UCAS for Dummies (and Americans… not saying they are the same thing)

This is a very long post about how to apply to a UK college, a topic of immediate concern around our house. If this subject interests you, read on; if not, I won’t be insulted if you choose to skip it.

A mom’s senior year, round five. I guess it’s round six if you count my own senior year, but looking back on it, that one was so stress-free in comparison that it’s almost not worth mentioning. Somewhere around April I took the SAT. Then with my ball-point pen I filled out a single-page application form for exactly one university, put it in an envelope and stuck a stamp on it. I dropped a note in my counselor’s mail cubby requesting a transcript, and that was it. I’m pretty sure my folks never saw my application. As any parent of a recent college-bound student will tell you, it’s quite a different game these days.

Each of our four older children has had a unique set of interests, talents, and qualifications that affected his or her college choices and procedure. All in all there were application forms online and on paper, interviews by phone and in person, auditions, visits, essays, scholarship forms and letters, SATs, ACTs, APs,  OSACs, FAFSAs, and I can’t remember what all else.

But to change it up even more, our fifth and last child is following through with her long-held dream of attending college in the UK. Alekka started talking about British universities in grade 7, but at the time I assumed it was just another manifestation of the anglophilia that grips certain slightly nerdy denizens of Hedrick Middle School. I expected it to fade away along with Quidditch, the dead parrot, and Doctor Who companion clothing (actually that last one never went away… I guess I should have realized sooner she was serious).


Alekka’s college visit itinerary

All UK universities use the country’s on-line college application system, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS for short). Prospective students fill out a form that asks for basic personal information, schools attended, and demographic details. There is a space for “qualifications” where you can add in all the stuff that UCAS doesn’t require but that you want to tell them about (in Alekka’s case, her very respectable SAT scores, for example). Then it gets harder.

You can give the name of one academic referee only. This could be a teacher you’ve especially impressed, but at our school most students ask the high school counselor to write the letter. The counselor asks for input from all your teachers, and then compiles the recommendations into one document.

Next are grades. The grade information you report depends on what kind of high school you attend and the type of diploma it offers. If you’re at a British school, you have scores from A-level courses (kind of like AP classes) that you have completed and other predicted scores from the courses you are currently enrolled in. Scotland has another, different, system. If you are applying from an American style school, you would enter your gpa.

Alekka does not have a gpa, as she is earning an IB diploma. It would take another whole post to explain IBDP (and I will do so sometime soon), but the important thing is that the students’ scores are assigned mainly by outside assessors, and those scores don’t come out until July. So what happens is that your classroom teachers submit predicted scores based on your progress and trajectory, and these “predicteds” are what go on your application form. The most important numbers for the colleges are your total predicted score out of the 45 possible points, and also your individual predicted scores in the three classes that you have chosen to take at “higher level” – similar to honors classes. You have to earn at least 24 points althogether to graduate with an IB diploma, and most good colleges require 32-34 for you to be considered for admission. Oxford and Cambridge, the most selective of UK schools, require at least 40-41. Very few students earn the top score of 45. More about those scores in a moment.

Next you have to write the “personal statement,” a 4000-character, 47-line essay. The personal statement is where you describe everything you’ve done to prepare yourself for your particular course of study. Unlike an American college essay, there is no prompt. This is a big difference between applying to a US school and a UK school. In the US, your college essay is where you try to show your positive personal qualities (perseverance, creativity, passion, etc.) but most American schools don’t expect you to know much about your future course of study, or even what you expect to major in. When you apply to a UK school you are applying not only to the school but to a specific major. In the UCAS personal statement, you write in detail about why you have chosen this specific course of study, how your high school classes have prepared you, any paid or volunteer work you’ve done in this area, and the relevant reading you’ve done.

In the US a motivated student who has the time and patience can apply to 20 or 30 universities, and some students do. My sons Nik and Kosta applied to somewhere around 10 or 12 each. With UCAS a prospective college student can apply to no more than five schools. If you apply to different majors (“courses”) at the same school those count as separate applications out of your five. And because you can write only one personal statement, you need to choose colleges that offer similar courses. For example, you don’t want to apply to do Geography at York, History at Bath, and English Lit at Bristol because you would not be able to write a personal statement that covers all that academic territory. Last spring we took Alekka to visit a number of schools in the UK which helped narrow her list down to five schools offering courses in International Development Studies (or something very much like it). She had an ecstatically nerdy moment when we visited Durham on the day they were doing a Hogwarts banquet, but unfortunately the closest course they have is Geography, so Durham didn’t make Alekka’s short list.

Oxford and Cambridge are like Harvard and Yale in the US in that they are very famous and extremely selective. As top tier superbrand schools, they have added a couple of extra hurdles that students have to jump. If you are applying to an Oxbridge college (and you can only apply to either Oxford or Cambridge, not both) you have to submit your UCAS in October, well ahead of the normal January 15 deadline. You also have to take the Oxbridge entrance exam (multiple choice plus an essay). If you pass this first level of acceptance you are asked to appear for a face-to-face interview; two ICS seniors are away this week for those interviews. Although Alekka loved our visit to Cambridge, alas like Durham they don’t offer an undergraduate Development course so she did not apply (their Masters course is highly regarded, though, so who knows… maybe in a few years).

So, finally you submit your UCAS form, and they send an email saying they got it, as do the individual schools you listed.

ucas final app

Now what? Many schools have rolling admissions so it’s possible to get acceptance letters (emails, actually) even before the January application deadline. You might get periodical updates from your schools letting you know how much longer you might have to wait to get an answer. If you are accepted, usually it is a conditional offer: for IBDP students like Alekka, it is normal for the school to set a minimum total score and also required marks for your three higher level classes. There is no senioritis allowed for IBDP students. You have to hit those marks on your final exams to be admitted – this is in contrast to American colleges, where once you are accepted, you have to really mess up to have that acceptance rescinded.

You’ve only applied to five schools… what if they ALL reject you? They have until May to notify you, but the good news is that if before March you have been rejected by all your choices, you can pick one more to apply to. (Suggestion: pick one with very low requirements). The catch is that if they accept you, then you must accept them. You’re in, you’re done.

If on the other hand you get a number of offers (hurray for you, nice job!), then in May you must narrow your choices down to two. Your first choice will probably be the one with higher requirements (this is called your “firm” choice), and you will choose a second as a backup (your “insurance” choice). If your final grades/scores in July meet the conditional requirements set by the first school, then you must accept that offer. If you don’t hit those marks, then hopefully you will meet the requirements of the second school.

Now if somehow you blow those final exams and don’t meet the requirements of either of your two schools, you do have one last chance. This is called Clearance, which sounds like the bargain basement or English landlords kicking Scottish farmers off their crofts, with perhaps a bit of the Hunger Games thrown in. Despite the name, I have heard from some people who speak from experience that it can actually be quite wonderful. This is when all the schools that still have unfilled slots (because their accepted students didn’t make the grade at exams, or decided to go elsewhere) start to fill those places from the pool of unaccepted students. It’s kind of a crap shoot, but you might end up at a great school you hadn’t even considered.

Other options: take a gap year, get some volunteer or work experience and apply next year. Or get a job.

Happily, Alekka got her first acceptance notice eight hours after her application was in. Whew. Then she got a second one about a week later. Barring some unforeseen academic disaster, she’ll be attending college in the UK next year. Now the trick is to keep her focused on homework when she’s wanting to check UCAS every fifteen minutes about her other three applications.


About lornaofarabia

I am a teacher from Medford, Oregon. I currently live and work in Bangkok, Thailand.
This entry was posted in Elsewhere, Family and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to UCAS for Dummies (and Americans… not saying they are the same thing)

  1. Andreas Horaites says:

    Well laid out.
    I haven’t heard any new news.
    I guess I will have to wait.

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