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UCAS  –  the Universities & Colleges Admissions Service – is the best way to enter higher education. But only because it’s the only way you can do so in the UK.


There are no easy routes through UCAS: all are time-consuming and full of obstacles. Anyone who has tried driving to Lampeter University without satnav will know the feeling. The most popular involves applying while still at school or college with predicted, as opposed to obtained, grades.



It costs. A nominal fee of £12-£23, but a fee nonetheless.


You have to do some maths. UCAS have their own points system which assigns a different number of points to different qualifications. Courses will have a minimum points requirement, and the first test is working out if you meet it.


You can only apply to five universities and these can’t include both Oxford and Cambridge. Braying about the ‘problems’ of deciding between the two, for those fortunate enough, is not a good idea, unless you don’t mind being a guinea-pig for dentistry students.

Choosing just five may seem risky but actually improves your odds (in 2012 were there were 653,600 applications for 464,900 acceptances). The more applications universities receive, the more likely yours is to land in the admission tutor’s ‘overtime’ or ‘after-lunch’ pile, aka the ‘unsuccessful pile’ or ‘the bin’. Helpfully, UCAS defines the term ‘unsuccessful’ on their website: ‘You have not been accepted by the university or college concerned.’ Though if you need help deciphering this response, they probably made the right decision.


You have to write a personal statement. There’s a Bluffer’s Guide for that as well. (WILL ADD IN LINK ONCE WE RUN THIS PIECE.)


You need a glowing reference, obtained by whatever means possible. Although references are the last thing to be virtually-paperclipped to your online application, they’re the first thing you should organise, because annoyingly you aren’t allowed to write, or read, your own. To avoid disappointment, target your referee a few weeks before the deadline with a campaign of flattery, not intimidation.


As with tax returns, censuses and flying Ryanair, UCAS imposes strict and inflexible deadlines. The first one to meet is mid-October. This is for all Oxford and Cambridge (Oxbridge) applicants, and aspiring medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine students. Mid-January is the deadline for everyone else. Except art and design applicants that is, who have until the end of March, which is fashionably late. However tempting, try not to express the opinion that the later the deadline the less strenuous the course.


Because no maths PhD has yet come up with a formula for predicting the percentage of applicants who will fail to meet their offers, a lot of panicked rearranging takes place for these students once exam results have been released. Or, as  UCAS calls it, ‘clearing’ and ‘adjustment’.

‘Clearing’ is like just making the last train home: you’re in, but the best places have gone and you might end up by the toilet. You’re in a pool of applicants trying to find a university (any university) and a course (any course) that will have you.

‘Adjustment’, another example of dissembling jargon, is clearing in reverse. You only need know about this if you produce a surprise string of A*s instead of the mediocre Ds you were predicted.

DO SAY ‘I applied weeks ago.’

DON’T SAY ‘Oh, you didn’t make your offer? There’s always clearing, I suppose!’

Happy Bluffing!

Rob Ainsley & Emma Smith