Special Report on Courses: Make a date with higher education and your future: It's not too early to start preparing for your application to Ucas, says Caroline Marshall

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15 DECEMBER 1994 is an important date. It is the deadline for receipt of applications to universities and colleges by sixth-formers hoping to begin their studies in the academic year 1995-96. Applicants who are including Oxford or Cambridge in their choice have an earlier deadline of 15 October.

To many sixth-formers, next autumn seems a long way off - but in truth it is not so far away for lower-sixth pupils who are serious about their higher education applications.

Most schools will begin to prepare their pupils in the summer term or even earlier. If staff at your school start suggesting that you read prospectuses and reference books in the near future, it is because they understand the system. They have your interests at heart.

Although the application system has a deadline, realistically you want your forms to arrive in October. You will make your application on a form issued by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas). The form will allow you to make up to eight choices. When Ucas receives the form it copies it and sends it simultaneously to all the institutions you have named. Admissions staff at each are free to consider them as they arrive. They do not wait until they have received all the forms after 15 October / December. Pupils may receive offers of places as early as November in some cases.

Ucas says the forms which reach its offices after mid-November take longer to process and many admissions tutors say they are accustomed to seeing the forms from the best applicants come in early - two reasons for early application. Consider also the following scenario. The Government instructs universities to cut the number of places in some subjects after pupils have applied, as has happened before. Would you not be relieved if your form was already in, or even better, if you had already been offered some places?

Ideally by next September you will have done your research, know approximately where you wish to apply and for which course. All that will remain to be done is some fine-tuning in consultation with teachers.

What research? You need to know which subject/s you wish to study. After one-and-a-half term's A-level work a favourite subject may be emerging; you may be wondering whether to read a new one. Law or medicine are obviously in this category. Did you know, however that there are numerous subjects you can start at university with no previous knowledge, for example, politics, surveying, energy science or a new language?

You need to know also what kind of university or college would be appropriate. There are around 180 in the Ucas handbook: some very large, others small; some in cities, some in the country; many on campuses, others with several sites.

Third, you must know what entry requirements are asked for different course and by different establishments, in order to make a realistic application with advice from subject teachers who will be asked to predict your A-level grades on the Ucas form.

Last, higher education is an investment in time and money. You will want to know where a particular course might lead. Some courses, such as medicine, are directly vocational; others are not. Some careers require the study of specific degrees; some degree subjects lead to a surprising variety of careers.

May / June sees the arrival of Ucas handbooks in schools. Copies of prospectuses for the 1995 academic year also arrive then, as do current editions of reference handbooks. Essential first reading is University and College Entrance, published by Ucas, which contains general advice on making choices and 'snapshots' of each university and college, describing its location and facilities. More important, it gives the entry grades required for different courses. More detail on individual subjects is contained in a series of booklets, Degree Course Guides (by the Careers Research and Advisory Centre) which compare syllabuses and demonstrate how one subject can be treated very differently by different institutions. For career exploration a publication What Do Graduates Do? gives the careers entered by graduates from specific degree courses.

You may also want to visit universities and colleges. Many schools organise visits to their nearest university to give pupils an introduction to student life and the opportunity to visit subject departments. Others, if cost permits, go farther afield. Lists of open days are already in schools, so with permission, you could make your own arrangements to visit places that interest you.

If your school organises a visit to a higher education fair, you should certainly go. These are held in different cities and are well publicised. At these you would get the chance to talk to representatives from different institutions.

You need not wait until the summer term. Copies of this year's books should be in school libraries. You could begin to browse. In addition some events will shortly be held particularly for lower sixth- formers. Several universities hold residential courses to help you decide on a subject. Among them are two being held by Loughborough University in March and April, 'Studying Psychology at University' and 'Engineering Experience'. Details of those and others are already in schools.

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