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UCAS & Higher Education

Choosing your level of study

Higher education doesn’t just mean studying for a degree.  There are three main levels of higher education that you can choose from.
Degrees typically last three or four years full-time and allow you to enter graduate professions.
A foundation degree is a new, employment-related higher education qualification, which takes two years full-time.  It allows the opportunity to progress to further professional qualifications or to an honours degree.
Higher National Diploma (HND), Higher National Certificate (HNC) and Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE) usually take two years and are also qualifications in their own right.  They can be converted into a degree by taking one or two years’ extra study.

Choosing the structure of your course, and entry requirements

There are different types and structures of higher education programmes available.
These include:-

  • full-time
  • sandwich  (a year industry)
  • combined
  • joint
  • modular
  • part-time
  • distance learning

Choosing Your University

Vocational or non-vocational

A vocational degree is one which leads to a career path – but not necessarily a job straightaway – once you have graduated.  You need to have a very clear idea of the career you would like follow if you choose a vocational degree.  Alternatively you can follow the middle path and opt for a semi vocational course.
Examples of vocational degrees: - Dentistry, nursing, veterinary, medical, midwifery, teacher training.
Examples of non-vocational degrees: - Philosophy, geography, history, English literature.
Examples of semi-vocational degrees: - Business management, IT, economics, engineering.

Subject availability & deciding which subjects to study

Students should find out which universities offer the course they are interested in by using the UCAS Course Search facility, other guides or one of the databases such as ECCTI   , Study Link  or Which University

If you love a subject and have always been good at it, it’s tempting to carry on with it at degree level.  There is nothing wrong with this at all and thousands of students make this choice, but it could mean that you are missing out on the opportunity to study a completely new subject.  This might be a subject that would be just as appealing, but is something you have never considered.  This is why it is important to visit conventions and exhibitions.

Another consideration is to link a subject you love and are familiar with, with one you haven’t studied before.  This can result in you being offered a place at grades you are likely to achieve.

For example, to study English Literature you are likely to need three As but if you combine it with philosophy you may only need three Bs.

Choosing a non-vocational course in a subject you are unfamiliar with

You can find out about different types of courses and what they have to offer when you go to a convention or exhibition.  This is an excellent time to ask questions and read the prospectuses so that you have a better idea of what’s involved in studying a particular subject.


Most campuses are either in a city centre or rural setting.  Make a list of some of the advantages and disadvantages of each type.


Your hobbies, interests and social activities are probably an important part of your life.  It is important to check that you will have the opportunity to pursue these while at university.

Living Costs/Accommodation

Finance (or more accurately the lack of it!) is of prime importance to every student and inextricably linked with finance are the accommodation aspects of living at university.

Some students will want to spend their first year living in a hall of residence – and this is an excellent way of meeting other students and integrating into university life.  Information concerning halls of residence will be available in prospectuses or specialist brochures, which can be obtained directly from university accommodation offices.

  • Look at the size of the hall – do you want to live in a building with 1,000 other students or would you rather be part of a community of 40 or 50?
  • Are meals available or is it a self-catering hall – can you cook?  Whilst it is attractive to have meals ready for you – will you soon tire of the restrictions of fixed mealtimes? If you have any particular dietary requirements, you will need to check that the catering facilities can meet your particular needs.
  • Check also what other facilities are available – laundry, sports, TV room etc.  Look at the location of the hall, there are obvious attractions to being on campus, but if your room is immediately adjacent to the Student Union it will be very noisy at night – no problem if you are a ‘party animal’ but very disruptive if you like a good night’s sleep.
  • The costs of hall accommodation will vary but not by huge amounts. Private accommodation costs, however, do vary enormously when comparing one region of the country with another. The costs of living in London are well known but in fact many metropolitan cities are not very much cheaper. If you compare the cheapest regions of the country with the most expensive you will find rent differentials of 100% or even more. This obviously is a major factor when planning your finances.  Also check how much it will cost to retain your accommodation over the vacation; for the short vacations you will almost certainly have to pay full rent but, for the summer vacation in areas where there is a low demand for rented accommodation, it may be possible to negotiate half rent. However, in holiday areas where flats can be let to tourists, full rent will certainly be demanded during the summer vacation.
  • Just as for halls, the location of private accommodation is important.  Is the area safe?  What shopping facilities are available? The proximity of launderettes, takeaways etc. are important here. How far from the university/nightlife is it?  That invigorating 40-minute walk in the morning will become a tedious trudge in the evening particularly when it is raining. How frequent are the buses? How much do they cost?
  • Just as with rent charges, so general living costs can vary significantly from one town to another. While supermarket prices are fairly uniform, the presence of a local open-air market will offer cut-price fruit and vegetables etc.

Accommodation Service – most universities offer help with accommodation generally but the level of service offered will vary.  Check out the service at your shortlist of universities.  Do they provide lists of properties available in the private rented sector?  - have these properties been checked for gas safety certificates?  If you want to, or have to, live in private rented accommodation in your first year do they offer ~, find-a-home event in the summer to make this easier for you?  These events normally enable you to stay for a few nights in hall accommodation while you look around private properties.  They give you the opportunity to meet up with other ‘freshers’ and possibly look for somewhere in a group.  These events normally include social activities and give a useful introduction to the university as well as the surrounding area.

Check it out - University Open Day Visits

Research is vital.  Make sure that you look at the course structure and content offered at each institution, as courses with the same title will vary.  Also look at and think about the subjects which are covered by the course, the learning styles, how much practical work is required and how each subject is assessed.

Once you decide on a shortlist of courses and institutions, you will need to look at the entry requirements.  Be realistic.  Don’t apply for a course if you feel you will not be able to meet the entry requirements.  Speak to your tutor or a careers advisor for advice and refer to the UCAS website or the Big Guide for accurate entry requirements.  It is important to spread your chances, at this stage it is all about getting offers.  Admission Officers know that a student predicted 3Cs can pull out all the stops and get 3Bs but you need to be in the general ballpark for entrance criteria.

Attending Open Days at universities can be a very valuable part of the research process.

If students do wish to attend Open Days, we expect them to do so in their own time and not on a school day.  Many Universities now organise their Open Days at weekends.

To get a real feel for a university you’ll need to visit it.  Try to visit all those institutions that have survived the filtering and screening given the sections above.  Even if it is only a quick detour during a family outing you will still gain an impression of the institution and its setting.  Take advantage of open days – these are normally detailed in prospectuses or details can be obtained from enquiry offices or individual admissions tutors.

Whatever factors you attach importance to, do start your decision making process early.  Use the library and IT facilities at school.  Visit a Higher Education Fair and talk to university representatives and collect prospectuses.  Talk to staff at school and students already at university. Most importantly, visit universities and form your own impression.

If you do all of this then you can rest assured that your decision-making will be based on sound information.  Do, however, plan for contingencies.  Do not pin all of your hopes on your first choice university – you may not obtain the exam grades necessary for entry and you need to have a well-considered second choice available.

In conclusion, we wish you success in your decision-making.  While it can be a lengthy process it will lead to probably the most enjoyable years of your life and as such is surely worth some efforts.

The process of applying for Higher Education

It is advisable not to put all your eggs in one basket.  If you are applying for the most popular courses/universities remember 3000 other students could be as well.  So when applying spread your chances, say 2 top universities (be realistic if your predictors allow), 2 mid-range and 2 old polytechnics.  This should ensure you get offers.

The process is as follows:-


All draft personal statements to mentors.


All draft applications for Oxford, Cambridge, Medicine and Vet Science to form tutors.

15th October

All applications for Oxford, Cambridge, Medicine and Vet Science must be submitted to mentors.


All applications for Oxford, Cambridge, Medicine and Vet Science must reach UCAS.


Target date for all Sir Graham Balfour applications to be submitted to Mentors.

15th January

Final date for all applications to reach UCAS.


Begin applying for student finance.


Publication for A-Level results. 

The UCAS application  - Writing a Personal Statement

Your form tutor will help you and go over a draft with you and you can practise on the electronic application form until you are satisfied that you have got it as good as it can be.

Things to remember are:

  • Aim to write roughly a third on
    • why you want to study the subject you have chosen
    • what you particularly enjoy about the courses you are studying
    • what else you do/qualities you possess.
  • Don’t worry if what you write feels like boasting, you are trying to sell yourself. Include contributions you have made to sixth form life, even if you can only put prefect duty, and add extracurricular activities though don’t include socialising or watching television, those will be assumed.
  • Make sure everything is specific e.g. explain what your personal study is on and why it interests you; don’t just say “I enjoy coursework”.  Avoid any unsubstantiated statements, always give the evidence. Don’t pad it out just to fill up the space and use your usual style and vocabulary, don’t try to impress by using “elevated diction” (grand sounding words).
  • Say what skills you have acquired e.g. our AVCE studies have meant that you have learned to organise your work, take responsibility for it and meet deadlines.  Your work as a check out worker at Tesco has taught you to work in a team and to work under pressure without panicking.
  • Remember that if you have an interview you may be asked questions on what you have put in your personal statement, so don’t be too fanciful – say what you have done, not what you may get round to.
  • Check the spelling, punctuation and grammar really carefully. Mistakes look like carelessness and your Personal Statement may make the difference between you and someone else with the same predicted grades.
  • There is no spell check on the electronic application system, so write your statement in word, use the spell check and paste onto your application. Use nothing smaller that 12 point font, and the limit for lines is 47.
  • Try to be interesting and different without being outrageous.  A personal statement which makes you sound lively, alert, interested, energetic and different from all the others will stand you in good stead.

Advice on writing a Personal Statement

There is no ideal or recommended way to structure your response to this section.  However, you should consider using paragraphs and/or headings in your presentation for the benefit of admissions tutors.  Please ensure that your personal statement and educational background cover all your activities.  We suggest that our information should include some or all of the following:

  • your reasons for choosing the course(s) listed in section 3
  • the background to your interest in the subject(s) you wish to study
  • any employment, work experience or placement, or voluntary work, especially if relevant to your choice of course/subject
  • other forms of evidence of achievement.
  •  Duke of Edinburgh’s Award etc.
  • particular interests you have in your current studies
  • your career aspirations
  • details of any non-examined subjects which you are studying
  • details of any industrial or professional sponsorship or placements which you have secured or applied for
  • if you are planning to do so, your reasons for applying for deferred entry and your plans for the following academic year.
  • your social, sporting or other interests and activities.


The website is you need to register.  You will be asked for a buzzword; Sir Graham Balfour’s buzzword is sausages.
Take care when writing your Personal Statement!

Deferred Entry – Taking a Gap Year

Many students decide to take a year off from their studies.  They take what has now become known as the “gap year” and when you apply to universities you can indicate on the UCAS form that you would like to be considered for a deferral entry.  This is a question you should ask universities when you go to UCAS conventions and exhibitions.

For many students a gap year is a welcome break from years of studying and taking examinations.  But you should plan your gap year carefully to make the most of the time and opportunities it gives you.  Gap years are not an excuse to laze around and do nothing!

Gap year sports

If you are interested in sport, you can play, coach and gain a coaching qualification in many sports projects.   Most candidates plan a year ahead of when they want to go and fundraise to cover the costs.  Food and accommodation are included but not flights.
For more information about sports during your gap year contact

If you are a good swimmer it is really useful to take the lifeguard’s qualification (NPLQ), which means you could apply for jobs in all sorts of places, from holiday camps to leisure centre pools.  To find out more go to www/

Time out for travel

Travelling is an education in itself; an opportunity to see parts of the world that don’t feature in holiday brochures, to explore new cultures and to spend time with people who have a very different culture to your own.  Having to earn the money to pay for your trip, plan your itinerary, sort out visas and make sure you have the correct jabs is excellent training for the future.

Some people like to join an organised project to work on for a couple of months and then travel afterwards, but these can be very expensive indeed.  If this is the type of thing you would like to do, it’s worth doing your homework on the companies involved.

In some places students have been accepted on a project and local people have lost their jobs (which are perhaps very difficult to come by in their area and they may be supporting extended families).  There have also been incidences of projects making no actual difference to the community!  Some students have found that the support they thought they were paying for was virtually non-existent.  So do your homework.

Work experience in your chosen field of study

This is a very good use of your time and may help you with your university application.  One young woman I know of worked in a dental surgery for a year after her A2 results, during which time she applied to and was offered a place on a prestigious course to study dentistry.

If you are planning to study archaeology, getting experience on digs will definitely help you.  Try to think “out of the box” when looking for work experience.  Something that interests you and shows commitment and imagination will also stand you in good stead after you have graduated and are looking for your first proper job.

Many students who wish to study medicine get valuable experience by working on a health project overseas.  You should always mention on your personal statement any plans you have for your gap year, especially if they are relevant to the degree you want to study for.

Working to fund your studies

Many students decide to take a year out to work and save money for their studies.  If that is the case for you, you need to look at jobs which pay the most money.  It may mean working long hours at quite boring jobs, but it will be worth it financially.
You will have to discuss with your parents whether they will expect you to make a financial contribution to the household while you are working, or perhaps you can agree to do certain chores around the house or baby-sit for them.