The Ultimate Guide To UCAS And Personal Statements
UCAS stands for Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. It is the centralised online service in the UK that everyone has to use in order to apply to any undergraduate University course in the UK.
Through UCAS, you can select up to five different courses to apply to. These can be at the same university, different ones, or a combination of both. It’s completely up to you! If you’re struggling to choose what to study, read our guide on how to find the right university course for you.
You write and submit your application via UCAS, and UCAS sends this to the admissions teams for each of the courses you’ve selected. They will then consider your application along with all the others they have received from different students around the world, and decide who they would like to offer places.
So, UCAS is effectively the link between you and the universities you’re applying to. This means you have to sell yourself as best you can on your UCAS application, since this may be all that the admissions teams are basing their decisions on.
UCAS have two major deadlines for undergraduate application submissions. The earlier deadline is for anyone wanting to apply to Oxford or Cambridge, and for most medicine, veterinary medicine and dentistry courses across the country. This early deadline is usually 15th October. But be sure to double check that this is true for your year! The deadline for all other undergraduate courses is usually 15th January. However, many universities and colleges continue to accept applications from international students until later in the year.
There’s quite a big gap between these two deadlines. This is because all courses with the earlier cut off point require you to go for an interview before they make their offers, so they need time to schedule these. This means you need to decide quite early in the year (by the summer before your deadline) whether you’re going to apply to any of the courses with the 15th October cut off, so that you have enough time to write your application!
You fill out your application using UCAS’s online system, Apply. There are several sections to the form; some require information that you can fill out quickly and others need more time. You don’t have to do it all at once though. You can save your progress and come back to it as many times as you want.
What information are they looking for?
Most obviously, UCAS will want to know your 5 course choices! You don’t have to place them in order of preference at this point and none of the admissions officers will see the other courses you have applied to. They will, however, have access to this information after you reply to any offers you receive, but it can’t impact your application in any way.
A personal statement will also be required, showing your vested interest in your chosen subject. It should also demonstrate your motivation and enthusiasm, as well as any skills you have picked up so far that will help you do well at university. This is your chance to tell admissions teams why they should offer you a place on their course.
There will also be some additional questions for monitoring purposes. These don’t affect how likely you are to be offered a place in any way. The information is not shared with the Universities until the end of the application cycle, when you’ll already know their decisions. If you’re applying from the UK, you will be asked questions about your ethnic origin, national identity and what your parents do for a living. There are also some optional questions about religion, sexual orientation and identity.
Within the additional questions section, there will be optional queries relating to your personal circumstances. These will be shared with the university if you wish to provide information about, for example, your parental education or whether you’ve been in care. This is known as ‘contextualised admissions’ and allows the university to form a more complete understanding of you as an individual so that they can provide support if necessary. If you want to know more about how a University will use this information, you can ring their admissions team directly and ask. Don’t be scared to do this at any point as, again, it won’t affect your likelihood of being offered a place!
Other information that UCAS will require is listed below:
- Full education history: GCSEs and predicted A-Level/IB qualifications
- Full employment history
- Reference from teacher, adviser or professional who knows you academically.
How do I write a good personal statement?
There isn’t a ‘correct’ way to write your personal statement. The key is in the title – the statement is personal. And so it should be as unique to you, your experiences and your interests as possible. That being said, there are some ways you can structure your statement to ensure clarity. Also, there are key things you can include to make sure you are providing the information admissions tutors want to know, so that you come across as an enthusiastic, mature and motivated student.
Key things to include:
Why you find the subject interesting
Explain what it is that attracts you to your subject, and why you want to study it at university level. Mention particular areas you want to find out more about, for example something you’ve briefly covered on the course at school, or something you’ve read about in your own time.
Detail the relevant things you’ve read that you found the most engaging, and talk about why you found them interesting. Whether or not you’re applying for a literature-based course, make sure you’ve done some reading around the subject. And don’t just regurgitate views you’ve heard in class, read in a textbook or seen online. Remember, the admissions teams want to hear your personal opinion. This is one reason why going to a summer course is so helpful: it introduces you to wider perspectives about your subject, and good ideas for further reading! For inspiration, check out these recommended lists of Top 10 books for Literature students, Psychology students and Law students.
Employment or volunteering experiences
There is a different section in which to detail your complete employment history, so only pick the most relevant to discuss in your personal statement. Choose the ones that have either taught you useful skills or made you more passionate about your subject.
Work experience / Summer schools / Taster Courses
Talking about any relevant work experience, summer schools or Higher Education taster courses can be really valuable in your personal statement. Again, choose the ones that are most representative of your engagement with your chosen subject, and detail the skills and knowledge you gained. Scholastica summer schools are a great one to talk about here! Going to an academic summer school like Scholastica shows your dedication to your subject outside school, which all admissions tutors are looking for.
Clubs and societies you are a part of at school, or have leadership roles in, can be useful to discuss here, as long as you explain what you’ve gained from them. More on this in the next section!
You can also mention the skills you may have developed through any extra courses or qualifications you’ve completed, such as DofE, National Citizen Service (NCS), Young Enterprise, etc.
Note for International students:
If you’re applying from outside the UK, you should also mention: why you want to study here, your English language skills, and any English courses or tests you’ve taken. It can also be good to mention why you want to be an international student, rather than studying in your own country.
- Universities are quite clear about the skills and qualities they are looking for in their students; make sure you read the course descriptions for each course you’re applying to and structure your statement to demonstrate that you have met everything they are looking for.
- You have a maximum of 4,000 characters and 47 lines when you input your personal statement into UCAS. This means you need to think carefully about how many paragraphs to have and what information it is most important to include.
- Try to present your achievements and interests in a clear and concise manner. This means having different paragraphs for different experiences where possible, and not repeating yourself. Link anything you have done to what you have learnt from it and how that better prepares you or makes you more interested in the course.
- Avoid presenting a list of things you have done. Admissions teams won’t care about how many charity projects you’ve been involved with unless you tell them what you have gained from each one.
- Keep it focused on you. Don’t try to define your subject or explain it to the admissions tutor – they are already experts!
- Write in a natural style – show your understanding of your subject but without going into too much detail or trying to make it sound too complex. Again, you don’t have that many characters available and you need to prioritise talking about yourself. The most important thing is to come across as enthusiastic and eager to learn MORE – don’t focus on trying to show off what you already know.
- Equally, don’t pretend to know more than you do, or exaggerate your achievements – this is especially important if you are going to be interviewed because they will ask you to elaborate on things you mentioned in your statement.
- Be careful with humour or quotes – the admissions tutor may not have the same sense of humour as you and it could be a waste of characters!
- Proofread it aloud, and get as many people to check it as possible so that you have a lot of different perspectives – ask your teachers, friends, and family.
- Make sure the spelling, punctuation and grammar are completely correct as errors will suggest that you’re careless.
- You will probably produce several drafts of your personal statement before you’re completely happy with it. This is why it’s important to start writing as early as possible – this is not something to be left to the last minute!
- Don’t copy bits of another personal statement or share yours with anyone applying for similar courses or similar universities. All personal statements are checked for similarity and if yours is flagged as being too similar to someone else’s, it might reduce your chance of being offered a place.
How much extracurricular content should I include?
Most universities like to see that you have been engaged in extracurricular activities throughout your time at school. They show that you can juggle several commitments at once, and also that you know how to balance work and play – something that is very important at university! However, your personal statement should be mainly focused on the course you’re applying for and why you want to do it. Extracurriculars should only make up one small paragraph towards the end. That said, it shouldn’t be the focus of the final paragraph – you should wrap up with something about your relationship with your chosen subject.
Extracurriculars relevant to the course you’re applying for are amazing, but you can include ones that aren’t directly relevant too. The key is to mention what you do, and then link it back how it has helped you develop the skills and attributes that the university wants to see. These could include commitment, dedication, confidence, teamwork, resilience and interpersonal skills – all important qualities for a university student to have. For medical school applicants, see our tips on the best extracurriculars for medical students.
For those of you applying to Oxford or Cambridge, a lot of advice online says not to include extracurriculars that aren’t directly relevant to your subject. However, there is a lot of variety among different admissions tutors in their attitudes towards this. Our advice would be to include them if they demonstrate personal attributes, impressive achievements or unique skills. Just make sure you are concise and that this only makes up one small paragraph. That way, you’ve covered it if the admissions tutor does want to see it… and if they don’t there’s still a lot more to your personal statement that they will like!
What if I’m applying to different courses at different Universities?
Applying to different courses at different Universities is difficult because unfortunately, you are usually only allowed to submit one personal statement.
If just one of your choices is completely different from the others, a University may accept a separate personal statement for that course, but it has to be sent directly to them – not through UCAS. You have to call the university’s admissions team to ask if this is possible or speak to them on an open day. Speaking to them individually is the only way you can find out, but you should try to get some advice from a teacher or advisers before you do this. If one of your courses is fairly unusual and only offered by a small number of universities, the admissions team will have probably received calls like this many times before and so may be more lenient, but it’s definitely best to just ask.
There may be slight differences between the five courses you’re applying for, for example, if they are all joint or combined degrees with slightly different subject combinations. In this case, writing one statement shouldn’t be too much of a problem. You just have to make sure that you make your statement as relevant as possible to all of them – so make sure each subject is covered by what you are saying.
However, if there are big differences between all of your course choices, you will have much more difficulty writing a great personal statement. You can try to make your statement appropriate to all courses by demonstrating your skills and academic interests more generally. Alternatively, you can openly state that you are applying to several different courses and try to explain as best as possible why you have done this based on your academic interests. The focus here should be on a strong interest in all the courses and the different things they offer. Make sure you don’t come across as simply indecisive or not sure what you want from a course!
Both are risky strategies so we would advise you to apply for five courses that have some clear common ground that you can focus on in your statement.
When can I expect to hear back?
Once you’ve sent off your application, the UCAS hub will allow you to check how your application is progressing. Most interview invitations (although not all – some course providers may email you directly), offers and rejections will be shown on there.
Unfortunately, each university’s application monitoring process takes a different amount of time, so it’s difficult to know for sure when you’ll have all of your decisions back. However, UCAS says that if you met their application deadline (15th January), you should have heard back by the 31st March and will definitely hear by the 9th May. Having said that, many universities will get back to you within just two or three weeks of applying.
If you applied at the earlier deadline (15th October), this probably means you’ve applied to one or more courses that require an interview. If you’re applying to Oxford or Cambridge, look over the Oxbridge section for more specific information about when you will hear back, tests and interviews! If you’re applying for medicine, dentistry and veterinary medicine, different universities hold their interviews at vastly different times. Generally, the earliest are in December and the latest are in March.
There is also a big range in how much time different universities give you between letting you know you have an interview, and the interview itself. Once you’ve decided where you want to apply, you might like to contact the admissions teams of each university directly, so that you have a rough idea of your personal timeline of events and deadlines.
What’s the difference between conditional and unconditional offers?
An unconditional offer means the university is very keen to have you on their course. If you accept it, they will automatically confirm your place regardless of the exam results you receive. Many universities (such as the University of Birmingham) will often state that if you accept an unconditional offer from them, you have to put it as your firm choice – you can’t have it as your insurance. The terms ‘firm’ and ‘insurance’ are explained in the next section.
A conditional offer is one that is dependent on the grades you are yet to receive. In the offer, they will outline which grades you need to get in order to take up your place on their course. Most universities provide their usual grade offers for each course on their website, so you know before you apply.
This is something you should bear in mind when discussing your predicted grades with your teachers. Your predicted grades on your application need to match, be close to or exceed what the university usually asks for, or it’s unlikely that you’ll be offered a place. You should think optimistically but realistically about what you can achieve.
Responding to offers – firm and insurance choices
Once you have received all your decisions, you have until a fixed deadline to reply to any offers through UCAS. This deadline is usually 31st March, as long as you’ve heard back from all five choices by then. If you have two or more offers, you have to choose one to make your ‘firm’ choice, and one to make your ‘insurance’. Your firm choice is your preferred option, so if it’s unconditional, or it’s conditional and you meet the grade requirements on results day, you will have a place on that course. Your insurance choice is your back-up, so it makes sense to choose a course with lower offer conditions, in case you don’t meet your first choice offer. You should make sure this is still a university you would be happy to go to, though!
Think carefully before you respond – you can’t change your mind on Results Day (unless you do much better than expected – see our section on ‘Adjustment’). Remember that there’s no rush as long as you meet the deadline: the universities can’t take back their offers because you’re taking too long!
You’ll then have to decline any other offers you receive that you haven’t made your firm or insurance option.
If you have a complete change of heart, you can decline all of your offers and apply to more courses using UCAS’s ‘Extra’ service.
What if I miss my offer? What is Clearing?
If you don’t get the grades you needed for your first-choice offer, your first port of call should be ringing your chosen university’s admissions team directly. They may still give you a place, especially if you only just missed your grades, because other prospective students may have missed their grades too. There’s no harm in trying, and, if there’s a particular reason as to why you achieved lower grades than anticipated, this context could help explain to them why you didn’t make the offer.
If you miss the grades for your insurance choice too, and you don’t have any luck with ringing either university, you can turn to UCAS’s Clearing Service. This allows you to find a similar course, usually at a different university, with entry requirements that match the grades you have. In 2021, Clearing ran from 5th July to 19th October (2021), but again you should check the dates for your own year of application. The application process works differently to the initial submission process.
When you apply to clearing, you are given a ‘clearing number’ – a form of ID. There are two routes you can take; Clearing Plus matches can be found in your UCAS Hub, register your interest with a course that appeals and have your application sent directly to them to make a decision. You can also search for all the available course vacancies, which means contacting the university directly if you find a course you’d like to apply to. You provide them with your clearing number and Personal ID over the phone so that they can look up your application, and then ask them if they’d accept you.
If they give you an informal offer over the phone, you can then add the course as a clearing choice in the UCAS Hub. You can only add one course at a time, and if the university confirms it, you definitely have that place and can’t apply anywhere else. Many universities have spare places on their courses after results day, so this is a very common option for people whose grades don’t align with their original universities’ requirements.
Better results than expected? What is Adjustment?
If you get better results than expected (i.e. you have met and exceeded the conditions of your firm offer and think you could be accepted onto another course which typically gives out higher offers), you may be able to apply to that course through Adjustment. You register for Adjustment via the UCAS Hub.
Adjustment is only available for a small, fixed amount of time, so you have to act fast! In 2021, this was from 10th August – 18th August (as always, check the exact dates for your year of application!). Adjustment is different to Clearing, as there isn’t a list of available courses for you to search through. Instead, you have to find out the grade requirements of courses you’d be interested in on a university’s website, and then contact the admissions office of those universities directly to ask about any possible vacancies. You have to provide your Personal ID so they can check you’ve exceeded the conditions of your original firm choice, and that you meet their own conditions of entry.
Then, if you are absolutely sure you want a place at that university, you can verbally agree an offer with them. The university will then add themselves to your application, your UCAS Hub will be updated, and you’ll have a place on that course!
What’s different about Oxford and Cambridge?
If you’re thinking about applying to either Oxford or Cambridge (you can’t apply to both for undergraduate study – you can only choose one), you need to make up your mind well ahead of the typical UCAS application period. Firstly, as we mentioned earlier, the UCAS deadline for applying to Oxford and Cambridge (15th October) is three months earlier than the main UCAS deadline for all other universities (15th January). Secondly, there are often extra tests and pieces of work you have to complete as part of an Oxbridge application and the earlier you start preparing for these, the better!
Extra written work and tests
- Written work: This is a required element of applications to some, but not all, courses offered at Oxford. This is your chance to showcase your abilities in and enthusiasm for your chosen subject specifically. Note that this is NOT work that you have written specifically for your application, but original, marked schoolwork, unchanged from the time of marking. Generally, this will be required for Humanities subjects more than Sciences, but there are several exceptions so you’ll have to check your relevant course page. The deadline to submit written work is the 10th November, and is the same across all subjects (except Fine Art, which is earlier). Have a look at the full list of courses, and check whether you need to submit written work, here.
- Admissions tests: These are required for a handful of subjects. Again, take a look at the subject you’re applying to. They are generally designed to test your natural aptitude for your subject and are just another thing the tutors can use to help them decide between many excellent candidates. You must have registered for your admissions test by 15th October, and make sure you have your test candidate entry number from your school or test centre as proof of entry by 6pm that day.
- Admissions tests: At Cambridge, the system is slightly different: the majority of subjects require some kind of admissions test. In most cases, the test is to be taken before interviews, but in some cases it is done at the interview itself. If taken before interviews, again you have to register by 15th October, and the tests are usually taken around 30th October – though the exact date may change. If taken at interview, you don’t have to register. Find out which subjects have pre-interview tests, and which have at-interview tests here.
- Submitted work: This is required for several courses – mainly Arts and Social Sciences – but only by certain colleges. Again, this will be an original, marked piece of work from a relevant A Level/IB (or equivalent) course. The deadlines for submission will vary from college to college, and they will contact you about it directly. More information can be found here.
Please note that both the submitted work and your test scores for both universities only form one part of your overall application. They will not be viewed in isolation and there is usually no pass or fail mark, so please don’t let any of this put you off applying!
Also note that, if you’re applying for medicine at either university (or Biomedical Sciences at Oxford), the admissions test deadlines are slightly different, because the same test is also used by many other medical schools across the country. For both Cambridge and Oxford, you will have to take the BMAT (BioMedical Admissions Test) on 30th October (like all other Cambridge pre-interview tests), but you have to be registered before 15th October. You cannot register yourself. Either your school or a local test centre can register you any time between 1st September and 1st October (as always, please double check these dates hold true for your year of application).
The other main thing that differentiates the application process at Oxbridge from other UK universities is the interview. Every course at both institutions will require you to attend an interview before places are offered. The interviews for both universities generally take place in the first few weeks of December.
What happens in an Oxbridge interview?
The Oxbridge interviews are designed to imitate an Oxford tutorial or a Cambridge supervision, and test how you would respond to that kind of teaching style. This is because tutorials and supervisions are an important component of teaching at Oxbridge. It’s therefore important that the tutors know that you would be able to contribute well and get the most out of these should you be offered a place.
There’s no denying, however, that different tutors can vary a lot in their approach in the interview. Some will be very friendly and make a big effort to put you at ease from the start. Some may ask about any extracurriculars you mentioned you enjoy on your personal statement, while others may go straight to the more challenging stuff. The most important thing is to try and keep a level head and remember that you have already done so well to be there. Just listen to and focus on the questions you’re being asked and you’ll do wonderfully!
What do the interviewers look for?
As well as looking for a dedication to and aptitude for your chosen subject, the tutors will be looking for a desire to learn more about your subject. Just like with the personal statement, they don’t want you to pretend to know it all already – otherwise what would be the point of going to the university? So, if you don’t know an answer to a question, don’t be daunted. Interviewers want to see how you think more than what you know. Show them how you would go about trying to find the answer, or steer the conversation towards a related topic you’re able to extrapolate from. Try to avoid guessing.
Many tutors will present you with a piece of text, an image or an object that you will probably never have seen before and ask you questions based on that. Here, they are testing your ability to use what you already know and apply it to a new context. This uses skills like intellectual agility, open-mindedness, and also being able to make links between different topic areas.
Above all, the tutors want to see that you have a deep intellectual curiosity and interest in the subject you’re applying to, so the best thing you can do is just try to stay positive and enthusiastic throughout!
Having mock interviews is a good idea if you haven’t been put on the spot academically in the same way before, or if you think you will struggle a lot with nerves in the real thing. You could ask a teacher at school (ideally one you don’t know very well), or an older student who is studying your subject to give you a mock interview. However, even if you can’t get anyone to give you a mock interview, just talking about your subject and reading a lot around it in the weeks before your interview will be really helpful too!
If you’re an Oxford Scholastica alumnus, our team would love to answer any more specific questions that you have about any part of the UK university application process! Get in touch via the box below. We’ve also included a list of helpful links so do make sure to take a look at any of those which sound useful to you.
Wishing you all the very best of luck in your applications!
Ready to get a head start on your future?
Check out these useful resources to help you on your way to completing your university applications through UCAS.
- UCAS’ key dates timeline
- UCAS’ Oxbridge application tips
- Taking the International Baccalaureate? Read this article on applying to UK Universities while studying for IB
- Not from the UK? Have a look at UCAS’ application tips for international students
- Bloggers’ video on ‘How we got into Oxford and Cambridge: top tips’
- Which? University article on ‘How to write a personal statement that works for multiple different courses’
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