The Complete Guide to UCAS and UK University Applications for International Students

The UK is a fantastic place to study, with numerous top universities and an abundance of interesting culture making it an attractive prospect for students from overseas.

But while prospective students in the UK have gone through an education system geared towards UK universities – they’re studying standard qualifications, know roughly what universities they might be interested in, and have heard of “UCAS”, personal statements and so on – for international students, things are a little trickier. An unfamiliar country, combined with an unfamiliar university system, presents extra considerations to contend with during the application process. If you’ve decided that the UK is the right place for you to study for a degree, this article is for you, as we explain all about applying to UK universities as an international student.

Deciding on a course

Your first step in your UK university application process is to decide what you want to study. Bear in mind that subjects may be taught differently in the UK to how they’re taught in your own country, so your research should be even more thorough. Most UK degrees are three years long, while some are four years or more, so make sure you look in detail at specific courses to check their length. You have a choice of over 35,000 courses to choose from, so start your research as early as possible so that you have plenty of time to make an informed choice. Not all universities may offer your chosen subject, and some may not offer it in the form you want (joint honours with another subject, for instance), so your choice of subject will have a major bearing on your decision-making process when choosing a university.

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Deciding on a university

Choosing a university to apply to is a bit trickier when you’re an international student, as it’s much more difficult for you to attend open days; though if the opportunity does arise, it would certainly be beneficial both from the point of view of visiting the university in question and because it will allow you to confirm that the UK is definitely where you want to study.
Many of your concerns will be the same as those of UK students: the course will be a major factor (each university approaches a subject slightly differently from the next), followed by considerations such as location, accommodation, facilities, size and so on. However, as an international student, there are a few extra factors you might want to consider. Proximity to an international airport is likely to be one; you’ll be carrying a large amount of luggage with you to last an entire term, so an easy journey will make a big difference to your stress levels at the beginning and end of each term. You’ll also want to investigate the university’s approach to international students; the proportion of international students accepted, the provisions put in place for integration, and so on.
In the UK, you choose up to five universities to apply to, so you’ll be able to put a few options down and see where you get offers from. Rather than applying exclusively to universities whose entrance requirements are at the top end of the spectrum, it’s a good idea to apply to universities with a mixture of high entrance requirements and some slightly lower, so that you’re covered if your exam results aren’t quite what you’d hoped. After you have all your offers back, you choose which of the universities who’ve offered you a place will be your favourite choice (your firm) and which will be your back-up, or contingency plan if you miss out on the grades for your top choice (this is called your insurance choice). So think about both firm and insurance choices when you’re deciding which universities to apply to.

Find out whether your qualifications will be accepted

At this stage, you should also be researching which qualifications universities accept. In the UK, the standard school-leaver’s qualifications are GCSEs and A-levels, or sometimes the International Baccalaureate. If your qualifications differ from these standard ones, you’ll need to check carefully to make sure that your exam results will be accepted by each of the universities you apply to. Not all school leaving examinations are accepted by all universities, so you’ll be limited to applying for universities that do accept your particular qualifications. To give you an example, this guide tells you which qualifications are accepted as part of an application to Oxford University. As you can see, some overseas qualifications are not accepted, and would need to be supplemented by additional A-level or IB study, or even a year at a university in your own country (look at the entry for Latvia for an example of this, but if you scroll down you’ll find plenty of others).

University fees

As an international student, you may not be entitled to the same funding as UK students (unless you’re from the EU), so you’ll need to look carefully at the fees to ensure you can afford them. These will vary from one university to another, and according to which country you come from. If you come from an EU country, you pay the same fees as UK students – currently up to £9,000 – and you may be entitled to apply for funding. If you’re from outside the EU, the fees are likely to be significantly higher. This International Student Calculator is a useful resource; it’s designed to help you figure out how much you’ll need to budget for living and studying at a UK university, and it has some great tips on managing your money, too.

Introducing UCAS

The abbreviation “UCAS” stands for the “Universities and Colleges Admissions Service”, and it’s the portal through which you apply for university in the UK (it’s the only way of submitting an application). When you’re ready to apply, you register with UCAS and fill in an online application form, called your “UCAS form”, which you fill in and send off electronically. It will automatically be sent to all the universities you’ve selected, so you don’t have to send it off individually. You’ll need to keep in mind the various deadlines for UK university applications, as these vary according to what course you’re applying for and which universities you’ve chosen (Oxford and Cambridge, for instance, have an earlier deadline than most universities). You can find more about this in our article detailing a timeline of university admissions.
There are three major components to the UCAS form:

  • Qualifications – this is where you list your academic credentials, such as exam results and predicted grades.
  • Personal statement – this is where you outline why you want to study the course you’re applying for, explaining to admissions tutors why you deserve to be given a place. This involves showing them what you do to pursue your interest in the subject, what you find most interesting about it, how it fits in with your long-term career aims, and so on.
  • References – this bit is for your teachers to fill in, so you won’t see it. It’s where your teachers provide their assessment of your performance in school and suitability for the course.

The personal statement is the most challenging part of your application, so allow several months for writing and refining it. As an international student, there are a few extra things you’ll need to cover in your personal statement, including why you want to study in the UK particularly and why you’re not choosing to study in your own country. You’ll also need to mention your English skills and what you’ve done to develop them, such as courses you’ve taken; we’ll talk more about this later in this article.

Once you’ve pressed ‘send’, you have an anxious few months waiting for decisions to come back to you. If you’ve applied for Oxford or Cambridge, you’ll need to fill in an additional application form specific to them, and they may ask you to send in examples of your work. There may be an entrance exam as well, depending on the subject. Oxford and Cambridge are also among the universities to interview candidates; these universities interview for all subjects, and others interview for certain subjects, such as Medicine. You’ll need to be prepared for the possibility of being called for an interview if you’re applying to Oxbridge or for a subject for which candidates are often interviewed; you’ll find more advice on our article on how to succeed at university interviews. Check the university website to find out their interview policy and whether there’s any provision in place for international candidates to do interviews and entrance exams remotely.
You can track the progress of your application online. University decisions on the outcome of your application will come back to you as one or other of the following:

  • Conditional offer – this is an offer based on the condition that you achieve certain grades, which will be stipulated in the offer and tailored to the qualifications you’re taking. This kind of offer is standard if you’ve not yet taken your final secondary school exams (A-levels or equivalent), and you’re applying on the strength of predicted grades.
  • Unconditional offer – this is an offer not dependent on your grades, and is usually reserved for students who already have their grades in A-levels or equivalent.
  • Unsuccessful – this means that the university has decided not to give you a place on this occasion.

There are two additional UCAS services it would be worth your knowing about:

  • UCAS Extra – in the unfortunate event that you’re not offered a place by any of your initial five universities (or you don’t want to go to any of the universities that have offered you a place), the UCAS Extra service exists to allow you to apply for additional universities, one at a time. The universities who use this service do so in order to fill places not yet offered, usually on undersubscribed courses, but if you do your research, you will find plenty of good-quality universities and courses advertised via Extra, with their normal entrance requirements.
  • Clearing – this is essentially your last resort. Clearing is there to help you if you receive no offers, or none you’d be happy accepting, or if you’ve applied after the deadline, or you’ve not achieved the exam results specified in your offer. If you have to resort to Clearing, you’ll find that your choices are rather limited; all the top universities and popular courses will be full already, and many universities don’t advertise any places in Clearing. However, the ones that are there will often advertise lower entrance requirements in order to fill places, so you never know – you might find something that you like the look of. Hopefully it won’t come to that, though.

Proving your standard of English

Another issue you’ll almost certainly have to contend with when applying to a UK university as an international student is proving your standard of English. It goes without saying that for a top university you’ll need a fluent command of English, including specialist academic vocabulary. Each university will have its own policy on this, so you’ll need to check what’s required before applying. Most will either ask you to provide proof in the form of a qualification (such as those discussed here) or ask you to sit a test to demonstrate your proficiency. If you have an EFL qualification, such as the IELTS, you’ll need to check what score each university asks for. For example, Oxford requires you to have 7.0 or higher, while Cambridge asks for 7.5 or higher.

Student visas

Finally, you’ll need to look into whether or not you’ll need a student visa in order to study here. You can find out whether or not you’ll need one here. You won’t be able to start the application process for a visa until you have a confirmed place to study at a UK university, and a confirmed start date. In the meantime, we wish you the very best of luck with your application.


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