Go Higher: Get ready to make your mark

Your UCAS form is an opportunity for you to create an impression, so arm yourself with the facts and get on with it.
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The Independent Online
You've decided you want to go to college or university. So now you'll have to fill in a UCAS form. It's important to make a good job of completing your form if you're to get a place in a popular subject. And in any subject if you present yourself well you'll give yourself the best chance of being offered places and finding a higher education establishment you like.The closing date for sending in the UCAS form is 15 December (or 15 October for Oxford, Cambridge and anyone applying for medicine). There are special arrangements - a two-stage application process - for people wanting to study art and design.

It's better to get your form in earlier rather than later to give universities as much time as possible to look at your application, and you'll receive replies more quickly. Most people apply in the four weeks before the 15 December deadline. If you apply earlier you will maximise the time that admissions tutors can give to your application. Sometimes you'll find that entry standards have to be tightened, and applicants more rigorously selected as time passes.

Before you pick up a UCAS form it's important to do some research. Try to understand yourself and work out what you're good at. Going into higher education is a crucial decision and deserves careful consideration. If you have a career in mind, find out about it. Choose a course you think you will enjoy and find out what it entails, how it is taught and assessed.

You can select up to six courses on your form and will receive offers from universities and colleges in random order. They should begin to arrive a few weeks after you apply. If you have to wait a long time, it may mean you are considered borderline. Some universities delay making decisions on candidates who have also applied to Oxford and Cambridge until they know whether those people have been offered a place at either.

Higher education institutions have until 30 April to decide whether to offer you a place. Before that date they may call you for interview or offer you a place and invite you for an open day. You will either receive an unconditional offer, which means you are in; or a conditional offer, which means you have a place if you get the right A-level grades; or you will be rejected.

You need to reply to your offers, but not until you have all options before you. At that time you have to reduce your options to two: one is a firm acceptance which binds you to going to a particular institution if you get the required grades; the other is an insurance acceptance, a fall-back in case your grades aren't up to scratch. Usually the insurance choice requires a lower level of academic performance than your firm offer.

If you are ill or suffer problems which may adversely affect your exam results, such as a bereavement or a nervous breakdown, tell the institutions whose offers you are holding, or ask your school or college to contact them. Admissions tutors take adverse circumstances into account but need to know about them before the results come out.

After your exams it's worth giving some thought to what you might do if you miss your grades target. A book called Clearing the Way, published by Trotman (0181 486 1150) gives good tips on how to find your way through Clearing.

You can fill in your form by hand - using a black ballpoint pen (not felt-tip or roller-ball) - or using black type, or electronically. UCAS has an e-mail system for applying to university which is gaining in popularity: 3,000 schools and colleges have signed up so far. First you should photocopy the form and practise filling it in before doing the final version on the real form. Write very clearly. If you are deferring your entry for a year, explain why. Be as specific as you can. Don't simply say, "In my gap year I hope to work and travel." If you are applying for deferred entry, check with the departments you are considering to ask if they're happy to take you one year later.

Section 3 - your list of applications - is one of the crucial parts of your form, so it may be best to leave it until last. Universities and colleges have to be listed in the order in which they appear in the UCAS Handbook. And you have to use their abbreviated names. A surprising number of people (eight per cent) apply for courses which don't exist. They put down a course code for one institution when that course is taught at another one! Make sure you have the UCAS Handbook at your elbow when you're filling in the form.

Admissions tutors like to see a consistent choice of courses. You may have to defend a selection of courses that lacks a common thread. Cover yourself by explaining in your personal statement.

Last year there was some suggestion that students applying for medicine were discriminated against if they applied for a non-medical course as their sixth choice. This year, however, the deans of medical schools are saying they won't discriminate against anyone in this way.

Try not to apply to six popular institutions which all demand high grades. The exception, of course, is if you are applying after you have your results and they are good (see the case study of Nathaniel Martin below). Don't apply for courses you're not really all that interested in simply in order to fill in all the spaces on your form.

Most candidates find the personal statement difficult. It is certainly a very important part of the form and can make all the difference to whether you get into a given institution. It gives a chance make an impression on the people making the decision, so have a look at our guide to writing your personal statement below.