Applying to University Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Applying to University

29 Conversations

Girl with books and mortarboard

So if you fancy the idea of studying at university, how do you find out what chances you have of getting in? Do you have to be some straight-A student to have a chance, or can us normal people apply? And are there any countries left where the government actually pays for it?

In Britain the degree schemes range from asking for AAA to EE (at A-level or equivalent), and if you do a diploma sometimes you don't need anything. It all depends on the university; for Britain visit the UCAS website and browse through courses, they'll tell you what they're asking for.

How Do You Know If You're Suited?

Most universities have some sort of application/offers ratio, which is anything from 2:1 to 12:1, the higher being the most competitive so there's less chance of getting in. There's also the interview; if you're good at talking to people then having an interview will increase your chances, while if you're shy then one that accepts you by the application form alone might improve your chances. If you apply early enough most universities get back to you sooner, while if you leave it to the last minute, the university will be dealing with thousands of applications so you'll have to wait longer to find out.

In the UK, the government is trying to get to the point where at least 50% of the population goes to university (which is similar to college figures for America). This is making a big assumption that university is the best thing for 50% of the population.

I now run a company and vainly try to kid myself that it isn't all that long ago since I left to university (5 years for those that are curious). I've just employed two people who have just finished their first year at university... hated it... and wanted out. Both of them are fiercely clever, and both could sail through a degree. It just wasn't for them.

Think about these questions:

  • Do you know what you want to do when you leave university? - If you are in the somewhat unlikely position of having a 'career plan', find out from employers whether you need a degree to do it, or what advantages a degree will give you. Just call their HR department; they'll be happy to have ten minutes off fiddling with pension plans. Take their advice, a degree will open the door to many careers but you'll be surprised how are open without it.

  • Do you think of yourself as a 'doer' or a 'thinker'? - If you're a thinker, uni will be right up your street. Most of the people who think they have had a bum deal from university are 'doers'. They are very bright but would rather get on with things rather than pontificating about them and learning the associated theory.

  • Can you afford it? - The delights of university at the moment mean that the government no longer pays for your beer! Leaving university normally means leaving with a debt. In most cases this isn't a problem. If you're really good at your subject, see if you can get sponsored through your degree by a company. Lots of companies do it and 95% don't hold you to working for them afterwards.

  • Is a degree in Medieval Studies really worth it? - At the risk of offending all those with Medieval Studies degrees, a 2:2 in Medieval Studies from an unknown new university doesn't count for much in the big wide world. On the good side, you get three years of great fun, massive booze-ups and two lectures a week. On the bad side you end up with a pretty - but useless - piece of paper, a massive debt and no great chance of paying it off.

  • Have you made the decision? - Have you consciously made the decision that you want to go to university ... or has it just happened? If 'it's just happened', stop have a beer, and actually make the decision yourself.

When you've thought about all of these questions and have decided it's right for you, have a few more beers in preparation for next year.

Do It Because You Want To

Do it because you want to do it. Don't just apply and go to university because all your mates are doing it or that you're getting pressured from school or parents. It's a long time, takes more and more money these days and just by getting a degree doesn't guarantee you'll get a job you'll like. Everything is much easier if you're somewhere you want to be, doing a subject you want to do and enjoy.

I did a subject which I wasn't fantastically good at, but I loved every moment of the course. My brother did Business Studies and hated every moment of it. Three years is a long time to do study something you don't like.
I went to Warwick and didn't know anyone when arriving. Yikes! is a good description of how I was feeling at the time. My brother on the other hand went to Leeds, as did loads of his friends from his school and other schools nearby. He did not go into halls, but rented a house with his friends. He would agree that he missed out on a lot, he never really broke out of this close circle of friends and it was all rather incestuous.
We both had a great time, but I got to meet a wider variety of people and broadened my horizons a lot more.

Visit the Place

Seems obvious, but a lot of people don't. Most universities hold open days when you can go, see the uni, the halls, talk to lecturers and students about stuff, which gives a much better idea of a place than any prospectus. Also, in the case of highly publicised unis - Oxford, Cambridge - do not take all the press at face value. Bear in mind that half the time people don't know in depth about what they're talking about, and a lot just want to paint a specific picture, however inaccurate.

UCAS Forms

The only real advice is to start filling it in as soon as you have got it, and have decided which universities/courses you want to apply for.

All your personal details are pretty standard. The universities/courses bit looks quite scary. It might help if you make a rough draft of it all first, before filling in the proper form. Hopefully you'll avoid messing it up!

The personal statement is probably the hardest bit to fill in. Did you do one for your personal record of achievement? If you did, take a look at that for some inspiration. Above all, sell yourself - but try not to repeat things that you have written elsewhere. For instance, there's not much point writing a lot about your academic achievements. What do you do outside of school/college? Why should the university accept you instead of someone else?

Oh, and make sure you tick the right box for the 'do you have any criminal convictions' question! I know one person who didn't, and had to spend a very long time on the telephone to various people trying to sort it out!

Personal Statement

As mentioned above, the personal statement is the trickiest part of filling in the UCAS form. The following should help:

  • Tailor the personal statement around the course that you are applying for. Mention things that show why you are keen on your chosen course and why you would be good for it. Don't mention things that aren't at all linked with the course unless they are really important.

  • Try to avoid listing the things you have done. There's no point in saying what you have done unless you say why it is important. Try to avoid multiple sentences starting 'I have done...'

  • Keep the language simple. If you can use words in a way that is fluid and doesn't stand out then it would be okay, but it's usually better (and is more skilled) to use simple, coherent language. Some words ('hence', 'therefore') often sound pretentious and aren't usually necessary. Most people are taught to use them in essay writing but it's bad practice really. There are no hard and fast rules but one recommendation would be to keep the language as simple as possible. It's content that counts, not pretentious language.

  • Work out a structure. You haven't got much room but you still need to structure the statement so it has coherence and consistency.

  • Try to be original. If yours stands out from the others you stand a better chance at getting in. Make sure it won't stand out in a bad way though.

  • Get other people to read it, and not people who know you well (like your family or close friends), find someone who can be critical, your mum will just say it's fantastic!

  • Don't sell yourself short, be proud of what you have done and mention your strengths even if it seems like boasting to you. Modesty has no place on the UCAS form!

  • Don't lie. Admissions tutors will take pleasure in catching you out and the consequences could be dire.

  • Get it in as soon as possible, preferably before the university semester begins so that the professors have more time to spend reading the forms.

  • Originality is probably a good thing - it'll make your application stand out a little. But don't go over the top - you don't want to stand out for the wrong reasons!

  • Do a rough draft first. Then get other people to read it and comment on it. Keep going until you're happy with it...

  • Use black biro too. The interview staff/admission staff photocopy it, and black biro makes it clearer to see on the copy.

If you can, word process your personal statement. Unless you have super-neat handwriting, it'll make it much easier to read. And that's just at the size you wrote it - the copies that get sent to the universities are reduced in size by 50%, so neatness is an absolute must! You should also be able to use the new EAS - Electronic Application System if your school have installed the software. This makes the process faster and generally easier...

The upshot is that you want to demonstrate that you're interested in the subject you're applying for. If you mention things you know a reasonable amount about it gives you something which you can talk confidently and knowledgeably about in the interview.

Researcher Personal Statement

Here's one Researcher who is leading the rest of the Guide by example:

It looks a bit silly now that I look back on it (ohhh, I'm getting old) but all those years ago everyone at my school reckoned my personal statement was pretty good. So here it is, an example of a personal statement that worked pretty well for me, hope it helps and good luck with yours:
'My interest in mathematics started at the age of about 13 or 14 and it rapidly developed as I began to study the more interesting and abstract mathematics at A-level. In my first year I was unable to study double mathematics at school as well as art and physics because of timetable problems, but I still wanted to take double maths, so I did single mathematics at school and (with the assistance of my teachers) studied the extra double maths in my own time. Fortunately in my second year it was possible to timetable all four subjects and so I changed to double maths.
'In addition to the material taught I have developed a number of other mathematical interests, including the history and foundations of mathematics (for instance Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, Cantor's different infinities Aleph_0 and c, Turing Machines and the Halting Problem). I became interested in the theoretical side of ray tracing (using vector algebra and projective geometry to convert three dimensional structural information into a two dimensional image using a computer) after having used three dimensional computer graphics software for my art. Ray tracing is an extension of the Renaissance tradition of seeking verisimilitude in paintings, but I am also interested in other ways that painters have sought to represent three dimensional space, time and motion, especially Cubism. I learnt to program in BASIC at about the age of 14, and more recently I have learnt the C++ language and have used it for many things, including writing computer games, ray tracing and problem solving.
'During the last year I have become interested in artificial intelligence, the philosophy of mind and the recent debates about consciousness by authors such as Searle, Dennett and Chalmers. I have recently read Gödel, Escher, 'Bach' by Douglas Hofstadter which weaves together ideas from mathematics and artificial intelligence. Although it has whetted my appetite for further knowledge, the popular literature on mathematics leaves me unsatisfied and eager to study 20th Century mathematics in a detailed and rigourous manner.
'In addition to my academic interests, I enjoy good novels, good films, good jazz and good food. Among my favourites are Sartre ('Nausea' and the 'Roads to Freedom' series), David Lynch ('Eraserhead', 'Blue Velvet' and 'The Lost Highway'), Thelonius Monk and the Wagamama Japanese Noodle Bar round the corner from the British Museum.'

Applying for Medicine in the UK

Do not do this course just because you want to become/hope to meet a George Clooney type. If you do, then consider PR management, or something just as ephemeral. In this Researcher's medical school, the pass mark is 80%. Not the distinction mark, but the pass mark. If you get 79%, you fail. Period. In other courses, a mark of 80% is genius, but here, it is just a pass. There is no room for glamour in medicine, neither is there a place for arrogance.

If you are still thinking of applying for this course, then, here are a few tips.

  • Lots and lots of work experience - In a hospital; not just shadowing a doctor, but maybe spending some time shadowing other staff, such as nurses or lab staff. Learn to appreciate everything that all the team do; take notes! They prove useful in interview. It may be worthwhile to spend some time doing voluntary work in a residential home, or working with small children. It makes you appreciate just the sort of hard and messy work that the public will not appreciate you for.

  • Team sports and other posts - Medical schools love reading about your participation in team sports, orchestras, or previous posts that you have held (ie, house captain, form head). This is so that you appreciate that medicine is not an isolationist career, such as being a writer, but is very much a team career. The theory is that being in team sports or heading a team shows that you appreciate that. Also, from a purely selfish point, it means more members for their rugby team/orchestra/hockey/netball/rowing squads.

  • Art, reading and other hobbies - This is to show that you have methods of relaxing to cope with stress. The doctor is the very definition of stress; otherwise how can one cope with being on call for 36 hours? Even as a medical student, when you hit your clinical years, you go on what is known as 'on take', which is basically on call for the med student. And yes, your Researcher has been up for 36 hours; without food, incredibly tired, and still expected to obtain a good medical history from a demanding, drunk and rude patient).

  • Why do you want to be a doctor? - This is the first question that interviewers will ask. The answer should also form the first sentence/paragraph of your UCAS personal statement. Try and think why you want to be one - not just the old 'I want to help people' answer; 9 times out of 10 you will face the retort of, 'So why don't you become a nurse then?' This is probably the most difficult question, as of course, the answer is totally individual.

  • Some knowledge of current affairs and new medicine - Take clippings from newspapers about the latest developments in medicine, and try to understand them - what the treatment is for, who it will benefit, a little of the science behind it. For current affairs, at least keep abreast of the headlines; increased spending on what, cuts where, and so on. You will be asked about them in interview.

  • Consider the admissions requirements of the medical schools - The lowest offer, in your Researcher's time, was an ABB. Now, it is an AAB. You must take the full A level of Chemistry - get an A in this one if possible. They do not accept points equivalents - you must hit the grades. Neither will they accept that pub quiz of an A Level, General Studies. Your Researcher was forced to take this by her school, for reasons far departed from reason. In the words of the woman at the Imperial College School of Medicine stand; 'Why on earth do you want to take that? It's worthless!' It will not help you. It might make the admissions tutor laugh though, but it won't help you to get in.

    Do take a second science subject, like biology, or if you don't want to take that, take Physics. Although absurd, at least do an A/S in it, as there is a module called 'Health Physics', which has provided untold help to many med students. Doing a non-science subject can be done to, but check with the med school first before committing yourself.

  • Only fill in the recommended number of school places and not the full six - Deans/Rectors of the medical schools advise potential students to only put down a set number of medical schools. Your Researcher was only advised to put down five schools. The year after, students were only advised to put down four. The reason behind this is to prevent oversubscription of places. The best advice is to put down the recommended number of schools, and leave the rest of the places blank. Do not contemplate putting down six, as it is almost certain that you will get rejected from all of them. Also, don't fill the spaces in with other courses allied to medicine as you will be put on a lower priority list. If you are dedicated to getting into medicine, then you will take the calculated risk of leaving the remaining spaces blank. This demonstrates to the admissions tutor that you are willing to take the risk, and hence, you are dedicated to the pursuit of medicine.

  • Consider printing your personal statement onto the UCAS form - Doctors are meant to have illegible handwriting. That is no excuse for an illegible UCAS form. A printed UCAS form not only demonstrates that you can use a word processor, but also means that they are more likely to read it - just with an exam, a legible script is likely to get you more marks, a legible personal statement is more likely to give you an interview. The font should be 12pt, Times New Roman, 1.5 spaced.

  • Sending the UCAS form - If you want any chance of getting in to medicine, be the first one to send off your form; ie, on 1 September, or whatever the opening date is. Admissions tutors will then be the first to read yours, and hence, will consider you first.

Further Medical Tips

Even if you are unsure about whether or not you'll get the required grades, don't fill in the extra two spaces on your UCAS form. Instead, concentrate on getting offers from as many medical schools as possible (and, of course, on getting the grades). In summer, if you find you don't get in, then provided you were made offers, other departments will be queuing up to get their hands on you. If you can impress the selection panel of a medical school, they reason, then you must be good.

Again, if you don't get in, then don't hold out any hope of a place through Clearing. Clearing places go to people who got the grades, but who weren't made any offers. Instead, find yourself a course in the biomedical science area (ie, Biochem, Molecular Biology, Pharmacology, Physiology and the like). Often, these courses are part-taught by lecturers in medicine, so you may be able to impress them and re-apply when you have finished your first degree (as described above).

And if the unthinkable does happen, and you don't get in, but end up doing an alternative degree, then don't let it get you down too much. If you were really meant to do medicine, then you will someday. It may take a while, but while you're waiting, you're gaining so much experience which will be invaluable to you, learning how to actually study for a degree (which is completely different to studying for A-level). It will make you a stronger person, and perhaps even a better medical student.

Medical Competitiveness

We all know just how competitive this subject is, but here are some figures to illustrate just how fierce it is (at least, in London...)

  • In 1999, 7000 people applied for Medicine to one med school in London
  • 3000 of those were offered interviews
  • 1000 of those were offered places
  • There were only 320 places available on the course

This means that for every successful applicant, there are about 25 other people fighting for it. Again, this shouldn't discourage you. Your determination and faith in your own abilities should get you through!

'Non-Standard' Applications

Generally speaking, most people who apply to study at university in the UK do so through the UCAS system. But it's not the only way...

If your personal circumstances are 'non-standard', or you have special needs (educational or medical), universities are normally very happy to discuss your situation long before you must submit a formal application to study there. As a result of the discussions, the university may give you advice in terms of filling in the UCAS form (or in some cases the uni's own application form), or possibly by suggesting alternative ways of applying that they feel are more appropriate.

As an example:

I start an MSc very soon where my application was by email, CV, and personal interview (I'm a relatively 'mature' student and the university considered my work experience as important as my first degree).
So, in my case I was applying for a masters and I wanted to use my work experience as my qualification, but the rule applies to all prospective students: if you feel you don't fit the application form, or you need special facilities to be able to study, then go talk to your university well in advance and see what they advise. At worst, they will advise you to use the 'standard' application route, and you may discover a more appropriate way to apply in your personal circumstances.

Oxford and Cambridge

Oxford and Cambridge (Oxbridge collectively) are the oldest and best known of British Universities. While it is questionable whether they offer the best education, one thing is certain; they are the hardest to get into. If you are predicted to get top grades, the chances are your school will push you to apply for one of them, their budget is indirectly related to how many people they can get into them.

Your second and third choices of colleges need to be unpopular ones. Second and third choices make almost no difference (if your first choice don't want you, your application theoretically goes to all other colleges), but colleges are more likely to pick you from the pool if you've put them down second or third, and obviously places like Robinson are looking for more people from the pool than places like Trinity. Once you've decided your second and third places, decide the official reasons why you want to go there. If you decide to go ahead, here are a few tips.


If you do accept a place at either institution, your college will be the centre of your life for at least the next three years, (possibly longer, in some cases for the rest of your life). It's where you eat, sleep, study, and socialise. Colleges are the main thing that makes Oxbridge different from other universities. They do create an academic community where students and lecturers live and work together, but if you don't fit in, it can be difficult to escape. Therefore it's important to pick the right college when you apply.

This can be difficult, as despite being quite different, the descriptions in the prospectuses will all sound the same. If you know any students already there, or any graduates, talk to them about it. Ask your school for the names of any previous students who went there and look up their email addresses. They may just tell you that their college is the best, but you can always ask them about any concerns you have.

Consider whether you want to go to an old college (founded centuries ago) or new college (founded decades ago). The old colleges usually have more impressive buildings, but they can be more formal and have peculiar traditions. Some have formal dinners (in academic dress, with Latin speeches) several nights a week. Some people like this, others don't.

Private accommodation in both Oxford and Cambridge is very expensive; this is partly because the universities own most of city. If you're concerned about money, apply to a rich college which can offer you accommodation for all three years (but check that you want to spend three years there).


The interview is when the admissions staff decide who to give offers to and who to reject. It will be tough. The sort of questions asked vary a lot depending on the subject you're applying for. It's best to ask your teacher in that subject for advice. If you're applying to study science, chances are you will be asked some pretty technical questions, and asked to solve problems on a blackboard or sheet of paper. Prospective arts or social science student will probably be asked more general questions, often related to the news and current affairs.

If you are offered a place, do think about whether to accept it or not. Your school and possibly your parents will tell you it would be stupid to reject an offer. But don't let them push you into it, Oxford and Cambridge are great universities, but they may not be the right place for you.

The teaching quality is generally rated as about the same at other good UK universities (eg, Liverpool, Durham, Warwick). However the college system and one-to-one or two-to-one tutorials will give you much more contact with lecturers; and some of your lecturers will be world leaders in their fields.

An Oxbridge degree is a lot of work, do not underestimate it. The terms may be only eight weeks, but the teaching is intensive and you will have to put in many hours of private study to keep up. The universities both think that they're the best in the world, so they feel obliged to make the examinations especially difficult.

However, if you are organised, you will have some free time, and the cities are both great places to live. Less crowded and polluted than major cities, but with a good selection of entertainment: pubs, museums, art galleries, theatres, cinemas, concerts. And when you need to relax, go punting.

Cambridge 'Alternative Prospectus'

A lot of unis do alternative prospectuses, which you may be able to get through the post. They are certainly worth getting, as they are likely to be rather more 'warts and all' than the official ones. Anything it says about how great the Union bar is probably a lie, though.

My knowledge is quite out of date, but in my day (1990) the Cambridge University Student's Union did an 'alternative prospectus'. This was invaluable as it has descriptions of colleges that let you distinguish between them. According to the official prospectus, they're all friendly and informal and have an excellent academic standard so you have to chose based on size, year of foundation, colour or some such. (The most popular reason for choosing Christ's, my college, was that it came first in alphabetical order). The alternative prospectus lets you decide on criteria such as quality of bars, where like-minded people are going and other important criteria.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Edited by

h2g2 Editors


External Links

Not Panicking Ltd is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more