How To Get Into UK Universities

Updated: Mar 31

As I promised in the first article of this series, Student or Worker?, I am now discussing how to apply to UK universities through UCAS, the platform I used back in 2017. For someone that comes from another country, the application system might be tricky if you don’t know what to look for. Deadlines must be met, or you might not get into your course of choice. This post will concentrate on how to choose the best course for you, what you need to know before applying and what to expect from the application process.

How To Choose?

If you are like me and have dreamt of living in the UK since you were a teen, you might have thought of starting your life here as a university student. However, choosing The University feels almost overwhelming.

The first thing you can do to narrow down your research is to look at the UCAS homepage. In the search bar, you can type the name of the course you are looking for and have a quick look through the different grade options. By this I mean if you’d rather do an undergraduate or integrated master’s degree, or a Ph.D. – in case you already have a first degree. The entries that you find will come up in alphabetic order depending on the name of the university that offers the course, but you can filter your search to display the course name – a bit pointless, as you are mainly searching by typing the name of your preferred course – or by a UCAS score system that highlights the best matches to your search.

Still, the choice is too vast. The next best option is to research online rankings of universities and courses. Note: some may be skewed by the ranker’s opinion, so look for reliable sources such as TEF ranking – Teaching Excellence Framework – and try to narrow it down to a maximum of 10 top options.

When you feel you have your top 10 choices, have a look around the university’s website. You must gather as much information as possible in this phase, as it affects your chances of getting in and, most importantly, if the course is suited for you. Once you get in, look at the course structure, the modules that are taught and where the University is located.

Don’t forget that the learning environment and the general atmosphere are important as well. If you don’t feel at home, you will be less likely to concentrate on your studies and succeed. As an example, I prefer warmer or mild climates, so I wouldn’t want to move to a town where winters are extremely harsh or it is never sunny. Students from warmer countries, such as myself, might struggle with our mood during English winters, as the amount of sunlight that we get is lower compared to that of our own home country. This is an aspect that cannot be underestimated at all, especially if you’re planning to study an integrated master’s course – 4 years of your life. Investigate the quality of libraries, accommodation and extracurricular activities that are offered.

My course, Neuroscience, is an integrated master’s 4-year course. This means that, by the end of it, I can start looking for a Ph.D. with already two research projects done. My course allows me to finish one by the end of the third year and a second as a dissertation – the candidature for achieving the academic degree. It’s a really good option if you are quite sure about your future and the course you are choosing, but it’s challenging. Fortunately, most universities offer the opportunity to decide further in your degree if you want to opt-in or out of the integrated master’s program. As far as I know, the University of Southampton allows you to change to the integrated master’s course from the bachelor’s degree if you obtain a 2:1 – a mean mark of 60% - for the second year. For those who do not fit these criteria, the 3-year course is offered. In any case, if you want to further your education you need a 2:1, so try to do your best from the first year. But let’s get back to choosing.

You need to narrow your choice down to 5 universities, as this is the maximum number allowed. You will see that, if you followed the guide I just outlined, it will be an easy process.

What You Need To Know

Each university has different criteria when it comes to offering places in one of their courses. This is something that you need to be aware of from the start. Check the Entry Requirements section, or anything with similar wording, and analyze carefully what is being asked of you. In the UK, people chose their A level subjects later than most students in other countries. In my case, my A level subjects were chosen since the beginning of high school. The Italian system is completely different from the one that is implemented here, so I had trouble understanding how people only had 3, a maximum of 4 subjects in their final exams. In Italy and in the specific pathway I chose – the Scientific pathway - some subjects such as Chemistry are taught during the 2nd and 4th years but are not normally present as an A level subject. Consequently, I should have discarded every course that needed the mark for Chemistry. In reality, I didn’t and I ended up doing the Science Foundation Year.

A Foundation Year is a one-year course where you can expect to complete the A levels that you require to carry on with your preferred course. It’s really useful if your school system is different from that of the UK, or if you are a mature student looking to begin university later in life. To be honest, I didn’t think that doing the Science Foundation Year was going to be of any benefit, but in the long run, I can say that I am a little more prepared to face the challenges of the Neuroscience course compared to people that just finished high school. Consider it if you are expecting low A levels marks but still want to pursue your dream career. Be realistic and don’t be afraid of doing some extra work. You will get to achieve your goal eventually.

If you come from a country where English is not your first language, you have to prove your written, spoken, reading and listening skills. Universities accept most major English certificate, but one of the most popular is IELTS. It’s different from the typical certificate, as it tests your ability to understand texts, questions and tasks quicker, rather than your actual knowledge of the language. Moreover, once you get used to the different types of formats on the exam, it’s just a matter of training and training. The exam is exactly like the practice that you can find online or on IELTS books, so no surprises there. If you prefer to be taught how to prepare for it, a wide number of English schools offer courses that train you on all 4 skills. Check on the university’s website for the minimum score required to get both into the Foundation Year and the actual course, so you have a general idea of where you have to be to achieve the right mark and the amount of effort required.

Depending on where you come from, you may have to pay more than UK students. EU students are treated as locals for now, although that might change with Brexit in future years. If you are from outside the EU, fees are on average 2 to 2.5 times higher, so consider this as well before making your choice. Funding is offered as well, as long as you can prove that you or who’s paying for you are not able to sustain you financially. Look at the Fees and Funding page to learn more about the regulations that are in act and the criteria that universities apply.

Lastly, try to find out which options are available afterward. You might think it’s too early to do it now, but you need to know if you are choosing the right path. Look at the university’s website and discover the types of jobs that you can do and which programs you can apply to once you have finished. Plan and you will feel more comfortable with your choice.

Key Aspects Of The Application Process

The application process is the last topic I will be focusing on today. It is fundamental that you stick to a solid plan if you want to make it feel less lengthy or you are afraid you might miss something crucial. Here is a list of things you need to do or know about it:

  • Check the deadline for the application. It might be different from university to university, so make sure you sent all the details before the time is over. It is generally in January, but the actual day and hour change.

  • Write your personal statement early. The earlier, the better. You can check it as many times as you like and send it to someone else for revision. Focus on your strengths and achievements, look for online guides if you feel you want to enhance the chances of getting into your first choice, but remember to be yourself. Don’t oversell it, especially if you are expected to attend an interview in the second phase of selection.

  • The wait for the answer can be long. I sent my application in November and I had my first two responses back in middle December. However, I had to wait until March to get the full picture and know each decision. Be ready to wait and don’t be worried if you don’t hear from them for a long time.

  • You might be rejected straight away. Some universities don’t bother asking for more details from you and disregard your application from the beginning. If your application for one university is rejected, you still have other 4 options to get in. Moreover, you might be able to get in through Clearing, a process done later in the year where universities allow you to apply for a similar course if they still have places left. You might also receive offers for other courses if you don’t fit the criteria, so don’t discard any option.

  • You might be accepted, pending your IELTS results. If you are waiting for your English certificate score or you are planning to do the exam before the start of the year, universities may offer you a place given that you pass it.

  • Don’t be disappointed if your preferred choice doesn’t accept you. In the end, you managed to select the 5 options that best suit you, so just wait for the others to get back to you. Some courses are really competitive and they only take in the top students. Again, be realistic with your expectations and realize that maybe this is for the best in the long run.

If you got to the end of this article, you will know how to choose The University, everything that you need to consider before applying and some key points regarding the application process. You are making a tough decision. Studying in the UK is not easy, especially if you come from another country. Go check out my article (link) on the cost of your first few days in the UK, what you need to buy and how to manage your budget. If you’d like to know the fundamental steps you need to take when you have finally settled in your new home, look out for my next post.

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