The Ultimate Guide to the UK University Application Process 2023-24
Table of Contents
If you are looking to apply to university in the United Kingdom, it is essential to understand the university application process.
From selecting the right course to impressing prospective universities with a standout personal statement, this guide offers practical advice to help you navigate what can often seem like an overwhelming process. Whether you are a domestic or international student, read on to discover how to succeed in your UK university application.
1. Find your University and Course(s)
University is a big investment, so it’s important to take time to consider the best course and best university for you.
Unless you have a very specific university already in mind, the best starting point is to establish which subject or subject areas you would like to study before addressing the question of which university.
Bear in mind, in the UK it’s possible to do a ‘joint honours’ degree, which allows you to study more than one subject and combine them into a single qualification. For example, you could study a subject you excelled at in school, but combine it with a new subject. Examples might be ‘Computing and Business’ or ‘Economics and Sociology’ or ‘History and Spanish’.
Once you have decided on this, the next step is to start researching universities which offer that degree course; which universities are considered the best for this field, and whether their grade requirements align with your predicted A-level results.
You are permitted to apply to up to 5 universities within UCAS (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), so it’s a good idea to choose universities with a variety of entry requirements. For example, you could choose three courses with requirements based on your predicted grades, one or two with lower requirements, and maybe one ‘aspirational’ choice which requires one or two grades higher than your predictions.
When making your final choices, you might want to consider factors such as location, cost of living and the general environment – whether the university is a city or campus-based one, for example.
It’s really useful to go on open days to get more of a feel for what a university is really like, where you can see the place for yourself and meet current students who can give you their honest opinions on everything from the course content to the accommodation.
2. Ensure you Meet the Entry Requirements
Higher education institutes in the UK use entry requirements to assess a student's suitability for the course in question. This means reaching target grades, proving English ability and showing a demonstratable passion for your subject via a personal statement.
When considering where and what to study, checking entry requirements should be one of the first things you do.
UK universities are primarily concerned with qualifications you have achieved after the age of 16, which may include A-levels and the International Baccalaureate.
UK universities most common entry requirements
UK university entry requirements vary from university to university and course to course, but a generally, prospective university students are required to have gained:
- At least two subjects A-level (if you're an A-level student)
- At least two GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education), typically Maths and English
The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is not compulsory, but is welcomed by many universities and may form part of the offer if you’re taking it.
If your qualifications were gained outside the UK, you’ll need to find out how they compare to the course entry requirements of your chosen university. Some universities have details about this on their websites, or you can contact them for guidance. If you need a ‘statement of comparability’, you can contact UK ENIC (there will be a fee for this service).
- Entrance tests. Some universities and some programmes also require prospective students to sit an entrance test. The UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT) is open to students considering studying medical and dental degree programmes, the BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT) is another test for potential students of medicine, dentistry and also veterinary sciences. The Law National Aptitude Test (LNAT) is for students considering a degree in Law.For those students considering applying to Oxbridge, there is also the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA), a generic admissions test which is designed to test problem solving and critical thinking skills.
- Language proficiency. There are various standardised English language tests admitted at UK universities for international students. The IELTS is more common, but other standardised tests like TOEFL are also accepted. The language proficiency test scores that most UK universities accept are
- IELTS: a minimum of 6.0 – 7.5 (depending on the study level and program).
- TOEFL: a minimum score of 90 -110 (depending on the study level and program).
- Interviews. Many universities, especially the most highly regarded ones, require applicants to do and interview as a final step of the application process. The interviewer/s may be interested to know more about the applicant’s goals and understand how their future plans match the course they applied for.
3. Gather All Necessary Application Components
As part of your application through UCAS, you will be asked to submit lots of different information, from personal details and education history to a personal statement and reference.
Here, we look at some of the components in more detail.
One of the components to the UCAS application is your education history and academic results.
You must enter all your qualifications from secondary education onwards, whether you have the result or if you’re still awaiting exams and results.
Qualifications are listed by name and country, but if you are an international student and find that yours isn’t there, just add it to the ‘Other’ box. You may have to send proof of your results to the university or college yourself.
Your personal statement is your chance to stand out from the crowd, to highlight your unique talents and convince the admissions team that you’d be a great asset to the faculty, wider university and its community. You have up to 4,000 characters or 47 lines to make an excellent case for why you should be offered a place.
It should cover these elements:
- Why you have chosen your specific degree course
- What excites you about the subject/s
- Whether your previous or current study is relevant to the course
- Whether you have work experience that might be advantageous
- What life experiences you have had that you could discuss
- What achievements are you most proud of
- What skills you have that make you perfect for the course
- What plans and ambitions you have for your future career
How you get a reference for your application depends on if you’re applying individually, or through a school, college, or a centre registered with UCAS.
If possible, your referee should be someone who knows you academically and can vouch for your work ethic, interaction with peers and suitability for higher education or a future career.
- In a current or recent school or college, ask your tutor, teacher, or head teacher.
- If you left education years ago, ask an employer, volunteering supervisor or trainer.
- References from friends, family or partners are not permitted and may result in your application being cancelled.
Only one reference is required on the UCAS Undergraduate application. If you want your university or college to see more than one, you'll need to contact them and ask if an additional reference can be sent directly.
4. Familiarise Yourself with University Application Deadlines
UCAS follows a strict timetable so it’s important to be aware of key application dates and deadlines.
Deadlines vary according to the course type, and in some cases, the university you are applying to. Here are some key dates.
- Mid October (16 October in 2023) - Deadline for applications to Oxbridge (the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge), and for most medicine, veterinary, and dentistry courses.
- End of January (31 January 2024) - Deadline for most other undergraduate university applications.
Late applications can be made up to June 30 — these don’t have to be considered but may be if universities still have spaces available.
Some courses and universities require extra admissions tests and assessments, such as the UCAT for medicine and the LNAT for law, and these may have different deadlines. Find out more.
5. Initiate the Application Process
Whilst the application procedure for undergraduate and postgraduate courses in the UK differs slightly, the key no matter which level you hope to study at, and whether you are a domestic or international applicant, is to leave plenty of time and ensure you complete all necessary components.
Here, we look at the process for both undergraduate and postgraduate study in more detail.
Almost all applications for full-time undergraduate higher education courses go through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), and everything happens via the UCAS website.
The first step is to register in the UCAS Hub and complete the registration questions – confirming the year you want to start your studies and that you're interested in undergraduate courses.
Just one set of login credentials is required to set up the application and track offers and decisions instead of the multiple user names and passwords needed in the past.
Once you have fully completed all sections of the application, you will then need to pay the UCASapplication fee, which for 2024 entry is £27.50.
As part of the admissions process for postgraduate courses, students generally need to submit an application form (and accompanying components) to the university directly. There are however some programmes which accept applications via UCAS - check which institutions use UCAS Postgraduate here.
Each university sets its own timeframes for processing applications. It'll usually take between two weeks and two months to find out whether your application has been successful.
6. Prepare for Interviews
Aspiring university students in the UK know that the application process is not as simple as submitting an application. One crucial step that sets successful applicants apart is the interview.
Not all universities or degree courses require applicants to attend an interview (professional training degrees, such as dentistry, primary education, social work and nursing, and talent-based degrees such as music, acting, art and design are most likely to require one), but if you are offered an interview for your chosen course, preparing for it in advance is crucial.
Remember, the interview is an opportunity for you to showcase your strengths and demonstrate why you are a perfect fit for the institution.
Image source: Van Tay Media on Unsplash
Tips for ensuring the best possible interview (and outcome) include:
- Researching the university - it’s important to familiarise yourself with its values, programs, and accomplishments so that you can talk about them in an interview.
- Reviewing your UCAS application - being familiar with the information you submitted will mean you are properly prepared to talk about your academic achievements, interests, and career aspirations.
- Practising speaking with confidence, articulating your thoughts clearly, and answering common interview questions - this will help you present yourself as a strong candidate who is passionate, knowledgeable, and ready to contribute to the university community.
On the actual day, it’s important to:
- Dress smartly, but making sure you feel comfortable – smart clothes will show you're taking it seriously and are keen to make a good impression.
- Consider your body language – good body language like sitting upright, nodding, smiling, making eye contact, and speaking clearly will ensure you appear prepared, confident, and enthusiastic, all of which are critical to making a good impression.
- Ask the interviewer questions too – asking questions about both the course and the wider university setting show an interest and enthusiasm, but also means you can establish any missing information or detail prior to potentially committing to 3-4 years of study at the university.
7. Manage Offers
Here, we look in more detail at the different offers (conditional and unconditional), and other potential outcomes of the UCASapplication process.
A conditional offer means you have been offered a place at your chosen course/university but that you still need to meet the requirements – usually exam results.
For most people, this means waiting for results day to see if your exam results meet the conditions.
As outlined on the UCAS website, a conditional offer might look something like this:
- A levels grade AAB with A in chemistry and at least two other sciences or mathematics
- 112 UCAS Tariff points including BTEC National Diploma grade DM
- Scottish Higher grades of BBBB
- 36 points from your International Baccalaureate Diploma, to include six in Higher Level English
- AAA from three A levels, or AAB from three A levels and grade B in your Extended Project
- 88 UCAS Tariff points,of which at least 60 must be obtained from two A levels, excluding General Studies
An unconditional offer means you've got your place secured, without having to wait for further exam results. There might still be a few things to arrange, though, for example, you might still need to get a DBS or PVG check, provide proof of your results, or meet some financial/medical requirements.
It’s important to bear in mind that by accepting an unconditional offer, you are committing to go to that university, so you can't make an insurance choice.
It’s also important to remember that even if your unconditional offer means your exam results won't affect whether or not you get accepted (in other words your place won't be dependent on your grades), doing as well as possible in your exams is still really important as it could impact your future employment.
An unsuccessful application means that the university admissions team has decided not to offer you a place on the course. Sometimes they'll give a reason, either at this time, or at a later date. If not, you can always contact them to ask if they'll discuss the reason with you.
If you don't get any offers though it’s important not to panic as you may still be able to add extra choices, or look for course availability later on.
if you've received decisions from all five universities or colleges and weren't accepted, or if you declined the offers you received, you may be able to use the UCAS Extra service . Extra is a free service – available for applicants to apply to one course at a time between 23 February and 4 July. It'll show up as an option when you sign in to track your application if it is available to you.
A withdrawn application means a course choice has been withdrawn by either you or the university/college.
The reason will show on your application – common reasons include applicants not having responded emails/letters, or missing interviews.
8. Explore University Clearing Options
Clearing is a UCAS service that allows universities to fill spaces on courses that aren't yet full, while students without offers are given a second chance to pursue their higher education aspirations.
In 2022, a total of 33,280 students managed to secure their university places through UCAS Clearing.
The most common reason for using Clearing is if your grades don't meet the entry requirements for your firm and insurance choice offers. However, there are other reasons too, including:
- if you change your mind about your firm and insurance choices, and wish to apply to a different course or university
- you applied before 30 June but don’t have any offers
- you only applied after 30 June – you’ll be automatically entered into Clearing once you apply
It’s worth bearing in mind that - even if you don't get the grades you need - you might not need Clearing. Sometimes you'll still be accepted if you just miss out on your offer.
Remember, if you're unhappy with an A-level exam grade you've received, it’s always an option to re-sit.
9. Look Into Student Finance
Whilst studying in the UK is good value for money and the average costs here are lower than in countries such as the US and Australia, English universities can charge UK students up to a maximum of £9,250 per year for an undergraduate degree.
International undergraduate students can expect to pay somewhere between £11,400 - £38,000 per year, and it is important to note that international students will most likely need to prove they have enough money to pay for their course and support themselves in the UK before being granted a visa to study in the UK.
Fortunately, there are several ways to offset the financial costs, or at least make them more manageable.
Image source: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
Tuition fee loans
Most UK students will receive a tuition fee loan from the government to pay for their undergraduate course fees and other expenses. This is paid back once the student leaves their course, and only when their income is above the repayment threshold.
Everyone who is eligible for student finance can get at least some Maintenance Loan, but you can apply for more that’s based on your household income.
A Maintenance Loan can help pay for things such as rent, food, books, travel, and other expenses. Any loan you borrow needs to be paid back, but not until you’ve finished or left your course, and your income is over the repayment threshold.
Scholarships and bursaries
While you’re researching your UCAS choices, it's a good idea to look at what extra funding might be available in the form of scholarships and bursaries.
Scholarships tend to cover some living costs (one-off, annual or termly payment), and tuition fees (automatic reduction or cover). They are generally awarded to students who have achieved excellent academic results, or attained very high levels in sports/musical fields. Scholarships can be awarded by universities, university alumni, or employers or organisations, to support young talent in their area.
Bursaries usually cover living costs through a one-off payment), and are often awarded to students from low income households, or with a challenging background or personal circumstances; for example, disabled students, or students from particular regions or countries.
Student grants are designed to cover some living costs, or costs for specific purposes, such as studying abroad (a one-off payment).
Sponsorships and employer support
If the course you're hoping to study is relevant to your job and benefits the company in some way, you may be able to receive sponsorship from your employer. This may be to learn new skills, or as part of continuing professional development (CPD).
It's worth bearing in mind that you're more likely to be successful in securing employer sponsorship for courses such as MBAs, professional qualifications or conversion courses. These qualifications can aid an individual's career progression and the knowledge, skills and contacts gained can enhance an organisation's success.
Educational trusts and foundations
In addition to scholarships and bursaries, there are also thousands of small charities and trusts in the UK which give out educational grants for a wide range of reasons, including for university study.
A lot of these charities have been set up to address particular issues and so their grants will be for particular purposes, but they are not all for hardship. Some for example, might be to fund a travel abroad project, or to support people from particular councils to further their studies.
You can find details of all these in The Guide to Educational Grants, published by The Directory for Social Change. It is usually available as a reference book in public libraries.
Many students in the UK choose to work part-time alongside their university courses in order to supplement their income.
During term time, institutions recommend working no more than 20 hours per week to ensure that studies aren't negatively affected.
Often there are jobs available at the university itself, with roles such as resident assistant, hospitality staff, library worker, student content creator and IT support worker all commonly available.
International students should always check they have the right to work in the UK while studying, and if so ensure that the number of hours they work don't exceed those stated in their visa.
For some students, financial support from family members may mean that they can fund their studies without having to rely on loans or bursaries.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q1. What are the main requirements to apply to UK universities?
The main entry requirements for UK universities are:
- At least two subjects at A-level
- At least two GCSEs, typically maths and English
- The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is not compulsory, but is welcomed by many universities
- An English language requirement
- A criminal record DBS check or equivalent
- A fitness to practise check – for courses such as Medicine and Nursing
Q2. How long does it take for UK universities to process applications?
Generally, universities start considering applications as soon as they arrive; even before the January deadline has passed.
Universities will reply with their decision or sometimes with an invitation for an interview. Often this will be within a couple of weeks of receiving your application, but sometimes it can take longer. It all depends on how many applications the admissions tutors are working through.
Q3. Can an American go to university in England?
Yes. In order to go into a UK institution as a US citizen, you must be able to afford to pay your tuition fees, either through scholarships or grants. To qualify for a visa, applicants must also demonstrate that they can support themselves financially in the UK for up to nine months.
University admissions officers in the United Kingdom are likely to recognise and accept your High School Diploma, SAT scores and Advanced Placement exams. Additionally, you’ll need a visa to study in the UK if your degree course is longer than six months (often Tier 4 student visa).
Q4. Can I apply to more than one university in the UK?
Yes. You can apply to a maximum of five different universities and these can be any that you choose. However, there is one exception; students are not able to apply to both the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge at the same time. If you are an Oxbridge applicant, you must choose one or the other.
The courses you apply for can be the same or different in the different universities. However, if you have a very specific university in mind, you are also able to apply for five different courses at the same university.
In the case of medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine or veterinary science, you apply for up to four different universities, but you can use your fifth choice as a back-up to apply for a different subject.
We hope that this article has helped you understand more about the UK university application process.