicine typically follow an MMI structure or a traditional panel interview format, and each require different preparation. Most Oxbridge interviews follow a panel format, but some Cambridge interviews form part of a wider applicant day that involves admissions tests as well.
Read our guides to preparing for a Medicine interview or Oxbridge interview for top tips from our experts. If you need additional help preparing for an interview, our interview training tutors can offer one-to-one support.
When will you find out if you have received an offer?
If you are applying to Oxbridge or medical school (by the 15th October deadline), you will receive an offer by the 10th January (Oxford), 25th January (Cambridge) or the end of March (medical schools).
If you are applying to another university course (by the 26th January deadline), you can expect to receive offers from your chosen universities before the 19th May.
How can we help?
The Profs’ consultancy team have many years of experience advising students on how to get into some of the most competitive universities, including Oxford and Cambridge. More than 95% of our students get into their first or second choice university, and our Oxbridge acceptance rate stands at 55% – three times the national average.
Our admissions packages help to guide you through the many stages of the application process for Oxbridge, Medicine, and other highly competitive degree courses which require admissions tests and interviews. Many of our admissions advisors are even ex-admissions officers themselves, meaning they have the inside scoop on what universities are looking for. Get in touch with our team today for more information and support.
What is UCAS?
UCAS (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) is the UK’s main university admissions platform. All undergraduate students applying to UK universities, including international and mature students, must go through UCAS in order to submit their applications. UCAS also facilitates applications for some taught postgraduate courses in the UK, however most applications are made directly to universities at postgraduate-level.
How much does a university application cost?
There is an application fee for all applications made through UCAS. For 2022 entry, the application fee is £22 for a single choice, or £26.50 for more than one choice (up to the maximum of 5 choices).
When is the UCAS application deadline?
There are two main deadlines for UCAS applications. The first deadline is on the 15th October 2022 and applies to students applying to Oxford or Cambridge or to medical school. This date does not change from year to year. Both Oxbridge and Medicine courses require you to sit admissions tests as part of the entry requirements, and you usually need to register for these before the 15th October deadline.
The second deadline, which applies to all other undergraduate applications, is on 25th January 2023. This deadline changes very slightly from year to year so make sure you check the specific dates for your entry cycle. Some courses with the 25th January deadline still require admissions tests, such as Law and Mathematics, so make sure you check which test is required and register before submitting your application.
Do international students have to go through UCAS?
In most cases, all international students applying to study an undergraduate course in the UK must go through UCAS. If you’re applying to study at postgraduate level, then the process differs depending on the course and university you’re applying for. You can apply to some courses through the UCAS postgraduate service. However, most universities accept postgraduate applications directly from students, so there is no need to go through UCAS. Make sure you check what the application process is on the university website before applying.
Do mature students have to go through UCAS?
If you are a mature student and applying for an undergraduate degree course, you do still need to go through UCAS. Mature students are defined as any student aged 21 or over at the start of their studies. The process is very much the same as applying as a school leaver.
The main difference will be how you obtain your reference and who your referees are. Students applying to university via UCAS while still at school usually put down a teacher or other senior member of academic staff as their referee, however this may not be possible for mature students. Instead, mature students can obtain a reference from a professional colleague, such as an employer who knows you well (such as a line manager), a current or previous work colleague, or a training supervisor.
What is the difference between a conditional and unconditional offer?
A conditional offer means that a university has offered you a place on your chosen course providing that you achieve the entry requirements. For example, if you receive a conditional offer of A*AA from Oxford and you achieve A*AA in your A levels (or equivalent), you will be awarded a place. However, if you do not achieve these grades, your offer will be withdrawn.
An unconditional offer means that a university has offered you a place on your chosen course, even if you do not meet the entry requirements in your final exams (A levels or equivalent). Unconditional offers are usually granted to those who have a consistent record of high grades, as well as an outstanding application and personal statement.
What is the difference between a UCAS application and a Common App application?
The Common Application (Common App) is an undergraduate college admissions service that students use to apply for colleges across the USA. It also includes colleges and universities in Canada, China, Japan, and many European countries.
Common App is essentially the USA’s version of UCAS. However, it is a lot more involved than the UCAS process. The US admissions system puts much more emphasis on extracurricular hobbies and interests than the UK system. On Common App, there is an ‘activities’ section which plays a significant role in the admissions decision process.
Though there are currently 23 UK universities that are listed on Common App, it is still recommended that applicants who want to study at UK universities apply through UCAS.