11 Top Tips for Last Minute UCAS Applications

15 October is the deadline for UCAS applications to all courses at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, as well as most courses for medicine, dentistry and veterinary science. The deadline for applications to nearly everything else isn’t until 15 January, so every year, the 15 October deadline takes some students by surprise.
If you didn’t realise you needed to get your application in so soon – or maybe you did, but you’ve been procrastinating – then you might be feeling more than a hint of panic by now. But don’t lose hope. Whether you have most of an application written or not, it isn’t too late to get one sent in.
Hopefully you will already have been working on your application over the summer, or at least during September, and will have the most significant parts (including the daunting personal statement) written already. If that’s the case, read our tips below; if not, scroll down for our advice on a truly last-minute application.

1. Check all the details

Some universities will have several courses with similar names, so use the course ID to check you’ve got the right one.

Yes, it’s highly unlikely that you’ve chosen Vehicle Engineering when you intended to select Veterinary Medicine, but mistakes along these lines happen to someone every year; try to avoid it being you. Beware of autocomplete filling in forms wrong, especially on a shared computer, as you don’t want to risk sending your sibling’s details instead of your own. It would be deeply and profoundly embarrassing to be the person who spelled their name, or their school’s name wrong on their UCAS form. Even when you’re so bored with checking that you feel you could recite all the details of the form from memory, check it some more.

2. Proofread everything

Some people find it easier to proofread on a printed version, rather than on a screen.

Once you’ve checked the factual details, it’s time for some proofreading, especially of that all-important personal statement. You want to stand out with admissions tutors for the right reasons, and not for being the person who sent in their UCAS application to study “Medecine” or for saying, “I am passionate about this subject because [insert reason here]”.
Proofreading something that you know well (as you should hopefully know your personal statement) is particularly challenging. One technique that can help is reading it backwards instead of forwards – that way, you make it a little harder for your brain to fill in the correct version as you’re reading rather than showing you the mistakes that are there. Reading it aloud can also help, as can any other techniques that make your brain slow down and parse the words anew, such as a hard-to-read font.
Proofreading isn’t a task you can just do once and declare it done. Try to look over your application for spelling and grammar mistakes several times if you can.

3. Get someone else to read it too

Your friends might be able to spot mistakes that you’ve missed.

There are two types of people who are useful for reading over your UCAS application: people who know anything about the process and people who don’t. Try to get at least one person from each group to look over your application before you submit it.
People who know something about the process are useful because they’ll spot errors in how you’ve completed the form, or points in your personal statement that sound odd or are open to misinterpretation. People who know nothing about the process are just as useful because they’ll spot the mistakes that people who know the process won’t, as they’ll see what they’re expecting to. Explaining the contents of your UCAS application to someone who has never filled one out for themselves can be a great way to fix any lingering errors. If you don’t know anyone who falls into that category, explain it to a teddy bear.
However, while you’re doing this, do be careful not to let whoever is taking a look to edit anything, or ideally, touch anything at all. You don’t want them to hit “submit” on a hunt for a “save” button, or to make edits that they think are helpful without your approval.

4. Make sure your references are done

If your school doesn’t often send students to prestigious universities and courses, they may need a reminder about the early reference deadline.

References are the part of a UCAS application that students most often forget about, because usually you won’t have to do any of that work yourself: your teachers will write them and submit them for you, and you may never even know what it is that they wrote. But they are a vital part of your application, just as much as your grades and your personal statement. That goes triple if there are any extenuating circumstances to explain – for instance – a dip in your grades, as references can be a great place for these details to be included.
Most schools that are used to students applying to Oxford, Cambridge and the courses that have an early UCAS deadline will have no problem getting references sorted in time (though of course, it does no harm to check). However, if you’re applying from a country where teacher references aren’t the norm or where the deadlines are different, or you attend a school where applying for these ambitious and demanding courses is unusual, then it’s particularly important to check that the references have been written and that your school understands what’s required.

5. Check your personal statement, but don’t change it too much

Now is not the time for a full rewrite of your personal statement.

If you have a personal statement that’s finished already, it’s worth checking over it again, but not changing it too much at this stage. Obviously, you should correct any errors of spelling or grammar that you spot. It may even be worth going so far as to switch paragraphs around, or adding or deleting a sentence or two to change the emphasis of the statement – especially remembering that for the universities and courses with a 15 October deadline, admissions tutors’ interest in your extracurriculars is minimal and you should instead focus on why you want to study the course with supercurricular activities as your evidence.
But don’t make any wholesale changes at this point. When you read over your personal statement, especially if you haven’t looked at it in a while, you will in all probability find it deeply embarrassing. That’s simply the nature of this kind of thing. You don’t want to have to write a brand new statement now, and if you did, it would probably make you cringe just as much anyway. Stick with what you’ve got.

6. Make sure you have good back-up options if you’re applying to Oxbridge

Oxford and Cambridge aren’t the only beautiful, historic and prestigious universities in the UK.

If you’re applying to Oxford or Cambridge, it may be that these universities are all you’ve focused on – but you still have another four slots on your UCAS form to fill. Whatever else you do, don’t be one of those people who insists that it’s Oxbridge or nothing and applies to no other universities; come springtime, if you don’t get into Oxbridge and offers are flooding in for all your friends, you might well regret your choice.
Remember that only about one in five applicants gets in to either Oxford or Cambridge, and make sure that you have a back-up plan that you’d be happy with. You should try to visit your second-choice universities as well; if that’s not possible, at least take the time to read their websites and look into whether their approach to your chosen subject suits your preferences.

7. Don’t rest on your laurels

Don’t forget – if all goes well, you still have interviews to do.

It might feel like you’ve done the hard work once your UCAS application is in, but there’s still a lot more work to do. If you left your UCAS application until the last minute, make a commitment not to do the same for the next stages of the university application process, such as the Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ) if you’re applying to Cambridge (with a deadline of 22 October for most courses), and of course, the all-important interview.

If you haven’t started yet

If you’re doing your full application entirely last-minute, then you might need to take a different approach in order to get it done on time.

8. Get someone to help you with the admin side

Your friends can’t write your application for you, but they can help you get the paperwork together.

You’re probably focused on the big tasks like getting your personal statement sorted out, but there are several other aspects to the UCAS application such as filling in all the fiddly details of your qualifications and education. While you can’t get anyone to write your personal statement for you, there’s nothing wrong with asking a friend or family member if they wouldn’t mind helping you with the admin parts of the task, so that you can get it done a bit quicker. Just remember to double-check what they’ve filled in!

9. Ask for references as soon as possible

Ask your teachers about references in person as soon as you possibly can.

If you’ve informed your school of your intention to apply for a course or university with an early deadline, it may be that while you haven’t been organised enough to get your application together, they might nonetheless have got your references ready. (That’s especially likely to be the case if your school has a lot of high-achieving pupils; some schools will get all references ready for the 15 October deadline, just in case).
But if you haven’t, you might have a lot of apologising in your near future to persuade your teachers to get your references ready on time. Writing references is a lot of work, and there will be more than one pair of eyes on each reference so that any unfortunate turns of phrase can be removed and the accuracy and fairness of the statement ensured. This all takes time, and by leaving it to the last minute, you might well be making your teachers stay late to get your references done. Make sure to be suitably grateful.

10. Try speaking your personal statement

If a blank screen is stressing you out, speaking your answer can help.

When writing a UCAS application last-minute, undoubtedly the thing you’re most worried about is getting your personal statement written. Typically students spend weeks over this, gathering content and crafting it carefully. That option isn’t open to you any more, so desperate times call for desperate measures. One technique for getting 400 words of something written is to speak your personal statement, rather than write it. Take a speech-to-text application (there’s one in Google Docs) and answer the question, out loud, of “why do you want to study the subject you’ve chosen?” Your honest answer to that question can be the foundation of your personal statement.
Do note, though, that it’s “the subject you’ve chosen” and not “the university you’ve chosen”. The personal statement will go to all the universities on your list, so never mention a particular university by name. Not only will – say – Balliol College, Oxford, already know why you’ve picked Oxford (it’s probably something to do with it being the best university in the world), but universities lower down on your list are unlikely to be persuaded to take you by your enthusiasm for a different institution.

11. Remember there are other options

US university applications are a lot more work than an UCAS application, but often have later deadlines.

If you’ve left it much too late to write a good UCAS application, don’t despair; remember that you have options. One is to send in a bad UCAS application now and, if it all goes wrong, to reapply this time next year and enjoy taking a Gap Year. Another is not to apply at all at this point, and to choose from a range of possibilities: applying to other universities or subjects with the January deadline, looking into other countries with later application deadlines, or similarly, waiting until next year to have another go.
Waiting a little longer to go to university can feel disastrous now, but it’ll come round faster than you think, universities are unlikely to penalise you for it, and you may even benefit from the wait. For one, it allows you to focus on your A-levels without the distraction of interviews and waiting for offers or rejections to arrive. You can also spend the time expanding your educational horizons; for instance, courses such as our Medicine Gap Year programme can help build your understanding ahead of going to university. Shorter Oxford summer school courses in Medicine or Veterinary Medicine can also help with your application so that next time round, you won’t be doing it last minute and you’ll be fully prepared to write a great application and for the exciting studies ahead of you.

Image credits: hourglass; vet; proofreading; laptop; blank screen.