How to pick a university course: a guide for sixth-formers

Ucas, Clearing, Adjustment, conditional offers – applying to university can feel like learning a new language. But give yourself plenty of time, do your research, and you’ll find it’s actually as easy as ABC. These useful tips should help you make the right choice and get accepted on your preferred course.

When should you start? Soon, says Wendy March, director of sixth form and deputy head at Congleton high school in Cheshire. “Don’t leave it until the last minute. There’s always a correlation between those who suddenly decide to apply at the last minute with those who receive rejections.”

First, narrow down your choice of subject. Judah Chandra, who’s just finished the second year of his social policy degree at the University of Birmingham – this year’s University of the Year, according to the Times and the Sunday Times – used his A-levels as a starting point.

“I thought about what A-levels I’d done and what would be possible,” he says. “I did English language and literature, economics and media studies. Social policy was a very good fit.”

Many students can get caught up in the idea of going to a particular university rather than focusing on a particular course. Look at it the other way round, suggests Joanna Labudek, head of undergraduate admissions at the University of Birmingham.

“How do you want to study? Joint honours, single honours? Look for detailed course information – a BA in English at three different institutions can be very different. Think whether you want time out on a work placement, or to study abroad.”

Yvonne Williams, head of UK and EU undergraduate recruitment at the University of Birmingham, agrees. “Consider what you want to get out of the experience. Maybe you’re really interested in sports or music facilities, for example.” Plus there’s the location to think about – leafy suburb, rural campus, inner city, or simply close to home?

You can apply to up to five universities, and it’s wise to try and visit as many as you can on your shortlist. As Dr Craig Blunt, lecturer in French studies at the University of Birmingham, says: “Actually going along and experiencing a day there can really shift your priorities. It’s not like buying a car – data and glossy brochures can only tell you so much.”

If you’re in year 12, your teachers should already have been through the Ucas application form with you, so you can get your form in once you get back in September.

“That gives the school the opportunity not just to put a reference in, but also to check the forms,” says Mahesh Patel, a customer adviser at Ucas who has nine years’ experience. “Most schools prefer to get the application finished by December, as the deadline for applications is 15 January.”

You’ll need to write a personal statement for your form. The key here is to demonstrate your achievements. “If you have a part-time job, talk about those transferable skills you’ve developed, like communication skills,” says Marsh.

“Link those to what they want for your chosen course. Show that passion and enthusiasm – don’t just state it.” And, of course, make sure it’s perfectly spelled and punctuated, with no text-speak.

After the deadline, it’s a matter of waiting for offers. Don’t panic if they don’t all arrive at once, advises Patel. “An offer can come in within a week, or it can take two months. But if your application is on time, you’ll get equal consideration.” 

There are three kinds of offer: conditional offers, which depend on grades; unconditional offers, which are usually given to people who already have their results; and unconditional change offers, where a university will accept an applicant if he or she changes to another course. Some universities will also offer unconditional offers to outstanding students.

If you don’t get your expected grades, there’s always the Clearing system. “Clearing’s not a bad word,” says Patel. “It’s there for everyone. It gives applicants an opportunity to go to university. They can go straight to the Clearing vacancy list on the Ucas website and get calling universities straight away.”

And if you end up with better results than you expected, you could also be eligible for a place on a course you thought you might not be able to do, through the Adjustment system. Get in touch with your chosen university directly to find out if this is something they offer.

Above all, enjoy yourself. “Everyone tells you how important your university application is, and that puts the pressure on,” says Williams. “But it’s important to remember that something really exciting is at the end of the process.”

Top tips

  • Take your time
  • Do your research
  • Visit your shortlist of universities
  • Think about what’s important to you – course facilities, leisure facilities, location?
  • Think positive

This feature was first published in The Guardian during A-Level results week, August 2014.