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UCAS: A How to Guide

Using UCAS to apply to university for the first time can be a daunting and potentially quite confusing prospect - if you’re not sure where to begin, or just need a quick checklist to make sure you’ve covered all the basics, we’ve put together this guide to help you understand the basics of the system, and how you can work towards putting together the most competitive application you can!



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Understanding UCAS

To apply for any undergraduate course at a UK university, you need to do so through a system called UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service). The UCAS website itself has a good deal of information to help you learn about the world of university, the range of courses available, and thought leadership on the past, present, and future of Higher Education in the UK; but, most importantly, it hosts the portal through which you fill out the all-important UCAS form. This is essentially the form each university will receive as your application, and it includes various sections (which we’ll go into in more detail below) intended to give university admission departments the best idea of what you’re like as a student. 

The first step in applying to university is registering for the UCAS website, so be sure to do that before working your way through the steps outlined below. Remember throughout the whole process to give yourself plenty of time: the UCAS form is full of important decisions and responses which might take several drafts (in particular the Personal Statement) before you are happy and ready to submit them! Have a read of our blog on why getting started early on your university application is one of the key indicators of success, as well as useful tips for early preparation.

Filling out your UCAS form

Your GCSE results provide valuable insights into your academic strengths. Look at the subjects in which you excelled and consider continuing them at A-Level if they align with your interests. High grades in a particular subject are indicative of your aptitude and may indicate a natural affinity for a certain subject that will serve you well going forward!

On the other hand, if you faced challenges in certain subjects, it might be worth reconsidering whether pursuing them at A-Level is the best fit for you. While a slight dip in performance doesn't necessarily mean you should rule out a subject entirely, it's essential to be realistic about your strengths and areas for improvement.

Personal Detail 

The Personal Details section asks that you fill in a relatively straightforward set of basic details, extra information about your educational background, and (in a separate section if relevant) any past employment details you may have. Remember to be completely honest in this section, as no answers in any direction will increase or decrease your likelihood of acceptance, but giving false information could risk your application being cancelled.

Course and University Choices

This may not come as a surprise, but there are hundreds of universities and thousands of courses on offer across the United Kingdom, and all of them are available to select via your UCAS application! For help with decision making, UCAS provides details on all courses via their handy search tool, although we recommend checking the courses out on the relevant university sites for more detailed information before deciding.

Research which courses and universities you’re most interested in before settling on a top 5 (or fewer if you like, but the maximum number of courses you can apply to in a given year is 5) and inputting them into your form.

When looking through the courses on offer, be sure to take into consideration the entry requirements for each course, as there’s no point applying to courses that will be unlikely to accept you on the strength of your grades. We also recommend going for a slight spread of grade requirements within the courses you select: for example, if you are predicted two A*s and an A, perhaps apply for one or two course which require two A*s, a course or two requiring all As, and one or two back-up courses asking for a combination of As and Bs. Whilst shooting for the stars is fantastic, it’s always advisable to have a course on the roster that you’re very confident you’ll make the grades for just in case.

It’s worth remembering additionally that, if you’re applying for medicine, you are only able to apply to four medicine courses - you can either leave your fifth choice blank, or choose a back-up related course in case your exam results or admissions tests don’t go as planned. Also, for those with Oxbridge ambitions, students may only select one course at either university (i.e. if you apply for history at Oxford, you cannot apply for any other course at Oxford or a course at Cambridge, and vice versa). This is to limit the amount of repeat applications received by the universities and enable them to alot adequate time to properly interviewing and selecting between similarly-promising applications.

For more detailed advice on choosing a university course, including the key questions you should be asking, read our blog on how to choose a university course.

School Details and Exam Results 

You will be asked to fill out which school you attend as well as which qualifications you have taken (i.e. your GCSEs or equivalent and any AS levels or early A-levels (or equivalent) you’ve completed) and those you’re currently sitting. For courses you’re still taking, you will register them as ‘pending’, and the teacher completing your reference (discussed in more detail below) will fill in your predicted grades for you.

It is in this section that you will also input your planned university start date. This means you have the choice either to apply for the coming school year (i.e. the next September (if applying by October deadline) or that September (if applying by January deadline)) or to defer by year, meaning taking a year out and attending university the next school year. If you’re considering deferral, we recommend looking at the specific course webpages you’re applying to and checking that they welcome deferred applications. This is because some courses, in particular medicine or maths, don’t encourage taking a year out of education as it can risk students forgetting vital information and can harm their performance. We also recommend thinking about why you are deferring - consider what you are planning to do (will you gain work experience, will you travel, will you do something else?) and how you can use it to further your preparation for university.


Personal Statement

This is a vital, and perhaps the most notorious, section of the UCAS form. This is the section that enables universities to decide between otherwise similarly qualified applicants. This gives you your only real opportunity to give admissions tutors an idea of what you’re going to be like as a student: why you love your subject, what motivates you, and why you’re a better choice than others with the same grades! You have 4,000 characters to work with (which may sound like a lot but, believe us, it really isn’t, so make sure every word counts.

We recommend putting a good amount of time into this section; drafting your personal statement several times, and having others read over your drafts, is the best way to refine it into something that you’re proud of and will be competitive in your application.

If you’re not sure how to get started on preparing your personal statement, our blog on how to get ahead in this particular aspect of the application will be of use to you! We also recommend thinking about alternative research methods for your personal statement aside from just reading books to keep you interested and enthusiastic about your research over the long application process!



Once your UCAS form has been filled in and submitted, it is sent to your referee who will provide a reference in support of your application before it is sent off to your chosen universities. If you are applying whilst you are still at school, your teachers will fill this section out for you, meaning that you don’t need to nominate a particular person as it will automatically be sent to your school once you submit.

If you’ve left school relatively recently, you can still have your application submitted through your old school or college. Speak to a previous teacher and see if it’s possible to link your application through them. If so, ask for their ‘buzzword’ which, once added to your application, will notify them and enable them to formally accept your request and submit references for you like any other application.

If you’re not able to apply through your previous school, you can request a reference independently from someone else, such as a current or previous employer. Contact the person in question with plenty of time to spare and be sure to tell them it’s for a university course so they know it’s not a standard HR reference. If they agree, you can fill in their details on the UCAS form and a request will be sent to them via email. If you decide afterwards to change your referee, simply ‘add a different person’ via the same section of the form to do so. We recommend keeping in regular contact with your referee to make sure it’s completed well in time so you’re not working up to the wire to get it submitted!


Submit by the Deadline

Once you have filled out all the information required and your reference has been completed, you will be able to submit your application. If you are applying for any course at Oxford or Cambridge, or courses in medicine, veterinary science/medicine, and dentistry at most other universities, you must submit your application by the 16th October 2023 at 18:00 (UK time). If applying for other courses, the deadline for the majority is the 31st of January 2024 at 18:00 (UK time). For a summary of all the key application deadlines, download our complimentary university application calendar!

If you are applying for a course at Oxford or Cambridge but haven’t decided on the other courses you’d like to apply for, then you can submit your application by the October deadline with fewer university course selected and then add other courses to the application by the later deadline (provided they are due by this deadline), but we usually recommend that students nominate all of their courses by the October deadline so that the entire UCAS process is out of their hair and they can focus on interview preparation and their academic work!


Contact Us

Regardless of whether you are applying for Oxbridge or not, personal statements can make or break your applications to UK universities. Looking for personalised guidance? Contact our expert consultants on + 44 (0) 20 7499 2394 or email [email protected]

Personal Statement Support?

The Personal Statement is the first thing that universities will see about you. Our Personal Statement Package helps you to prepare for your university application. Get in touch with one of our consultants for more information or to book your course today.

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