British Studies Web Pages



What on earth is UCAS?: applying for university from school in Britain

Schools with sixth forms* and colleges of FE* will organise the university application procedure through their pastoral system* with the direct involvement of the students’ tutors*. In this article you can follow the annual sequence of the application cycle through the perspective and experience of sixth-form students and teachers, and see the central role of UCAS* (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) throughout. If you have left school or are from other countries there are differences of detail but not of approach - see (quotations in the text are all taken from this website).


  • Notes are given to help in the understanding of specific terms or contexts (marked*)
  • Some Intercultural discussion ideas are given below the article - recommended for students in the last year at liceum and in higher education
  • Links to key websites and to up-to-date articles are also given to allow exploration of current issues and changes in Finding out more


Information for international applications, for those interested, can be found on BC Poland’s homepage (as well as at under the drop down menu for Education


The beginning - September

In the September of the year before university and HE* courses are to start, often when the student is just 17 and after only one year of the sixth form*, the application process begins. The tutor* will discuss what is to happen and the range of options available with the students in his/ her tutor group* during tutor periods*. He/ she will also advise students individually considering their interests, abilities and ambitions, though many schools will also have a teacher specialising in careers’ advice*. Student options will in fact have already been significantly limited by the choice of their three A-level* subjects.


Students will look at general guides and individual university prospectuses* - mostly online - which will not only outline courses and show what else the university has to offer but will also give an idea of what A-level grades* would be required to get a place. Ideas will also be discussed with teachers, family and friends. Usually there is a parents’ meeting* when tutors meet parents to discuss realistic applications in the light of required grades and the students’ current performance. If students are interested in a gap year* they are usually advised to apply now but for a deferred entry.


In ScotlandHighers’* are taken instead of A-levels - throughout this article replace A-levels with Highers if considering the Scottish education system. Sixth-form students however have a free choice of university throughout the UK though Scottish students studying in Scotland do not have to pay fees.


The choices - October/ November

It is still the custom for most sixth-form students to leave their home town and go away to university - even if one is available locally. It has been in the past the policy of both universities and government, was seen as being a part of higher education and was supported by parents. The UCAS* forms have six spaces for applications and students are usually advised to fill in all of them - therefore six specific courses, possibly at six different institutions. There is no restriction on the variety of courses that can be applied for e.g. six different courses could be applied for at one university (it is not possible to change course once you arrive at university).


Subject teachers* have the job of writing reports* on all their A-level students, based on their AS* (Advanced Subsidiary) results, their attitude, their progress, their coursework* (if their syllabus requires it), the quality of their homework - which will very often simply be practising past exam questions - and so on. From the teacher’s point of view the most difficult task is predicting what grade the student will achieve in the final A-level exam the following June. As this is an externally set and marked exam the prediction can only be an educated guess based on experience, knowledge of the student, and results already achieved in exams. School principals* usually expect their teachers to be accurate - predictions can easily be checked with reality in August. Teachers normally do not accept discussion with parents over these predicted grades* and predicted grades determine whether there is realistic chance of achieving a place.


The UCAS form - November/ December (the form can be downloaded from where you will see the various sections)

Tutors will work with students to make sure the UCAS form is completed correctly, and that the student has written a ‘personal statement’* which will attract university admission tutors* to give them a conditional offer*. Parents expect that this will be done professionally by the tutor and are not usually directly involved. Finally the tutor writes a reference* based on the reports of the subject teachers (with the predicted grades) and with his/her overall judgement and recommendation. Although the process is now almost entirely electronic it is always and only the school, not the students or their parents, which sends the completed forms to UCAS before the deadline in January. UCAS then organise contacts with individual HE institutions.


Applicants cannot ‘send’ forms to UCAS, as this can only be done by designated staff (


There is obviously a lot of responsibility on teachers, both in their role as a subject teacher and as a tutor, however in Britain teachers are organised hierarchically so new teachers will always have the support of someone with more experience in predicting grades, and UCAS forms are not sent until a final check by a senior teacher.


If a student is interested in Oxford or Cambridge (you cannot apply to both), or studying medicine or dentistry, the entire process outlined here must be completed by mid-October instead of January. Students who are unlikely to be predicted very high grades in all subjects are not likely to be considered and are advised not to apply.


Mock exams - December/ January

These are full practice exams, with students being given temporary exam leave, and usually take place just before or after the Christmas holiday. The grades give students an idea of how much work needs to be done and, if performance is very poor, could determine whether the school will enter the student for a particular A-level exam (it has no obligation), or even be asked to leave altogether. A number of students will drop one of their A-levels and hope that two will be sufficient for what they need. With the introduction of AS levels the role of the mock exams is changing.


Offers and rejections - January-March

Sometimes universities will ask potential students for interviews but often not, all however will send letters via UCAS to students informing them of a conditional offer* or a rejection. It is possible to get six conditional offers though possibly this means that the student was under-ambitious and could have applied for more demanding courses. It is also possible to get six rejections which may well mean the student was over-ambitious. Such a student could try to pick up any available spare course in clearing* in September but this is unlikely to include a course or a place they really wanted. If their A-level grades are in fact good enough for a course they want they could take a gap year* and in this case they would not get a conditional but an unconditional offer in the following spring. Or they could go back to school to do one or more of their A-levels again. It is normal to have one or two such students in any A-level class.


Conditional offer

A conditional offer means that a university or college has made you an offer that depends on certain conditions, usually that you must get certain grades in your exams. You may be asked to achieve specific grades*, possibly in named subjects (for example, B in chemistry, C in physics). (


The tutor has less to do at this time apart from keeping track of the offers and rejections to his/ her tutees*. This is not always easy to manage as a student with a successful offer will often announce it loudly to celebrate, while another with a rejection on the same day may be hiding in a corner, very upset.


Final decisions - April

Conditional offers* are not entirely predictable - two students applying for the same course at the same university could get different conditional offers. The more demanding offer (e.g. two A-level grade* B’s and one C, compared to one B and two C’s) usually being given to a student the university is less confident in. This is perhaps the most difficult time of all for the student as only one firm acceptance can be made from all their offers. It may be that their favoured course and university is demanding a B and two C’s, while another will accept them with a C and two D’s. Does the student go for the easier offer - but probably a less good course and university - then in fact get the higher grades and regret from then on not being braver. Or go for the higher offer with the risk of not achieving the grades and possible ending up nowhere. This choice is not quite final (see insurance offer below) - but a student cannot go back to an offer already rejected. This is a gamble and can only be successfully made by a very realistic assessment by the student and the teacher of likely performance in the exams. Again a big responsibility for the teacher.


Firm acceptance (F)
You can only firmly accept one offer. If you firmly accept an unconditional offer (UF), you commit yourself to that course, and you will need to decline (D) all other offers. If you firmly accept a conditional offer (CF), you are guaranteed a place on that course, as long as you meet the conditions of your offer. Do make sure you send your reply to arrive at UCAS at the very latest by the date printed in red ink at the end of your Statement of Decisions* letter. If we do not receive your reply by that date, your offers will be declined.


Insurance acceptance (I)
If you choose a conditional offer as your firm acceptance (CF), you must decide whether to accept a second offer as insurance … it should normally require lower results than your firm acceptance (CF). You can only choose one offer as insurance. If you don't meet the conditions of your firm choice, but do meet the conditions of your insurance choice, then you're guaranteed a place on that course. You are committed to that course and you won't be able to go elsewhere. (


‘Extra’ is a new service offered to applicants who have received six rejections and allows one further choice after mid-March.


Our advice to you is to do some careful research, and to seek guidance on your Extra choice of university or college and course. If you applied to high demand courses and institutions in your original application and were unsuccessful, you could consider related or alternative subjects. Your teachers or careers advisers* or the universities and colleges themselves can provide useful guidance. Entry profiles, which appear with many courses listed on the UCAS website's Course Search facility, are another important source of information. As with Clearing, be flexible. That is the key to success. (


A-level exams - May-June

The introduction of AS* level has meant that students no longer have to rely only on the final exams for their A-level grades*, but it is still the vital stage and happens after the entire application cycle outlined above. Almost all the exams are long (often 3 hrs) and written, with two or three in each subject. This is not the place to fully discuss the nature of these exams or their syllabuses - this may form the content of a future article.


A-level results - end of August

Just as with Cambridge exams students must wait until results day* in August, meaning they have to spend their summer holidays not knowing whether they will be going to university or not. It is now almost one year since the cycle began. If the students’ results were good enough UCAS will inform them of their university place, if not then the offer will be withdrawn. The student can then take a chance on clearing* (where any left over places are distributed), decide to return to school and/ or think very carefully about the future ….


When the admissions tutor* receives your exam results, your grades are checked to see if they match the conditions of the offer made to you. If you have got the right grades and you meet all the other conditions of the offer, your place will be confirmed. If you want to be considered for courses starting in 2005, you will have to apply again in the next application cycle. (


A nervous time for teachers too, if results are not as expected there will be an ‘invitation’ to discuss why with the principal*. Schools in Britain are largely judged according to their results in externally set and marked exams, and so are individual teachers.


University begins - October

Hopefully the student is now studying both what they want and where they wanted it - but even before they arrive the following year’s students will have already started their application procedure…



There is some variation of course to the sequence outlined above in practice, and changes occur incrementally each year, but this is the basic pattern for a sixth-form student and teacher. It is a complicated and serious process. As you can see - differences from the approach in Poland, many other European countries and the US are considerable - that it works successfully for a majority of sixth-form students is perhaps remarkable.


Finding out more

There is a lot of public discussion in Britain about this system and changes are often spoken of (as in all areas of education) - to keep up-to-date go to Guardian Unlimited and use its search engine. At present (2003) it is particularly intense and a special report on University access grouping together many recent articles will give a flavour of the issues. Other articles specifically connected to UCAS procedures include:


Other ways to find out more:

  • talking with - current or recent UK sixth-form students and teachers about their individual experience. This could be very revealing and well worth the effort.
  • if in the UK - visiting a school sixth-form if it is possible
  • looking at the websites of UK schools


Useful websites

UCAS for information on fees, non-UK qualifications, EU students and a lot of details on ‘what happens if …’ type questions. An accessible easy-to-comprehend site.

The Parent Centre gives simple information about the whole of the UK education system not only specific parent-centred advice. Very useful for understanding education in the UK and has a very extensive Glossary of terms and acronyms. It has been set up by the Department for Education and Science (DfES).

The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance is one of the bodies organising exams. Its site will give you access to many A-level syllabuses (and GCSEs*) and give you an idea of the work sixth-form students and teachers will be doing in the classroom

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is the government body which sets the rules for exams and is introducing changes to A-levels. Here you will find ongoing evaluation of these changes as well as the reasons for them. Also the site to find out about the UK national curriculum* - the framework for education to the age of 16.


British Studies Materials for Polish Teachers of English British Council 2000 is available in British Council Resource Points. Under Education by Anna Gonerko-Frej you will find Applying to a University where you can find several pages of tasks and background information


Intercultural ideas for discussion (for final year liceum and above)

To an outsider with experience both in English sixth forms and Polish liceums the following seem to be some of the significantly different emphases in university applications.


In the UK:

  • there are no entry exams
  • schools must take the responsibility for applications
  • parents are less involved
  • choice is restricted in advance by A-level selection
  • UCAS handle all administration and act as an ‘agent’ between student and university
  • it takes a very long time
  • decisions have to be taken before exams

Any of these, or others chosen by the students or teacher, could be the basis for discussion


Other activities

  • The text could be divided into sections, each given to an individual student or pairs, who would then in turn be asked to summarise the stages and perhaps comment on them from a Polish perspective. Everyone in the class would then have a role in ensuring the others knew of a stage in the process, and everyone would have a purpose in listening.
  • Write an equivalent article on the current Polish approach to university application to be read and understood by a sixth-form student in the UK.
  • Explore some of the articles on university access in Guardian Unlimited and consider which issues are similar in Poland, which would not be issues, and what articles might be published in the Polish press. What might be the reasons behind the differences?
  • The terms given in the Notes could be divided among the group of students, each individual or pair working out how to express them most effectively in Polish for the rest of the class.

Produced in Poland by British Council © 2003. The United Kingdom's international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations. We are registered in England as a charity.