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How to write your university application

Deadlines, fees, references and personal statements – here’s everything you need to know about submitting your university application for 2021 entry, with expert tips from universities.

Once you’ve chosen where you want to go to university and what you’d like to study, you can get started on making those dreams a reality by working on your Ucas application.   

Make sure you’re fully prepared with our guide to how the application process will work – with expert tips and advice from Ucas and university admissions experts. 

What’s the deadline for submitting your university application?

For most undergraduate courses starting in 2021, you’ll need to get your application in by 6pm GMT on 15 January 2021.

Everyone who applies by this date will be considered equally, whether they send their application months early or just squeeze in before the deadline hits.

Anyone applying to the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and most courses in medicine, veterinary medicine/science and dentistry will have an earlier deadline: for 2021 entry, this application deadline was 15 October 2020.

Can you still apply to university if you miss the 15 January deadline? 

If you miss the 15 January deadline you can still apply – the only difference will be that universities and colleges don’t have to consider your application if, for example, they’ve already got plenty of great applicants for their course.  

Tom Kidd, head of UK recruitment and admissions at the University of Gloucestershire, says if you miss the 15 January deadline, "don’t panic! Lots of universities will still have places, check their websites or do a Ucas course search to see where there is still availability. Increasingly applicants apply outside of the deadline and still get onto the course and university of their choice."

If this happens, Edward Beales, admissions manager at Kingston University, advises that applicants should "submit a full application with clear information on your predicted or achieved grades and a well thought-out personal statement at the earliest opportunity".  ​​​​

And Staffordshire University education liaison officer Liz Boden suggests that if you miss the January deadline, "it’s always worth speaking to your choice of universities before submitting to check they still have spaces available on your course". 

The final deadline for applying to start university in 2021 is 19 October 2021. 

Here’s the full list of Ucas deadlines and key application dates.

Is there a fee for submitting a university application?

You’ll have to pay an application fee of £20 if you’re only applying to one course and £26 for multiple courses or for late applications sent after 30 June 2021.

Your school or college might handle the payment on your behalf, in which case they’ll let you know if and when you need to pay them first. They might also ask you to pay Ucas directly yourself instead, which you’d need to do before your reference is added.

If it’s going to be tricky for you to pay the fee, speak to your school or college as they may be able to help out, either by paying it for you or pointing you in the direction of relevant schemes that could help cover the cost.

What will the university application involve?

Once you’ve decided where you want to apply and which course you’d like to take, you can start your application by signing into the Ucas website and registering here.

You won’t need to fill in the application all at once – you can make a start, save what you’ve written so far and log out then sign back in whenever you like.

If you want, you can also give someone else – such as a parent or guardian – nominated access if you’d like them to be able to speak to the universities on your behalf.

You’ll need to fill in your personal details, including your education history and all your qualifications, whether you have your exam results already or not.

You’ll be able to pick up to five courses to apply to – you won’t have to choose an order of preference yet and the universities won’t be able to see where else you’ve applied until after you’ve replied to your offers.

Next comes your personal statement. This is your opportunity to really show what makes you a great applicant. It could end up being a deciding factor for universities who are struggling to choose between candidates, so it’s a really important part of your application.

Your personal statement should cover things like why you want to take that particular course, anything you’ve done outside of school or college that’s relevant to your application and any skills or qualities you have that you think would make you a good fit for the subject.

You can find lots more tips for writing your personal statement here. These teacher secrets for writing a great personal statement should also come in handy, as well as these personal statement FAQs.

Once you’ve finished writing your application and personal statement, it’s worth reading it through a couple of times to check for any mistakes – and getting someone else, like a parent or teacher, to take a look as well.

You’ll also need to include a reference, preferably from a teacher at your school or college. Don’t ask anyone in your family or a friend for a reference, as this could get your application cancelled.

If your referee is someone at your school or college, they’ll enter their reference into your application and then send the whole thing off to Ucas.

You won’t be able to see the reference, so you don’t need to worry about checking through that part of your application.

Learn more about how to get the Ucas reference you want from this article.  

Tips from university admissions experts for filling out your Ucas application

University admissions experts have shared their insider tips for writing your application. 

Staffordshire University education liaison officer Liz Boden advises that applicants "start early! Some sections of the Ucas form may take longer to complete than you think."

It's also worth "making sure you can get hold of exam certificates as this will make filling out the education section so much easier," Liz adds. 

Edward Beales, admissions manager at Kingston University, suggests that you should, "make sure you look at the course descriptions and identify the qualities, skills and experience it requires, then tell the reader why you are applying for this course, making sure to include your ambitions as well as what interests you about the course."

In addition, it's helpful to "think about what makes you a suitable candidate," Edward says.

"You can include relevant experience, skills and achievements and bring in examples you have gained through education, work or extracurricular activities, talk about any clubs or societies you belong to and include any relevant employment experience or volunteering you have done – universities like to know about your interests in and out of the classroom," Edward comments. 

Tom Kidd, head of UK recruitment and admissions at the University of Gloucestershire says you should "get a friend, teacher or parent to proofread for you."

"When you have spent a lot of time on a personal statement you can easily not see spelling or grammar errors. They will also be able to offer a fresh view  on how your personal statement will come across to someone reading it," Tom says. 

"Make sure you have given yourself some time and space to complete your application. It can take a while, but you also want to concentrate and have the space to complete it accurately and ensure it reflects you as a person before you submit," Tom finishes. 

When will you hear back from universities with their decisions?

This will vary depending on the university, so don’t panic if it feels like all your friends are hearing back before you!

If you submit your application by 15 January for 2021 entry, though, you will hear back by 6 May 2021 at the very latest.

Courteney Sheppard, senior customer experience manager at Ucas, says you should "make sure all of your personal details are up to date and check your emails regularly as you’ll have correspondence from either Ucas or the unis when you need to take any action or see updates."

You can find a bit more detail about when you’ll hear back from the universities you’ve applied to here, and get a behind-the-scenes look at how your university application is processed in this article.

Can you apply directly to a university without involving Ucas? 

You can make a direct application to some universities through Clearing without applying through Ucas, but not all universities allow this. 

Clearing opens on 10 August 2021 when the Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers results are released, then are updated with more places on 24 August 2021 for A-level results day. 

This kind of application is called a ‘record of prior acceptance’, and you’ll need to already have your results to be able to use this route. 

You should get in touch with the university’s admissions department to ask if they would accept your direct application, and to find out how the process would work. It’s worth doing this as early as you can. 

They’ll likely ask you to send them your personal details, including qualifications and education history, and you may have to write a personal statement too. 

If you are able to apply directly and your application is successful, the university will contact Ucas on your behalf to confirm your place. 

Before you decide to go down this route, bear in mind that a potential disadvantage of making a direct application is that you won’t have any insurance choices to fall back on.

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