A simple guide to UCAS is needed because it can be a minefield of confusing jargon, deadlines and hoops to jump through if you haven’t done it before. Even if you are an experienced head of sixth form or adviser and use it every year there are always changes to learn and new terms to get used to.

In many ways, UCAS (University and Colleges Applications Service) hasn’t changed much since most parents were at school themselves, except it’s now all online. There are still five choices before deciding on a firm and insurance offer. Clearing is there for students who don’t receive offers OR those who don’t achieve their offers. 

www.ucas.com is the perfect starting point and source of information with helpful videos to assist at every stage.

A simple guide to UCAS


There are over 50,000 courses at 395 UK providers. There are familiar favourites like Geography, Maths and French, but many more that are unfamiliar: Microbiology, Social Anthropology, Event Management. 

Factors to consider are:

  • What do you enjoy studying?
  • What are you interested in studying?
  • What career do you want to pursue?
  • What are the standard entry requirements?
  • Are there any other requirements i.e. work experience, DBS certificate, admissions tests.

Research as many different courses as possible.


What are your requirements? Is it important to be close to home, a long way from home or close enough to return home for a weekend? Do you want a big city, campus or a small town? Is reputation important? What is the cost of the accommodation, because it does vary considerably. Attending open days is the best way to get informed. Booking details are available on university websites. When you’re there, ask lots of questions. You’ll be able to compare courses and universities and when you do, you’ll find considerable differences between the:

  • teaching: style, structure and number of formal teaching hours
  • means of assessment
  • opportunities for work placement or year abroad 

Oxbridge/Medicine/Dentistry and Veterinary Medicine

Applying to Oxford, Cambridge or the above courses means getting organised sooner because the deadline is three months earlier, 15th October. Other factors to consider include: the Oxbridge college system and further admissions tests. With medicine and dentistry, each course and institution have their subtle and sometimes significant differences, and the best way to seek clarity is it to attend the open days and chat to the admissions tutors.

Personal Statement

After deciding on the course, you can start writing your personal statement, the jewel in the crown of your UCAS application. It’s exactly what the title suggests: a personal statement to showcase why you have chosen the course and your relevant skills and experience for it. It has a maximum limit of 4000 characters with spaces. It takes several drafts to perfect, so leave plenty of time to plan, write and re-write it. For many competitive courses, the quality of the personal statement can be the deciding factor for securing an offer or interview. For detailed advice on writing a personal statement, look at further posts on our blog. 

Further Useful Information for a simple guide to UCAS:

  • Deadlines: 15th October for early applications. End of January for all other applications (25th January 2023 this cycle). However, schools have their own internal deadlines.
  • References: once the student has submitted their application, the school or sixth form college will add their reference and predicted grades. A parent can ask to read the reference and many schools do share it.
  • Interviews: Most courses do not interview. However some courses (eg Medicine, Nursing, primary teaching) and universities (eg Oxford, Cambridge) do, so be prepared. It varies considerably. 
  • Offers: After receipt of applications, some universities send out offers (or rejections) quickly, others take their time and some wait until after the final application deadline before they begin considering. This year, many students did not hear from some very competitive courses until close to the deadline in May. Not hearing from a university, doesn’t mean you won’t receive an offer. Wait until you have heard from all your choices before deciding which to accept.
  • Admissions Tests: More and more competitive courses are choosing to have their own admissions tests now. Medicine and a lot of Oxbridge courses have had them for a while but their use and spread is increasing. Check if your course requires one, because you will need to prepare and apply for it. Your sixth form centre should be able to help you with it.
  • League tables: Universities and individual courses have their own league tables to help you choose.
  • Jargon: UCAS has its own language: clearing, track, adjustment, firm, insurance etc. Check its website for a clear understanding so you know and understand the language.
  • Fees and Loans: There is slight variation in fees. For the latest details on loans look refer to Student Finance.    

Here at Student Navigator we offer guidance in choosing courses, writing personal statements and making UCAS applications. Please contact us to see how we can help you. If a simple guide to UCAS has been helpful please look at other blogs on our website and sign up to our newsletter.