More than 3,100 schools and colleges are planning to use computerised applications this autumn and admissions officials believe that four out of five applications will be made electronically by 2003.
University admissions officials say virtual application forms offer sixth formers a head start, by getting applications to admissions tutors many times faster than conventional applications. The electronic forms can be processed in three days, rather than up to three weeks for conventional written entries.
Software produced by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) is designed to eliminate common errors that can cause confusion and delay applications. Under the new system it is impossible to submit an incomplete entry and incorrect course codes and other details are highlighted automatically.
A spokesman for Ucas said: "This is an opportunity for thousands of students to get a head start because the electronic applications will get to universities faster than conventional applications.
"The new system is administratively much quicker and rules out most of the basic errors. Quite often people get the course code wrong or put in incorrect details. As more and more schools and colleges go online we expect the popularity of this to take off."
Electronic admissions are at the core of plans to speed the administration of university applications, essential if deadlines are to be pushed back to allow students more time to decide which course to take.
The new electronic system is designed to guide a student through the processes of deciding where to study and filling in the application form. Military-style security allows teachers to fill in confidential references and to track their students' applications.
Ucas has already seen a boom in the use of computer technology by sixth formers. The service's website handled 140,000 course searches and about 600,000 "hits" on the first day after A-level results were published alone.
Students' representatives welcomed the development yesterday. "You don't want to be worried about messing up your paper form," a spokesman for the National Union of Students said. "We are in an electronic age and anything that helps students through the bureaucracy of applications is to be welcomed. If you can buy a plane ticket or book a restaurant on the Internet there is no reason why you cannot use it to apply to university."
Statistics published yesterday showed that 294,000 students had found places at university or college for the coming term. Nearly 26,000 used the clearing system, which matches students to unfilled university places.Reuse content