A parents’ guide to UCAS applications

To support your child through the Ucas process, you’ll need to be aware of the key dates and – make sure that they are too

“The university application process is a minefield,” says Wendy Pannell, whose daughter is in year 13. It can be particularly confusing for parents who want to be supportive, but who have no previous experience of the university admissions service Ucas.

“University has changed enormously,” says Andrew Swarbrick, university applications coordinator at the independent Abingdon school, Oxfordshire. “Parents need to remember that it’s different from how it was for them. They need to start with a blank slate.”

With that in mind, here’s how you can help your sixth-former to find and apply to a university that’s right for them.

Choosing a course and a university

Most schools will host information days that help parents to prepare. “Go to those sessions if a school is running them,” says Nancy Raynsford, whose daughter is in her first year at Liverpool University. “I felt it was good to hear what she was hearing, because then we weren’t talking at odds.”

Students should think about where they want to go and what they want to study in year 12, as the application procedure will get underway in the autumn term of year 13. But with 37,000 courses to choose from at over 300 institutions, how can you help them to narrow down the options?

If your sixth-former has a dream career in mind, such as medicine or dentistry, they’ll need a specific degree to achieve it. If they don’t know, admissions tutors advise students to apply for a subject they enjoy or a course they are fascinated by.

“Parents should encourage students to read, and to go to classes,” says Ruth Greenhalgh, director of higher education at Sevenoaks school in Kent. “They can help to cultivate a passion so that sixth-formers can work out what they want to study.”

Make use of the resources available online, such as university league tables and prospectuses. “I found the Ucas website a mine of information,” says Wendy Pannell. “It’s got all the deadline dates and everything in one place. You can also download apps and use Twitter – I’ve followed Ucas and universities.”

Parents and sixth-formers should go to open days to get a feel for what a university is like. “We went to about 20 open days,” says Nancy Raynsford. “We sat in lectures and that helped us to understand what it was all about. I was designated as the note-taker so that my daughter could listen.

“I didn’t ask any questions publicly because that was her job, but my being there gave her confidence. We could talk about it afterwards, and the shared experience of having been there with her meant that we could understand the process as well.”

“I went on a couple of visits to universities,” says Barbara Asante, whose daughter is now at Sussex University. “It’s important for the parents to go because you know your child and so you can see that a uni or a course will suit them. You can even pretend to be a mature student and go and visit universities yourself – it’s a lot of fun to do that.”

Helping with an application

Parents should know important dates in the Ucas calendar and remind their sixth-former of them. All applications are made through Ucas and the final deadline for the majority of courses is 15 January. However, most applications are submitted during the autumn term of year 13.

It’s recommended that students complete applications as early as possible, as, although universities must consider every one received by the deadline, many make offers in the autumn.

Students can apply for up to five courses. Entry for most courses will be determined by predicted A-Level results and tariff points. A certain number of tariff points are given for each A-level grade. You can look at tariff tables online to see how many points each grade has. Many schools advise that students have at least one ‘back-up’ option, with lower entry requirements, in case they do not get their predicted grades.

As well as understanding and guiding your child through the application process, parents can help with the personal statement, which is a chance for students to show their passion for a subject.

“Parents can help their son or daughter to begin their personal statement,” says Swarbrick. “Get them to explain what they find interesting and exciting about their subject,” he says, “as well as to say what they’ve done to demonstrate that interest. However, it’s also important that parents recognise that their son or daughter has to write their personal statement themselves.”

Oxbridge and other early deadlines

The deadline for Oxbridge and some specific courses, such as medicine and dentistry, is 15 October. If your sixth-former is thinking about applying to any of these subjects or universities they should prepare well in advance. Students may need to take a test or submit written work. They are then shortlisted and could be invited for an interview.

Parents can help by being aware of the early deadline, helping them to decide between colleges and to prepare for interview. “Support your son or daughter by getting past papers, going to open days and looking at different colleges,” says Greenhalgh.


Offers are staggered depending on when an application was made. Offers can be “unconditional” or “conditional” – which means they depend on A-level results. Students have to decline or accept only when all of their five choices have got back to them. They will then have to respond by a set deadline, given by Ucas. If a student’s first choice is a conditional offer, they can also accept a second insurance choice, which asks for lower grades.

“At this stage, the parental role is to do a monitorial job,” says Swarbrick. “Parents should ask sixth-formers what the deadline is and when they plan to make their response by, to make sure that they are on top of the procedure. As the whole thing becomes more real, parents could help to organise another visit or two so that they get a second impression.”

Ucas Extra and clearing

If your sixth-former did not get into any of their choices, then they can still find a course through Ucas Extra, which stays open until early July. They can use the course search to find out which courses still have places available and apply through Ucas.

Another option is to go through clearing, which matches students with unfilled places on courses. It’s organised by Ucas and opens at 5pm on A-level results day, 15 August. It then runs until September.

Encourage your child to keep calm, as clearing can be a stressful process. Expect them to be on the phone, contacting universities. Institutions say they prefer students, rather than parents, to call, so it’s best for parents to take a step back and to let their son or daughter speak for themselves.

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