A Step-by-Step Guide to UCAS

UCAS is the UK’s centralised university application system, so it’s something you’ll definitely want to brush up on if you have students interested in studying in the UK! We’ll be covering how UCAS works and all the important deadlines you need to know.

University adviser looking over UCAS application timelines in diary and iPad shot from above

UCAS, The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, provides the central portal for applications to undergraduate degrees and other higher education courses within the United Kingdom. If any of your students are thinking of continuing their studies in the UK, they’ll likely come to use UCAS.

You (and your students!) will be relieved to know that UCAS is really quite straightforward and easy to use. But as with any system, it has its unique ways of doing things. Understanding the process and the required application materials will allow you and your students to prepare properly, and hopefully create the best application possible.

So in this article, we’ll be drilling down into all the details you need to know about UCAS applications, from deadlines to personal statements. You’ll be an expert on UK university applications in no time!

What is UCAS?

In a nutshell, UCAS is students’ one-stop-shop for applications to UK institutions. They can register their accounts, fill in their profiles, search for courses and submit - usually - up to five applications. Exceptions to this include veterinary medicine/science and medicine: students can only apply to four of these.

From within UCAS, students can then track their applications and receive and review their offers. Once all of their universities have responded, they’ll be able to accept one firm choice, and one insurance choice to serve as a back-up in case they don’t meet the required grades for their first choice.

These points bring up important context about the UK university system. Firstly, there’s the fact that offers are typically conditional, and depend upon the grades students achieve in their final exams (e.g. A-Levels, IB).

Secondly, unlike in some other countries, applications to UK universities are made to specific courses rather than the universities themselves. That means students might submit several applications to one university if they so choose.

But it’s important to bear in mind that the same personal statement will be attached to every application. It might be difficult to write a statement that is appealing to the Geography and Fine Art departments!

Free UCAS Application Timeline

We've put together a timeline of all the key dates you need to keep in mind as students prepare applications to UK universities for 2022. You can save it, print it, and keep your students organised and on top of all their UCAS tasks!

UCAS deadlines for 2022 applications

Having students who send applications all over the world is really rewarding, and it’s a sign that your students are open to finding the option that’s right for them, setting them on a fulfilling and exciting path. But there’s no denying that it also requires a lot of work - from you and from them.

Not least amongst your challenges is keeping track of all the different deadlines. To make things a little easier, we’ve gathered the key dates you need to put in your diary. Make sure your students do the same as soon as possible!

Unfortunately - as is often the case - it’s not necessarily as simple as managing these general deadlines. There are some exceptions, with certain courses sometimes creating their own timetables. For example, courses in the performing arts tend to follow their own procedures.

If students have specific degrees in mind, they should be sure to check the universities’ and departments’ websites to make sure the general timeline applies.

You’ll likely also want to set your own school’s deadlines for your students, to make sure that you and your colleagues have enough time to review their materials, submit predicted grades and write references.

And before we get into the hard deadlines, it’s worth letting the earlybirds know that the soonest they can submit their 2022 applications is the 7th September 2021.

When do UCAS applications for 2022 need to be submitted?

To guarantee that students’ applications are considered, they have to be completed in full - including personal details and academic references. They then need to be submitted before these dates:

  • 15th October 2021 at 18:00 (UK time) for applications to any course at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. This deadline also applies to most courses in medicine, veterinary medicine/science, and dentistry. Students do have the option to add choices with later deadlines after submitting these applications, but they must stick to the maximum of five applications.
  • 26th January 2022 at 18:00 (UK time) for most other courses in the UK.

Both deadlines are crucial, and students should aim to submit ahead of time. That being said, the 15th October deadline is the one that students really can’t miss if they’re applying from outside the UK: lots of universities and colleges with the 26th January deadline will still consider applications from international students later in the year.

Of course, that doesn’t give international students a free pass to wait as long as they like! After all, they have the additional considerations of visa applications, arranging accommodation from overseas and maybe even taking language tests. All of these can take weeks (or months) to arrange, so time is definitely of the essence.

There are also the additional tests which some subjects - like Law, Maths and Medicine - can require. Students need to research early whether their applications will require any other admissions tests, and book these as soon as possible.

vet holding a puppy while its owner gives it a drink from a bowl

What are admissions tutors looking for from UCAS applications?

Before diving into the steps of the application process, it’s worth thinking about what the end goal is. What exactly should students be trying to convey as they put together their applications?

Here are the most valued criteria that admissions tutors look for as they review applicants:

  • The qualifications students have already earned (usually this will be exam results).
  • A personal statement which displays passion for the subject area and enthusiasm for higher education.
  • Evidence that the student has skills and experiences to help them thrive at university.
  • A good understanding of the subject they’ll be studying.
  • A desire to learn and develop personally.
  • Fluent and accurate written communication.
  • Strong references from the student’s teacher(s) or adviser(s).

How students fill in their UCAS application

It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the process students will go through as they register and complete their UCAS profiles. That way, you’ll be better placed to give them advice and create tailored lesson-plans and activities for them, as well as a handy timeline to keep them on-track (of course, you can always use our ready-made timeline if you prefer!).

As you’ll see, the application process does have quite a number of steps. Some of these can also require quite a bit of time and attention. Encourage your students to start creating their UCAS profiles as soon as possible. They can save their progress and come back as often as they’d like, so there’s no need to delay until they have everything ready!

Step 1: Registering with UCAS

The first thing students need to do is register in the UCAS Hub. They’ll have to answer some basic registration questions (like that they plan to start their degree in 2022 and will be studying at undergraduate level). Once that’s done, they can start their application from the UCAS Hub dashboard.

As students work through the sections of their profile, it’s important that they enter their names exactly as they appear on official documents like passports and birth certificates. UCAS does allow students to enter some European characters that aren’t in the standard British alphabet, although some will be substituted with British equivalents.

student filling in UCAS application on laptop outdoors

Step 2: Personal details

Once students have answered the preliminary questions, they’ll need to fill out more complete profiles. Some of the questions in this section are only for UK applicants, though, lightening your students’ workload a little!

There are some important things your students should keep in mind as they fill in this section:

  • Use an email address that they’ll have regular access to (and remember to check!).
  • They can save their progress if they don’t have the time or information to complete every section in one sitting.
  • Helpful information for the ‘residency status’ questions can be found on the UKCISA website.
  • Students do have the option to give a parent, guardian, or adviser (which could be you!) nominated access. That would allow the chosen person to speak to UCAS on the student’s behalf. Still, students should remember that UCAS would never be able to share their login details, so they’d need to provide this person with their username and password if they needed somebody to log in for them. It goes without saying that this should only be done with somebody the student trusts completely.

Step 3: Educational qualifications

At this point, students should enter all of the qualifications that they’ll earn from secondary school. That includes qualifications for which the final grades haven’t yet been given - for example, if they haven’t yet sat exams or are waiting for coursework to be marked.

For any results that are still outstanding, it’s important that referees fill in the predicted grades (more on that later).

If the qualifications that students will receive aren’t on UCAS’s list, they should add them in manually. Qualifications are listed by name and country, but if theirs doesn’t appear they can add it into the ‘other’ box.

Note: Once the results are in, UCAS is able to send some directly to the universities students apply to. However, while UCAS can send in results like A Levels, BTECs, Irish Leaving Certificates and International Baccalaureates, students will have to send most international qualifications to their chosen institutions themselves.

Step 4: Employment history

This section is only for paid work which students have done. Volunteering, internships and unpaid placements shouldn’t be listed here - although they could be valuable additions to personal statements!

There are certain subject areas where employment history is particularly relevant, but unless paid experience is stated as a requirement on the course (which is extremely unusual), students shouldn’t worry about leaving this section blank if they haven’t had any jobs yet!

Step 5: Course choices

Now students have reached the exciting part! It’s time to make their course selections.

Hopefully by the time they’ve reached this stage, they’ve done lots of university research and have found their perfect university match. Of course, if they’re still considering their choices (and they have time before the deadline), they can add any they’re certain of for now, and then choose more later.

At this stage, there’s no preference order or rankings, so students don’t need to worry about which courses they select first. Also, universities can’t see where else students have applied until after students respond to offers.

For the most part, students can apply to a maximum of five courses. Remember that they can apply to a maximum of four in any one of these areas:

  • Medicine
  • Dentistry
  • Veterinary medicine
  • Veterinary science

So while they can’t apply to five veterinary medicine degrees, they could apply to four and then to one degree in veterinary science or another subject area they choose.

The other restriction to keep in mind is that they can only apply to either the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge - not both!

Oxford university

Step 6: Personal statement

The personal statement might be the most daunting aspect of the UCAS application. It’s also likely the single section students will dedicate the most amount of time to - not counting the months and even years of research and self-exploration that go into choosing university courses!

Of course, we could dedicate an entire article to giving advice on the personal statement (in fact, we have!). For now, we’ll stick to the basics.

The important thing for you and your students to keep in mind is that the personal statement is the only part of the UCAS application which allows students to speak in their own voice. They need to make the most of this opportunity and get their personalities and passions across!

Here are some valuable inclusions:

  • Passion for the subject.
  • Aptitude for the subject.
  • Positive attitude toward education.
  • Relevant extracurricular experiences.
  • Skills related to the field of study (e.g. independent research, teamwork, critical thinking).
  • Motivation for pursuing higher education.
  • Reasons for studying in the UK.

Bear in mind that the personal statement can only be 4,000 characters or 47 lines (whichever comes first), so students likely won’t be able to go into lots of detail about each of these things. If you can, work with them to see which are the most important points for the courses they’re applying to, and aim to include a detail or two which really make them a unique asset to the universities!

It’s a good idea for students to type out their drafts outside of the UCAS portal first (e.g. in Microsoft Word or on the BridgeU platform). That way they can easily share it with you, parents, or any other advisers and make revisions as needed. It also means they’ll avoid losing previous versions if they decide they wanted to keep a paragraph they’d deleted!

Note: The UCAS system will time out after 35 minutes of inactivity, so make sure students save their progress regularly if they’re working within the portal.

Step 7: Submit the UCAS application

Hurray! Students are finally at the stage of sending off their applications and breathing a sigh of relief. Before they do, though, they’ll want to have a final read through of every single section, to make sure all the details are right and no typos have slipped into the personal statement.

Step 8: Reference, fees and sending

At this stage, the baton passes firmly to you or the students’ other teachers/advisers. It’s time for the references to be completed! We’ll get into more detail soon…

Students applying through a UCAS registered school or college (we’ll explain that a little later too!) can use the ‘Send to referee’ button so that you (or whoever is their referee) can check over all the details and input the reference. If the school isn’t registered with UCAS, the student will need to get the reference from the referee and paste it into the application themselves.

Once the reference has been submitted, the application can be sent to universities. But first, students will need to pay the application fee. For 2022 entry, that’s £22 for a single application, or £26.50 for more than one.

And that’s the UCAS application completed! Now it’s time to wait for universities’ responses to start coming in...

Counsellor responsibilities for a UCAS application

Now that you know how UCAS applications work from the student point of view, you’ll want to know what will be required of you.

Writing a UCAS reference

Your biggest responsibility will likely be references. Every student applying through UCAS needs one (and only one) reference, and they’re a really decisive part of the application. No pressure, but references can make or break applications, so be sure that you and your colleagues dedicate some time and thought to them!

There are a couple of practical requirements to keep in mind. First, it has to be written in English. Second, it has the same limits on length as the personal statement: 4,000 characters or 47 lines, including blank spaces and lines.

There’s in-depth guidance about writing a UCAS reference available, but broadly, you could include:

  • The student’s aptitude for and commitment to the subject.
  • Their contribution to in-class activities.
  • The quality of their independent work.
  • Relevant extracurricular activities.
  • Career goals and work experience.
  • Circumstances that have affected the student’s output (e.g. personal problems, illnesses, COVID-19).

While only one reference can be submitted, it can collate input from several teachers to give insight into different aspects of the student’s contribution to life at the school, including in societies or teams. It’s also useful if students are applying for combined or dual degrees, like History & English Literature or Maths & Business.

But remember, the document needs to flow as one single piece of writing. You might have to do a bit of editing to make sure teachers’ accounts come together seamlessly.

Finally, remember the UCAS reference is academic in focus. While extracurriculars can be mentioned, particularly if they’re relevant (e.g. writing for the school newspaper when applying for Journalism!), they shouldn’t be the main focus.

The priorities should really be the points mentioned above, rather than the more holistic, personal accounts you might write for a Letter of Recommendation to US universities, for example.

UCAS advisor discussing reference with student who holds her laptop

Predicted grades

Another responsibility you might have is gathering students’ predicted grades. If their final qualifications haven’t yet been assessed, students’ teachers will need to indicate what they believe each student will achieve.

These grades should be provided by the teachers who instruct each student in each subject area. After all, they’re best placed to know how the student is performing!

Make sure teachers are thorough and realistic when providing predicted grades. If universities notice a pattern of your school providing inaccurate predictions, that can work against you!

If for some reason you absolutely can’t give a predicted grade, be sure to explain this fully in the reference. In this scenario, a warning message will be displayed before the application is sent to confirm that it should be sent without predicted grades.

If your school is registered with UCAS and you’re the assigned referee on an application, entering the predicted grades is straightforward. You’ll be able to choose grades from a menu, or use the free text field to type them in manually.

Note: If predicted grades are entered and then the application is returned to the student for them to make any changes, the predicted grades will be removed. Make sure you re-enter these before sending the application!

Clearing & Adjustment

A final feature of UCAS that’s important to know about comes into play long after applications have been sent. Clearing and Adjustment are the processes by which students can change their chosen university courses after they’ve received their final grades.

With Clearing, students who might have missed the grade requirements for their first and insurance choices can find other courses which they can enrol on for 2022 entry.

Other students who may have decided they want to study a different subject area, or would prefer to be at a different institution, can also use Clearing to select a new path! In this case, though, students would need to decline their existing offers before exploring new ones through Clearing.

Adjustment is a good option for students who exceeded their grade requirements, and are interested in exploring courses with requirements closer to the ones they achieved. The great thing about Adjustment is that students can explore their options without having to decline their existing places!

Registering your school with UCAS

Your school may or may not be registered with UCAS already. If it is, it’s what’s referred to as a UCAS centre. If it isn’t and you’d like it to be, international schools can register here.

Essentially, it means that your school is connected with UCAS, and students can create applications linked to the school. That in turn allows you (and other colleagues) to manage all the applications sent from your school.

If you don’t register, students can still send in UCAS applications following the steps we outlined above. They’ll simply do this independently rather than through the school.

What are the benefits of registering as a UCAS centre?

Being a registered centre gives you access to students’ applications, and tools to help you manage them effectively. It can make it easier to see where all of your students are up to, and make the contributions needed (i.e. references and predicted grades, as well as feedback on personal statements) quickly and easily.

The benefits include:

  • Viewing the progress of all students’ applications.
  • Reviewing, commenting and sending back applications to students for amendment.
  • Tracking offers and decisions.
  • Creating, editing and approving references on students’ applications.
  • Checking, approving and submitting students’ applications for them.
  • Securely paying students’ UCAS fees on their behalf.

Of course, there are other platforms which can help you manage all of this and much more for all your students’ applications, not just those to the UK. Personally, we’d recommend BridgeU!

Keeping on-track with UCAS applications

As you've seen, UCAS has lots of different systems and deadlines to be aware of. It can definitely feel overwhelming, especially if you have students applying to universities in other parts of the world, too. 

To help ensure that you and your students stay on top of all the key dates for their UCAS applications, we've put together this handy, printable UCAS timeline. Hang it up on your wall and ensure your students' UCAS applications are always where they should be! 

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