When you apply for university, picking the perfect course is just one part of the equation. There are application forms to be filled in, personal statements to be polished, and finances to be figured out. Daunted? Well, imagine if you could get monthly e-mail updates on application timetables, ending panic about missed deadlines. Or have access to a website which explains this year's changes to tuition fees, and gives tips on how to plan your finances - plus special offers on clothes, music, and other student essentials.
UCAS, the university admissions organisation, has just launched a revamped, expanded UCAS Card website especially for Year 12 and S5 (Scotland's Year 12 equivalent) students. The idea is that students can register right now at www.ucas.com/ucascard to get e-mail alerts and browse the site for information on the application process. There are competitions, reviews of the latest movies and music, and games; plus a special UCAS card giving discounts at several shops. Signed-up students also automatically get You Can magazine, produced in association with The Independent and stuffed with interviews, advice and features on applications and student life.
"It's giving extra support and information to Year 12 and S5 students," says Virginia Isaac, director of business development at UCAS. "Once students register with us, we can tailor the information we send them to the subjects they're interested in, and where they are in the application process. We're trying to make applying to higher education as accessible and straightforward as possible."
A lot of thought has gone into making the new website as user-friendly as possible, both for students and for teachers. You can click on tabs for advice on almost every aspect of applying for university: from how to get the most out of an open day, to how to revise without falling asleep at your desk.
"We ran a number of focus groups this year at sixth-form colleges to get feedback on how to improve the website, and we found that students were really interested in getting clear educational and financial information," says Rebecca Williams, project executive on the scheme.
To address this year's university fees shake-up, the website has a large Money Matters area, which runs through the new funding system for students in different parts of the country. There are masses of tips on how to manage your money - like buying vintage clothes and second-hand textbooks, doing research on overdraft allowances when picking a student bank account, and learning how to cook healthy food instead of buying expensive microwave meals. There's even a nifty budget calculator, which allows students to balance their monthly income against their expenses.
And if you're agonising over the 18th version of your personal statement, it's worth checking out the advice on writing something that shows off your best points. There are simple tips, such as reading the statement aloud to make sure it flows well. Especially helpful is a fictional personal statement, followed by comments on how it might be improved.
Once you've dealt with the nitty gritty of sorting out applications and finances, you can check out the fun stuff on the website - album and movie reviews, and fortnightly competitions. One group of sixth-formers just won a tour around the Chelsea Football Club training ground, and a training session with the team's coaches. In March 2007, all students who've signed up online will get a snazzy red UCAS card, sent to their home address, giving discounts and special offers at various stores. Recent companies to join the scheme include Topshop, Topman and PC World.
Teachers needn't feel left out in the cold either. There's an adviser section of the website with information for teachers, and special offers. They can also see which of their students have signed up with the scheme, so they know which students have access to the information online. And because the card and magazines are sent straight to the students' home addresses, and the information is online, teachers don't have to spend as much time on administration.
In any case, says Virginia Isaacs, "nowadays, something like 99.8 per cent of applications come to UCAS through e-mail". With the relaunched UCAS Card website, a new generation of students should be able to access clear information on applying to university at the click of a mouse. All that time once spent wading through paper and searching for stamps can now be spent improving your application - then hitting the shops to use that discount card.