A Timeline of University Admissions

Image shows a university building seen from a grassy lawn.As the start of a new academic year draws near, the time has almost arrived for a new wave of university applications to wing their way to the desks of admissions tutors around the country.

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The moment at which you click “send” on your UCAS form is the culmination of months if not years of deliberation, decisions and hard work – at least for the students conscientious enough to start planning early. In this article, we look at what parts of your university application to do when, from deciding what to study right up to submitting your application and preparing for interviews. For those of you thinking about applying to Oxford or Cambridge, there’s a section at the end of this article devoted to these universities, which do things a little differently to the rest.

When should you decide what you want to study?

Image shows someone tossing a coin.
Choose your options wisely.

The first step on the road to applying to university is, of course, to decide what you want to spend three years or more studying. It’s a decision you’ll need to allow plenty of time to make, and it’s ideally one that you should be making before you choose your A-levels. This is because the subjects you take at A-level may have a major bearing on the subjects you’re able to study at university. So, when you’re doing your GCSEs and the time comes for you to think about what subjects you’re going to take at A-level, that’s the time to start thinking seriously about university as well. Read our guide on subjects you’re ruling out with your GCSE and A-level choices for help with this.
In addition to choosing the right A-levels, it’s also helpful to know early on what you want to study at university because you need to allow plenty of time to start building up experience, activities and knowledge to talk about on your personal statement. If you know roughly what you want to study at university by the time you’re doing your GCSEs, you’ll have at least a year and a half to read around the subject, take up hobbies that relate to your chosen subject, and so on.

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How soon is too soon?

Image shows a vet examining a puppy.
You might have dreamed of being a vet when you were younger, but that might have been before you realised it requires top marks in Chemistry.

Some people are born knowing what they want to do for a career, which makes the decision of what to study at university a fairly straightforward one for them (although if that sounds like you, it’s still worth doing some research just to make absolutely sure it’s what you want to do). For those who haven’t experienced this firm conviction, there is such a thing as making your mind up too early on. This is because by doing so, you may end up with a blinkered approach that neglects the fact that your interests may change – with the result that you end up applying for a subject that you loved when you were fourteen, but which has since lost its appeal.
Unless you really have always known what you want to do (if you’ve always wanted to be a doctor, for instance, you’re almost certainly going to want to study Medicine), a year or more before GCSEs is probably too soon to make a decision on what to study at university. You’ll find out more about the subjects by studying them at GCSE and finding out which subjects you have a natural affinity for. You may be surprised by which subjects you end up enjoying, and this could influence the path you take in your future academic career.

How late is too late?

Image shows a painting of the Battle of Valmy.
If you’re certain you want to do a traditional humanities subject, such as History or English, you can gear your subjects towards essays in general and take your time to decide.

Making a late decision (i.e. weeks or less before you’re due to apply to university) is going to matter more for some courses than others, as some courses are harder to get onto and require more preparation than others. Because of what’s involved in studying Medicine, for example, you’re unlikely to be successful if you decide right at the last minute that that’s what you want to study; you probably won’t have built up the skills, knowledge and experience needed to write a strong personal statement for this subject. What’s more, you may not have the right A-levels. On the other hand, leaving it fairly late to decide between Ancient History or Modern History when you have a set of relevant subjects at A-level might not matter quite so much.

When should I decide which universities to apply to?

Image shows an older part of the University of Nottingham's campus.
The University of Nottingham’s campus has a mix of old and new architecture.

The next step on your university admissions journey is to decide which universities you’re going to apply to. There’s no point trying to do this until you’ve worked out what subject you want to study, because the courses on offer at each university will have a major bearing on where you apply. The process of deciding which universities would be right for you involves looking at a huge number of variables; not just the course content, but other factors such as entrance requirements, location, reputation, structure, size, accommodation and many more.
Once you’ve sifted through numerous university websites and prospectuses and whittled them down to a shortlist, your next task will be to attend Open Days. A good time to do this is during your first year of A-levels. You may find that your school organises outings to certain university open days, but you can also organise your own attendance at open days of your choice. Visit as many different universities as you can, with a mix of different environments – some collegiate, some campus-based, some in big cities, others in smaller towns. This will give you a feel for what kind of university would suit you best and enable you to decide on the final five.

When should you write your personal statement?

Image shows someone writing in a notebook with their laptop open beside them,
One top tip is to leave the first sentence of your personal statement until last, so you don’t put off writing it because you’re fretting about the perfect opening.

By the time the summer between your first and second years of A-levels come round, you should be crystal clear about what you want to study and have a fairly good idea of where you want to study. Now’s the time to start drafting your personal statement. You may receive some guidance on this from your teachers in the weeks after your AS-levels, before you break up for the summer holidays. You can then gradually write and tweak your personal statement over the summer before you’re due to apply to university, when you have plenty of time to get it right. When you return to school in September, you’ll have a first draft of your personal statement that you can show your teachers and get their feedback. It’s unusual to get it perfect first time, so allow plenty of time for multiple drafts before you get something you’re happy with.

When should you submit your application?

Image shows fallen leaves on the ground.
By autumn, your application should be nearly ready to be sent.

You can submit your application any time from mid-September onwards, once all parts of the application (including references from your teachers) have been completed. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to start the application process early, so that you have plenty of time to get everything done, and avoid the stress of a last-minute rush for an application deadline. If you apply very early in the process, bear in mind that you could be in for a long wait to find out whether you’ve been given a place – but it’s better that than getting your application in too late and missing out. You may find that your school imposes its own deadlines for the reasons outlined here, so check with your teachers to find out your school’s policy.
To give you a rough idea of how the system works, the current official application deadlines from UCAS are as follows (the deadline is 6pm UK time for all deadlines given):

15 October – deadline for Oxford, Cambridge and professional courses

This deadline covers Oxford and Cambridge Universities (more on these later), medicine, veterinary medicine, veterinary science and dentistry. These courses and universities are extremely competitive, so if you have your sights set on any of these, you must ensure that you don’t miss this deadline.

15 January – deadline for most other courses

It’s always worth checking each specific course to confirm that this is indeed the deadline.

24 March – deadline for some art and design courses

Image shows someone painting a seaside town.
Art courses can have different deadlines from other options.

Again, you’ll need to check details of the specific course to find out whether it has a 15 January or 24 March deadline.

30 June – the last day you can submit choices

This is the last day upon which you can submit your application with your university choices. After this deadline, you’ll be entered into Clearing.
If you do miss a deadline, the universities on your UCAS form may still look at your application form, but there are no guarantees, and it will depend on whether or not they’ve already filled all available positions. In view of the large level of competition for popular courses, we recommend ensuring that you don’t miss the deadline for your course.

When should you respond to offers?

Image shows a row of flowers on a branch that look like hearts.
Even if you decide you’ve fallen for a university, it’s still OK to take your time deciding on your firm and your insurance.

There are set deadlines in place for responding to offers, and they depend on when you received all your offers. For example, if you received them all by 31 March, you’d have until 6 May to respond to them before they’re automatically declined. The main point here isn’t the exact deadlines, though (these could change from one year to the next, so make sure you check the dates for the year in which you’re applying); it’s that you shouldn’t feel under pressure to make a firm decision the minute you receive an offer from a university. Wait until you’ve received offers from all your universities before deciding which will be your firm choice and which will be your insurance.

UCAS Extra

If you’re not happy with the offers you’ve received, or you’ve withdrawn or been rejected from all your initial choices, you can use UCAS Extra from 25 February up until 2 July. UCAS Extra allows you to apply for additional universities or courses, one at a time, and you can find out more about it here.

Preparing for interviews

Not all universities interview candidates – in fact, most don’t. You’ll need to check the admissions procedures for the particular courses you’re applying for to find out whether or not you’re likely to be called for interview. If you know that an interview is likely, start preparing as soon as you send off your application, just in case. You’ll find lots of advice on how to prepare for a university interview here.

Applying to Oxford and Cambridge

Image shows a view over the back of Balliol College, Oxford.
Oxbridge applicants follow a slightly different timeline from everyone else.

We now devote a final section to the process of applying to Oxford and Cambridge, as these universities do things a little differently from the others. It’s worth knowing fairly early on that you want to apply to Oxford or Cambridge, and what you want to study there, as a strong application will take some time to work towards. While you can leave your other university choices to your first year of A-levels, it would be helpful to know whether or not you want to apply to Oxbridge by the time you’re sitting your GCSEs, as this gives you extra time to prepare your application by reading around your subject, gaining relevant work experience, and undertaking other activities that will paint a picture of your genuine fascination with your subject.
You can choose either Oxford or Cambridge – you can’t put them both down on your UCAS form, so part of your decision will be which of the two to apply to. The deadline for Oxbridge applications is 15 October. Applying is a more complex process, so allow more time; there’s an additional application form to send in, and many courses also require you to send in examples of your written work, so when you’re writing your personal statement over the summer, also dig out some essays that show off your talents. You’ll have entrance exams to contend with for some subjects at Oxbridge, and of course interviews, which take place in early December. A lot happens in a short space of time after the 15 October deadline, but it’s all wrapped up by the New Year, when Cambridge finishes sending out its decisions (Oxford sends its decisions out before Christmas).
Hopefully we’ve managed to convince you that while time may be of the essence when you’re applying for university, stress can be kept to a minimum with diligent planning and forward thinking. Good luck with your application!


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