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Unconditional offers: should you always accept?

After months of working on your Ucas application, an unconditional offer will be a welcome boost to the old self esteem. But are they all they appear to be on the surface? We've put them under the microscope...

Popular questions:  

What is an unconditional offer?

This is when a university offers you a spot on a course regardless of the final grades you achieve. Essentially, you have a place there! However, as we'll see, there can be a few things to consider.


Watch now: Should you accept an unconditional offer from your uni?
Note, figure in video refers to total number of unconditional and conditional unconditional offers read more about these, below.


I have an unconditional offer. What should I do?

  • Don't rush your decision: wait until you've received all your offers. Usually, you'll need to make a decision by May (or later, depending on when you received all your offers). 
  • Review all your options: take some time to revisit all your course and university options, and consider them equally. Perhaps take a trip to see them again, in person. Read our open day advice for tips.
  • Weigh up that guaranteed offer: if you really had your heart set on a different university, don't move on from that 'first love' yet, just because they’re proving a little harder to get.
  • Get a fresh perspective: talk to teachers, careers advisers and even admissions officers at the university which has made the offer do you have any questions about their offer?

Learn more about your offers: search for a course now

Do many applicants receive unconditional offers?

The number of English, Welsh and Northern Irish university applicants receiving an unconditional offer has jumped in recent years, according to Ucas.

Roughly 97,045 applicants received at least one unconditional offer in 2019 – nearly four in ten of all 18 year old applicants.

This number has jumped from the same time last year, when 87,540 school leavers had received such an offer.

To give you an idea of how far unconditional offers have come, this number was just 2,570 in 2013.
In January 2019, Ucas highlighted the following universities who'd issued high numbers of unconditional offers: Nottingham Trent, Lincoln, Sheffield Hallam, Birmingham, York St John's, Birmingham City, Brighton, Bournemouth, Northampton, Leeds Beckett and Nottingham.

What is a 'conditional unconditional offer'? 

While it may be called an 'unconditional offer', that’s not always the case.

The term 'conditional unconditional offer' has surfaced where a university stipulates that as part of their unconditional offer, you have to make them your first (or firm) choice (after which they'll update the offer to unconditional).

In 2019, one in four 18 year old applicants received at least one conditional unconditional offer – an increase on 2018, when this accounted for a fifth of all such applicants.

In 2018, Ucas named 23 universities where unconditional conditional made up at least 10% of all offers they made, including Russell Group universities Birmingham and Nottingham.

This stipulation is often a way for universities to gauge that you are passionate about studying with them:
We want to admit students who really want to come to Sussex. Choosing a course and a university is an important decision and, whilst we hope students selected for the Sussex Unconditional Offer Scheme will want to join us, we feel it is important that applicants demonstrate that commitment by selecting Sussex as their firm choice via Ucas. Sussex Unconditional Offer Scheme

So while these offers don't have grade conditions you need to achieve, they do come with strings attached.

We asked students* about the incentives or conditions they were offered by universities (to persuade them to accept either a conditional offer based on grades or an unconditional offer provided they chose the uni as their firm choice):
  • Priority accommodation choice - 14% of students surveyed
  • Scholarship - 8%
  • Free or discounted gym membership - 7%
  • Cash payments - 4%
  • Laptop or other specialist equipment - 3%
  • Fee waivers - 2%
  • Something else - 17%

Some mentioned that the university offered to lower their entry grades if they accepted their offer. Over half (53%) said they didn’t know if their offer came with any incentives, implying that their offers didn’t have any.

Remember that when you accept an unconditional offer as your firm choice, you are committing to go to that university. So you can't select an insurance choice or enter Clearing; you must request to be 'released' from your offer first, which can be tricky.

If a university makes an unconditional offer, does that mean they really want me?

To some extent, yes. Your Ucas application – including your personal statement  obviously impressed them.

But universities will also want to avoid empty spaces on their courses, and making you an unconditional offer can be seen as one such tactic to woo you (especially if you're a top-performing candidate with several universities lining up to offer you a place). 

In recent years, the restrictions on how universities recruit students have been lifted, meaning universities are competing to entice students. Unconditional offers could be viewed as one such tactic:

One university has made unconditional offers to all our students who have applied there with the right predicted qualifications.

They have received a mixture of responses from our students with some accepting them firmly, more accepting them as their insurance choice and some thinking that the university must be desperate to make unconditional offers!

Most other unconditional offers have been seen by students as being a form of 'bribe' in exchange for accepting the offer firmly. Stella Barnes | Higher Education & Careers Adviser

Unconditional offer = less end-of-year pressure?

Is the idea of accepting a university place that won't be affected by your final grades enough of a reason to accept an unconditional offer?

While accepting a university place that won't be affected by your final grades is certainly appealing  especially if it arrives while you're buried in revision, exams and assignments how will this change how much effort you put in to your studies? Be honest...
We are concerned that unconditional offers could have detrimental effects on attainment – we know of a similar college to ours where 75% of students who had accepted unconditional offers did not achieve the grades the college had predicted. However, we don’t see unconditional offers going away. Stella Barnes | Higher Education And Careers Adviser

In 2018, 67% of those who held an unconditional offer as their first choice missed their predicted grades by two or more grades (compared to 57% of conditional first choice holders).

If you do accept an unconditional offer from your top pick university, you're in a great position. But don't put your feet up for the rest of the year.
Don't let an unconditional offer tempt you to to take your foot off the gas in your studies or exam revision. The grades you achieve at 18 will live with you, and will often be a key factor when you apply for jobs or postgraduate courses in three or four years' time. Alan Bullock | Careers Adviser

The work you're doing now is preparation for what you can expect later. Stay sharp and on-the-ball, and you're more likely to make a smooth transition into university

Plus, these grades will stick with you for the rest of your life (ie they'll go on your CV), while phoning it in now will be a waste of all the effort you've put in up to this point.

Finally, some bursaries and scholarships are awarded to students who achieve top marks; so you're potentially diminishing your chances of receiving crucial extra funding by letting your final grades slip.

In October 2018, St Mary's University, Twickenham announced it will no longer make unconditional offers:
It was clear to us that a number of students who enrolled with us after an unconditional offer was made didn’t meet the grades they expected and this didn’t merit the investment we made into that particular part of our recruitment programme. John Brewer | Pro Vice-chancellor, St Mary's University

A few months later, the University of Nottingham did the same (January 2019). At the time, the Office for Students (OfS) warned that the ‘indiscriminate use’ of unconditional offers could even be a potential breach of consumer protection law. They have encouraged students to challenge these ‘pressure selling practices’ and will continue to monitor the issue.

Struggling with revision? Pick up study tips and secrets.


Can you make an unconditional offer your insurance choice?

Yes, unless otherwise mentioned.

Going back to 2017, just under a fifth of all unconditional offers that year were made an insurance choice. And doing so puts you in an excellent position:
When an applicant has their offers in, and they have an unconditional offer with no extra conditions, this creates a very interesting situation with using the unconditional offer for the insurance choice. It's a great de-stresser. The applicant can have their firm choice and then have the insurance choice as the ultimate stress-free back-stop. Andy Gardner | Careers Adviser - Central London Careers Hub

Remember that when choosing your first and insurance choices, you should be prepared to attend either of the universities you select.

* Data source: The Which? University Survey, conducted by YouthSight on behalf of Which? University, surveying 3,874 students between 20 March 2019 and 12 April 2019. 

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