The UCAS deadline is January 29th, and I’m sure if you’ve take the time to read this there’s a chance that you already know that because you’re in the application process.
With the deadline so close, students should already have handed over their finished applications to their teachers at this point, and if not then their UCAS profile may even already be with the unis ready to get offers back – it’s a big time for year 13s.
This post will be a little timeline of how I went from A levels to UCAS and eventually to uni. I’ll then be posting another piece in weeks to come about my time at uni with a snapshot of each year right through to graduation.
I took English Literature, English Language, and History. I knew prior to A levels that I wanted to do English at uni so this made the decision of which A levels to do pretty straight forward for me. I knew I wanted to do English to keep my options open, and then I’d specialise with journalism after uni.
I will say here, I was very much in the minority of people in my year group that knew what job they wanted, and therefore what degree they needed. To students currently doing GCSEs with A levels looming, I’d say pick what you’re best at. If you don’t know what job you want, pick A levels you’re good at and that you enjoy - then chances are you’ll start to work out a degree subject (if you want to go to uni of course) and eventually job ideas will follow.
Anyway back to the timeline. I did A levels and found them INSANELY difficult. GCSEs had gone well for me, and I’d never say they were easy, but A levels were a huge step up. I had a mixed bag when it came to teachers which meant that I often went straight to the head of a department with practice essays because that was the only way I could improve.
Long stroy short - the stress all paid off and in the end I got the grades I needed for my first choice uni.
I started the UCAS process in the time my sixth form called ‘bridging’. This was the six weeks after AS levels and before the summer holidays. It was the time to start A2s but also a good time to crack on with UCAS.
Filling in the profile seemed quite straight forward until you get to those dreaded two words – personal statement. 4,000 characters for you to sell yourself to unis far and wide. I’ll come back to that though later in this piece.
The actual process of picking unis to go and see was something I found massively overwhelming. There’s more than 100 unis in England and you have to narrow it down to around 10 to look into closely, and then go and eventually visit them.
*I will say now I’m more than aware things are very different in terms of open days/offer holder days this year due to Covid, I hope you can see your potential unis one way or another*
Firstly, look at what unis offer the course you want to do. Obviously for English it was all of them, however some do combination or rarer courses, so that can narrow it down to begin with for some. Then I made a priority list:
Modules – What modules did the course offer? Can you pick and choose what modules you do or are they all set in stone? How much is exam and how much is assignments?
Campus – Is it a campus-based uni where everything is in the same place? Or would you rather have a city-based uni where the subject buildings are dotted all over a city? I personally wanted campus-based with the city within walking distance so I got the best of both worlds.
Location – I don’t get home sick really but I did want the option to go home on the train every now and then for no more than £50. I set my limit at 3 hours train from home. Obviously if you’re someone that wants to go home every other week then pick somewhere closer either you're going to be out of pocket very quickly.
Grades – What grades are you expecting? What do the uni want? Sometimes they’ll accept people with a grade below the offer depending on space, but be realistic with what grades you are hoping to get.
Other things you can consider:
Where they rank in the league tables
Societies they offer
Year abroad/Year in industry options
Once you’ve done all that then the numbers start to dwindle pretty quickly. You need to choose five for your UCAS application. I went to see three unis in total, and two of those became my firm (first)and insurance (second) choice.
Open days/Offer holder days
This year open days have all been virtual, but fingers crossed smaller offer holder days will go ahead in the spring.
On these days you’ll see accommodation, have a subject talk, look round the uni, and maybe talk to staff in your department.
These days are really busy but so important – so go prepared.
Take photos of the accommodation you see because it all starts to merge after a while
Take someone with you because getting a second opinion is really helpful and allows someone to think of questions you might have otherwise forgotten to ask
Go with prepared questions
Score things as you go around so you can compare unis when you’re back home
If you have an interview - prepare for it.
Once you’ve applied to your five unis all you can do is wait. Some unis are really quick at coming back with offers, some take their time – don’t take it personally.
Another topic that comes up with offers is conditional and unconditional. Conditional means the unis sets you grades that you need to get to secure your place. Unconditional means you have a place whatever you get, as long as you make them your firm choice – basically meaning you know you’re going there way before results day.
What I would say is that unconditionals are great in the short term, but can be dangerous. Yes it takes pressure off, but if you then allow your grades to slip because you’ve already got the place you want, it doesn’t exactly look great in the future on your CV if you go from a student getting A grades to suddenly dropping to Cs for your A levels just because you got an unconditional – all that implies to employers after uni is that you took the easy option and didn’t try as hard which would result in no job offer.
If you get an unconditional – amazing, but don’t use that as an excuse to relax because it will catch up with you.
Once you’ve got your offers you need to decide what is you firm and insurance choice. Your firm needs to be asking for higher grades than your insurance.
This point of deciding is when you might go to offer holder days to make a final decision between unis.
After you’ve set your firm and insurance, you’re pretty much done until results day. The focus is now on getting the grades those unis want.
Now…I did say I’d come back to this. A personal statement is like a CV for UCAS. You’re trying to make unis offer you a place by showing them you’re the best student they could have.
My best advice for this is to show all your extras, just like a CV. Grades are great, but that doesn’t tell the uni about you.
You need to stand out so focus on all the other parts to you:
Hobbies and interests
Any personal experiences
Then link everything back to how that would make you a student they want at their uni. What does each point you’ve made show? Does it show certain skills and qualities that they'll look for in a student?
For example, I worked part-time along my studies as a waitress in a local restaurant since I was 14. This allowed my time management skills to improve as I balanced the responsibilities of a job around studying towards my GCSEs and A levels. Unis want to know all the other things about you, not just grades.
I hope this has been of some help. I’m just going off what I went through as a student myself, and also work I did as a uni ambassador which I allowed me to find out what unis are looking for and how to stand out.
UCAS isn’t something you can do overnight, be prepared and stick to the deadlines
Don’t make choices based off what friends are doing
The course is the number one priority
Get someone to read your personal statement, this could be a teacher or even just a parent or friend
Be a mix of realistic and optimistic when it comes to the grades you can get
Ignore freebies from unis
Try and talk to students that go to the unis you’re looking at, this could be through siblings/friends/Facebook groups.
I did an interview with the University of Leicester which covers my journey from A levels to working as journalist:
I'll be posting a piece soon about my time at uni, from freshers right through to graduation. Until then, you can check out my guide to starting uni if you want.
*I do not own any of the images used in this blog post*