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Behind the scenes: how your uni application is processed

After all that time spent researching courses and redrafting your personal statement, you've sent your university application off - and it's all gone very quiet. Should you be worried?

We asked Ucas and admissions teams from different universities what happens between them receiving your application and that eagerly anticipated Ucas Hub update, as well as what makes your application stand out.

How is my uni application processed?

You may be wondering how long it will take for Ucas to process your application. As soon as you hit submit on your application, Ucas will fire this off to the universities you've indicated on your application. Now it's down to those universities whether to make you an offer or not.

The journey your application makes once it's received by an institution varies slightly depending on both the uni and the course, but typically it'll be seen by more than one pair of eyes often by both general admissions staff and academic tutors.

"Typically, there are two ways in which applications are processed  either a centralised process or a collegiate/decentralsied process," explains Kevin Betts, head of undergraduate student recruitment at the University of Sussex. 

"A centralised process involves all applications being submitted to one admissions team that will generally be within the university’s professional services team. They’re professional non-academic staff whose job is to specifically review all applications."

"If somebody meets what we call an academic template (they meet all of our criteria and are deemed as suitable for offer), those staff can make an offer without an admissions tutor seeing it. If, however, the applicant is ‘non-standard’ or is a borderline case, they will refer that application to the admissions tutor, who will make the final decision." Kevin adds. 
"The devolved or collegiate system means that applications are delivered to teams in each school or college of study. Effectively, a similar method to the centralised system is undertaken but perhaps with a little more academic input."

Applications are screened by our central admissions team then forwarded to academic admissions tutors who are able to view the full application electronically and make a decision. This decision is then checked by the central admissions team. Karen Hinton | Acting Head Of Student Recruitment - University Of Suffolk

Our admissions tutors work closely with a team of subject-focused admissions administrators to process the large volume of applications received to ensure that each is given the attention it deserves. In total, there are approximately 40 staff across the university who have responsibility for decision-making in their areas of expertise. Phil Dalby | Deputy Director Of Admissions - University Of Leicester

Regardless of which system is used, there is always a conversation between multiple people and teams at the university to ensure every single application is given fair and effective consideration.
  Kevin Betts (Head of Undergraduate Student Recruitment - University of Sussex),

Watch now: This video guides you through what happens after your application is submitted.

What are university tutors looking for?

First up, tutors will check that you meet their entry criteria:
We look initially for applicants who meet the entry requirements for the course. This means looking at each individual application and seeing if they have the right amount of Ucas Tariff points for the programme and also the right subject knowledge. Louise Stow | Student Recruitment Manager - Bishop Grosseteste University

They're looking for evidence that you're really enthusiastic about the course:
Successful applicants are those who have researched carefully what subjects and grades they need to do their chosen course at their chosen universities, and have also clearly articulated in their personal statement why they want to study what they’ve applied for. Liz Carlile | Head Of Admissions, University Of Sheffield

They've also got to weigh up your application against the competition:
We may determine who gets an offer based on the strength of the field. For highly selective courses, we may request additional information, for example a sample of work such as an essay you've written.  Admissions Staff | University Of East Anglia

And they want to make sure that you'll be a good fit for the university:
It is, of course, important that each personal statement is exactly that: personal. What universities are trying to do is paint a picture of the applicant – we want to assess their suitability for studying the course, but also understand what makes them tick. 

Universities are just like people – they have personalities and they have foibles, so they want to make sure people fit nicely into that institution. Kevin Betts (Head of Undergraduate Student Recruitment - University of Sussex),

How long does it take for unis to make offers?

There's no hard and fast rule when it comes to hearing back from a university  check out our article on how different universities or departments approach this.

Applications for certain courses can take longer than others. For competitive courses like medicine and dentistry, or those requiring an interview or audition, it's likely it'll take universities longer to respond.

"A majority of universities will start making offers on a daily basis once applications open. They will process them anywhere between a few days to a few weeks after submission, depending on how busy they are," comments Kevin Betts from the University of Sussex. 

"Other universities will do what is called ‘gathering the field’ where they will not make any offers at all until the Ucas deadline. Of course, all applicants are given equal consideration up to and including the Ucas final submission date. 

"If a student wants to know how their application will be treated and processed, they should contact the university directly," Kevin says. 

Here's what a few other universities told us: 

  • University of Leicester: 'Our aim is to process undergraduate applications within 20 days.'
  • Anglia Ruskin University: 'Within five days for non-interview courses.'
  • University of East Anglia (UEA): 'If we have a course that has a very specific number of spaces, we look at all the applications (as a 'gathered field') before determining with the admissions director who receives an offer.'
  • Leeds Trinity University: 'Decisions take longer for programmes where an interview is mandatory  primary education, journalism and some sports courses, for instance.
And as the University of Sheffield summed up, 'the main thing is to get the decision right: we always prioritise making good decisions over making speedy ones.'

However, all the universities we spoke to said that there are certain times in the year when they may take longer to respond, due to the volume of applications.

You could receive an offer for a different course

Sometimes applicants don't meet the criteria for the course they've applied for, but might be suitable for another course.
We consider that making a change-of-course offer is better for the applicant than simply not accepting them at all, as at least it gives them another option, possibly even something they might not have thought about before. Liz Carlile | Head Of Admissions, University Of Sheffield

Waiting for offers: tips from tutors and Ucas

Once you've hit send and you're waiting to hear back, "Ucas will process your application and then share it with your chosen unis," explains Courteney Sheppard, senior customer experience manager at Ucas. 

There are still things you can do while you wait though, Courteney suggests – "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."

It's also a good use of time to "do further research about accommodation, student life and maybe even managing money whilst you wait for your offers to come through," Courteney adds.

"Prepare and practice for interviews in case you get invited for one too!" 

And a few final words from universities...

  • 'October to January is the peak application processing period for most admissions teams, so try not to panic if you're waiting for more than four weeks.'
  • 'Make sure you let universities know if you change your email address, phone number or move.' 
  • 'Respond to requests for additional information immediately.'

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