Applying to University: Everything You Need to Know

Applying to university for the first time as an undergraduate student can be a daunting process. With so many courses, locations and degree types available, it can be difficult to know where and how to start.

Undergraduate education refers to the next stage of further education following 6th form or college. If you are transitioning straight from here to university then you will be an undergraduate student. It can be a lengthy process so try to be patient, carefully weigh up your options and do your research at each and every stage.

Find out everything you need to know about applying to university as an undergraduate student…

Explore your options

When considering applying to University, the first step is to figure out what your study interests are and the type of course you’d be looking to undertake. Some people have this in mind from the outset, however, don’t feel disheartened if you are unsure of exactly what you want to do. The best way to find courses that may be of interest to you is to pick an overall subject area, such as; English, History, Design, Sport etc. This may be where your strengths lay in school or something you have always had a strong personal interest in. From this, you can search the subject area and be presented with all the available courses falling into these categories. The course you end up choosing may be one that you didn’t even know existed previously so research is crucial. The UCAS Find a Course page is a credible, reliable tool to use to kick-start the process.

Even if you are pretty set on applying to university, always explore every option to ensure you choose the right path. There are some great alternatives to traditional study available that allow you to learn on the job, gain industry experience or utilise extra funding such as; Apprenticeships, Scholarships, Internships and Degree Apprenticeships.

Other considerations when applying to university

Alongside subject matter, there are many other aspects to consider when searching for a university course. As an undergraduate student, this is likely to be the first time you are thinking about leaving home. Location is important and you will need to consider whether you want to stay living at home and commute into uni or move away and live in halls or student housing. Distance should always be considered and you will need to think about your personal circumstances and what will work best for you.

It may be a couple of years away but you should be thinking about your future right from the beginning when applying to university. Many courses offer the opportunity to enhance your degree with a work placement or studying abroad. This is known as a sandwich course as the traditional 3 years are broken up with a year in between to pursue professional or travel desires. This is different to a gap year as it is completed with the support of the uni and will often involve some form of assessment.

  • Placement year – taking a year out of study to gain practical experience in a professional environment within the industry you are studying.
  • Erasmus – a chance to study abroad via an Erasmus programme for a term or a year at one of your chosen universities’ partnership campuses.

These are all things to consider when choosing a university as it could determine where you choose to go and why.

Bear in mind that particular courses such as medicine, dentistry or veterinary are often longer than 3-4 years. These courses also tend to involve compulsory placements for a set period. Check each individual course to find out length, requirements and whether placement or Erasmus is an option.

Attend open days

Attending open days is an important part of the process when applying to university as an undergraduate student. It is the most insightful way to see what each university is like, explore the campus and decide whether a course is right for you. It is also an opportunity to meet your potential lecturers and other like-minded students that could end up being your friends. You have the option to apply for five courses at potentially five different unis. Visiting your top choices is recommended but visiting as many as you can will benefit you more when it comes to making your final decision.

Tips for attending an open day

  • Plan ahead – September, October and November are peak months for open days. Ensure you have picked which ones you want to attend, know the dates and have registered beforehand.
  • Write a schedule – These events can be hectic and you don’t want to miss out on anything. From the timetable provided, select which talks, tours and events you would like to attend and plan your arrival and break times around them.
  • Bring a trusted guest – Bring someone you trust along with you so you can get a second opinion and have company on the day.

You may also want to think about what’s important to you in a personal as well as educational sense. If you are into fitness, make a visit to the gym to see what it’s like or if you want a city with good night life, take a walk around and research whether it is your scene.

Finalise your decision

After completing all the necessary research and attending various open days, it is time to finalise your decision and prepare to apply. Before picking your final options and applying to university, there are a few things to check to make sure your choices are achievable and realistic.

Each course will have entry requirements consisting of a certain set of grades or UCAS Tariff points. You should aim to apply for courses that match up to your predicted A-Level grades. Be aware that just because you don’t achieve the required grades, this doesn’t mean that you are immediately null from the course. Each university is different and you may still receive an offer. Therefore, aim high and have faith in your abilities but ensure your goals are realistic at the same time. Amongst your five choices, it may be wise to apply for some with higher entry requirements and some with lower to ensure you are still likely to get a place after receiving your results.

Key dates

There are multiple key dates you need to be aware of when applying to university as an undergraduate student. The dates and time periods are more or less the same each year, however, you should always check UCAS as early as possible to ensure you keep on track.

Example for 2021 application;

5th May 2020 – UCAS search tool opens for 2021 course applications.

15th October 2020 – application deadline for anyone applying to Oxford or Cambridge and for most medicine, dentistry and veterinary courses.

15th January 2021 – application deadline for majority of courses.

5th July – 19th October 2021 – clearing is open for late applications and those who have not received offers following results day.

There will also be a deadline for replying to offers. This will appear clearly in UCAS when looking at your application progress.

Completing your university application

Undergraduate university applications are carried out through UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service). This may be done via your school or college, or you can apply online yourself. The application process consists of a variety of steps in order to allow the universities of your choice to get to know you and your interests so they can decide if you are right for the courses you have chosen.

  • Register with UCAS – If you haven’t already done so, register with UCAS and apply under the relevant level and year. If you are just starting out, you will be considered an undergraduate student and you will be applying for the following academic year.
  • Personal information – You will be asked a series of questions regarding your ethnicity, gender, education and background.
  • Student finance – This is carried out through a separate company, SFE (Student Finance England). However, you may be offered additional support depending on your personal circumstances. In this case, UCAS can share your information to speed up the process of getting a loan.
  • Select course choices – You can apply for up to five courses from the same or different universities. If studying medicine, dentistry or veterinary courses, you only have four choices. Also, if applying to Oxford or Cambridge, you can only choose one course from one of these universities.
  • Education history – You must declare all existing and pending qualifications. Remember to send your results to the universities later on when they come through.
  • Employment history – State details of any paid jobs you currently have or have had in the past.
  • Personal statement – This written piece gives you the chance to show off your abilities and achievements, demonstrating why you deserve a place on your chosen courses. Be thorough with this process, write several drafts until you are happy it and get it checked by family members or teachers. Check out our top tips on writing your personal statement, to make sure you get it right.
  • Check your application – Ensure you haven’t missed anything and are happy with the contents. You will then have to read and agree to the declaration.
  • Reference and fees – The final section includes getting a reference. This needs to be from a teacher or professional who knows you in an academic capacity. You will also be asked to pay a fee of £20 if applying to only one course and £26 for multiple courses or late applications.
  • SEND!

All information and further details regarding your university application can be found on UCAS. Be aware that some of these details may differ if you an international student so always check regarding your personal circumstances.

What happens next?

You have made your initial decisions and sent off your application but the process is by no means over.


Once your application is processed, you will begin receiving responses to your choices. These will be either;

  • Conditional – you have a place if you meet the requirements.
  • Unconditional – you are guaranteed a place, regardless of your results.
  • Unsuccessful – you haven’t secured a place on that particular course.
  • Withdrawn – the course choice has been withdrawn by either you or the university.

In some cases, you may be invited to an interview or assessment. UCAS Track allows you to keep up to date with the status of your application – make sure you check this regularly to ensure you don’t miss anything.

Not all universities interview and may just go straight to an offer. However, if you are invited to an assessment or interview, ensure you are well presented, polite and confident. For creative and performing arts courses, it is likely that you will have to submit a portfolio or performance to showcase your abilities. You should be given plenty of time to create or prepare this piece but ensure you are aware of all requirements and deadlines. This is your chance to show who you are and for the university to gauge whether you are a suitable applicant for their course.

UCAS  Extra

If you don’t receive any offers, don’t despair. You can still add some additional choices through UCAS Extra.

Narrow down your choices

Out of your offers, conditional and unconditional, you will be asked to select a firm and insurance choice. This is essentially your first choice and then a backup. If your firm choice is to accept an unconditional offer, you don’t need an insurance choice. However, you can put an unconditional offer as your insurance as a back-up if you don’t get your firm, conditional offer.

Apply for student finance

It may seem early, but you will need to start thinking about applying for student finance at the same time as applying to university. All undergraduate students receive their full tuition fee, provided by the government as a loan, if they wish to. However, your maintenance loan will depend on your financial circumstances and your parents/guardian. You will be asked a number of questions and need to provide evidence during your application. Follow this step by step guide to student finance and apply online as soon as possible. You will need to state your firm course choice and accommodation preference when applying, however, this may need to be updated further down the line if anything changes.

Apply for student accommodation

Apply for student accommodation at your firm choice university. They will have provided you with their accommodation options, this will likely be student halls, varying in price and quality. Alternatively, you can look into private housing if this option suits you better or you haven’t made it into the universities accommodation. This can be withdrawn and changed later down the line if you don’t end up attending this university but it’s best to secure a place early.

Results day

Following results day, your place at your chosen university will be confirmed or denied. Conditional offers will depend on the outcome of previous interviews/assessments and whether you achieved the required grades. However, in some cases, universities may decide to still offer you a place even if you didn’t meet the requirements.


If you didn’t achieve the required results and haven’t made it onto your firm or insurance courses, you will go into clearing. Don’t worry, you still have the chance to go to university, it just won’t be one of your original choices. Clearing allows universities to fill remaining course spaces whilst giving students without offers a second chance to attend.

Using the same search tool as before when you first started looking, you will find available clearing courses and will even be shown relevant matches based on your initial application. You will need to contact the university directly to find out if they’d accept you and add your choices in UCAS Track if they are willing to give you a place.

It is likely that you will secure a place at a university through clearing, especially if you have discussed this with them beforehand. Keep an eye on your application and await confirmation of your chosen clearing course.

Preparing to start

Congratulations! You have made it through to the end of applying to university and are on your way to being an undergraduate student. There will still be some loose ends to tie up and you will need to start preparing for the next step. This involves updating student finance, confirming accommodation choices, preparing to move and starting your course.

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