How to get into university: a step-by-step guide to applying

The key to applying to university is planning your campaign. Sue Leonard explains the process, the key dates and what to expect along the way.

Applying to university can be daunting, with thousands of courses at more than 130 universities to choose from and record numbers of students competing for places. It can be difficult to know where to begin and how to give yourself the best chance of getting in.

Doing proper research is essential, says Sarah Hannaford, head of student recruitment, marketing and admissions at Loughborough University. “Exploring all options, narrowing down your choices and making sure you take on board advice from UCAS and institutions around completing the application and preparing the personal statement is key.”

Extracurricular activities, attending taster days or access programmes will all add weight to your personal statement and stand you in good stead, says Courteney Sheppard, senior customer success manager at UCAS.

It’s good to have a plan B in case things don’t go your way on results day and you may still get a place through clearing. Last year more than 80,000 people got in to university this way. “It is not a last chance saloon anymore, it is a real option,” Sheppard says.


Getting started

Almost all applications for full-time higher education courses go through UCAS, including those to conservatoires, and everything happens online. The application process has been streamlined this year, making it easier than ever to navigate. Just one set of login credentials is required to set up the application and track offers and decisions instead of the multiple usernames and passwords needed in the past.

You’ll need to go to to set up an account and those applying through school or college will be asked to link their application with their school or college using the relevant buzzword, so they can track your progress, provide support and add your reference.

The sections you need to fill in will appear on one screen. You don’t need to complete them in one go or in any order. Save everything as you go, keep to your school or college deadlines and make sure your email address is always up-to-date so you don’t miss important notifications.

The UCAS hub is your one-stop-shop for everything from details of more than 35,000 courses, open days and key dates to top tips based on where you are in the application process, handy to-do lists and reminders to keep you on track. There is also lots of support available from schools and institutions to guide applicants through the process and decision-making. Also check out individual university websites for information on the institution itself and advice.

Choosing courses and universities

You have up to five choices (four in the case of medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, or veterinary science, but you can use your fifth choice as a back-up to apply for a different subject). The options are mind boggling, but the UCAS hub offers a wealth of tools to help you to choose, including a guide showing what courses students went on to do with the same A-level/BTEC subjects and a list of all the universities offering the subject you want to study. Look at modules, the make-up of the course, job prospects and the location and also go to open days and check out digital activities such as webchats and online presentations.

Location is important. For many students, university is their first experience of living away from home. Choose somewhere you think you might like to live. Do you want a city university experience or a campus? Up north or down south? A university that is big on sport or steeped in history? Do you want to immerse yourself in the bustle of a big university or the more personal attention that comes with a smaller one?

Marry your thoughts on location to the qualifications that are needed for the course. Make sure you have the qualifications specified in the course information (including GCSEs) and that you are studying the relevant subjects for your chosen degree. Sometimes your application will be rejected because your predicted grades don’t meet the entry requirements, so check what these are and that they match yours before you apply.

Be ambitious, but also realistic and strategic. Going for a mix of courses with higher and lower grade requirements will give you options and take some pressure off. You could choose a number of “aspirational” applications — those from which the offer (if it comes) might be at the top end of your grade expectations) — and one or two “safe” ones to give you an option if your grades are disappointing. However, there is no point in applying to an institution you won’t be happy to go to.

Ideally, you want a mixture of offers, so that when you narrow your choices down to two — a firm and an insurance choice — the grades required are not the same. Otherwise, if your results are not good enough for your firm choice, the chances are they won’t be for your insurance, unless you are lucky and get in to one of them having narrowly missed your grades. The experience of the past two years with examination disruption due to the pandemic is that selective universities are making fewer allowances for “near misses” and in many cases insisting on the exact grades being achieved. So, if they ask for ABB, then A*BC will not suffice.

Deferring entry

After the challenges of the past year you may be considering deferring your entry for a year. Not all universities or colleges accept deferred entries or may only do so only for certain courses, so do check and think about how to spend any gap year productively.

Pay attention to detail

Read each section carefully and provide exactly what is required. The employment section refers to paid employment only, so save references to unpaid and voluntary work for your personal statement. When it comes to your educational achievements, students need to list every qualification they have received a certificate for from the age of 16 (including exams they failed) and those they are studying for. Be accurate about what you have and about what you are taking. If it doesn’t match what universities have on results day it may affect your offer. Sometimes a university or college will make you an offer even if you don’t meet the grades they’re asking for. If you have any doubts or queries, speak to institutions before you apply.

The personal statement

Your personal statement is your chance to stand out from the crowd and convince the admissions team they should give you a place. You have up to 4,000 characters or 47 lines to make a winning case and if push comes to shove the applicant with the strongest personal statement will probably get the gig.

For more tips check out our personal statement subject guides.

Once you have completed your application and paid the £26.50 fee (for two to five choices) you/your school can submit it to UCAS. You will then receive an email confirming it has been sent to your chosen universities. There is a 14-day window to change one of your choices should you need to.

What happens next?

You may get called for an interview, tests, auditions or asked for a work portfolio, depending on your course choice. Most universities don’t usually interview, although these or entrance exams may become more commonplace in the future in light of concerns over the number of top grades awarded at GCSE and A-level, which has made it harder for admissions tutors to identify the brightest students.

Most people will just be sitting tight and waiting for a decision. You might want to consider attending experience days to help you to decide your top choices. Universities must make their decisions by May 19, but you have until June 9 to reply. Don’t rush into it, remember this is about where you will spend the next three or four years of your life. Think about how achievable your offers are and maybe revisit your firm and insurance choices (or your top choice if you have unconditional offers) just to be absolutely sure. If you do change your mind you have 14 days from the date you accepted to make any changes.

If you used all five of your choices on your original application and didn’t get any offers, you’ll be able to add another choice using Ucas Extra, which is open from February 25 until July 4.

Results Day

This can be a joyful occasion or a very stressful one. If you got the required grades, congratulations, you can start celebrating. If you just missed out, the university or college might accept you anyway or you might get your insurance choice, or you may be offered an alternative course at one of your two choices. If the place you have chosen to study is more important to you than the specific course, this can provide a good solution to what might otherwise be a stressful few hours or days.

However, if things didn’t go according to plan and you didn’t get in, or you’ve changed your mind, don’t panic. It’s not the end of the world, even though it might seem like it. The most important thing is to stay close to home as universities will want to speak directly to applicants and talk to your school adviser if you need more help. There are plenty of options, including opportunities in clearing where students can browse vacancies on unfilled courses. The Clearing Plus service may also suggest options and courses specific to your qualifications and application. Go to university websites and check out

If you are rejected having missed your grades, but the course you applied for has places available in clearing, keep an eye on that availability. The university has rejected you in the expectation that it can find better-qualified students to take your place. That might not happen. If your course still has vacancies a few days into clearing, get back in touch with the university and see if you can convince them to take you on. Remember, they made you an offer in the first place, so you are a known quantity, even if your results did not quite stack up.

If you did better than expected you could trade-up, holding on to your original offer while you are looking. A lot of competitive courses will be full, but other applicants may have missed their conditions or swapped course, so it could be worth seeing what’s available. If you are considering using UCAS Adjustment to find a new course it is worth checking clearing, but also call the university in question if your course is not listed as available.

Other options include apprenticeships, traineeships and taking a gap year. If you opt for a gap year, use your time profitably and make sure you are mentally prepared to get back into learning mode again. It’s all about doing your homework.

Check out more great articles like this on the The Times' Good University Guide.