Advice for parents about the career options for their children

The application process

The application process has many stages and it can seem daunting to both you and your child at first glance! It is vital that all information is provided in the required format so you can help by fully familiarising yourself with the application process at the very beginning of your child's search,  including double checking deadlines and any individual requirements of the institutions they may choose.

1. Timing

Applications begin in October for courses to start the following year and, as a general rule*, almost all go through UCAS, a central body which handles millions of applications each year for full time undergraduate courses. Just one online form is completed for up to five choices and UCAS are very helpful during the form filling and follow up process.  It is best to apply as early as possible even though the deadline is 15 January (ALWAYS check the UCAS website for the exact date as some courses are in great demand. If an application is late it may still be considered at the universities discretion and subject to demand but this should not be relied upon.

*Universities offering medicine, dentistry and veterinary science have an earlier application date (currently 15 October) and Cambridge and Oxford require students to complete their own application form in addition to the UCAS one. Art courses have different admissions criteria too with later application dates - currently 24 March for some art and design courses. Always, always check out individual websites for full details and exceptions.

2. Completing the application form

On the application, your child will need to supply details of exam results - either already gained or predicted.  They will also need to submit a personal statement which highlights their achievements, hopes, attributes and work experience along with reasons for choosing the course, a reference from a person in authority at their current school or an employer if they are working, and anything else to make their application stand out against others.

3. The Personal Statement

What is it?

Your son or daughter will be expected to complete a variety of forms for university most of which require factual details such as contact information, previous schools and predicted exam grades. In addition, they will need to complete a Personal Statement. They might be worried about this as it is seen as the most challenging part of the application and they will probably want your guidance completing it.

Competition for university places is strong, especially for the most popular ones and the most sought after courses. The Personal Statement is your child's opportunity to represent themselves in the best light to the admissions team at their chosen university. A high percentage of universities and colleges do not carry out interviews, so the Personal Statement is vital to make your child stand out amongst a crowd of applicants. It is like applying for a job with only a CV in lieu of an interview. The person reading it wants to establish if this is the right course for your child - have they researched the course, are they aware what is involved - and do they have the dedication, personality and ability to complete it.

What needs to be included?

Your son or daughter will need to have a clear idea of why they want to study the course at this particular university. The admissions team do not want to read vague generalisation. The following points should be considered and the UCAS website [link] contains more tips:

1) Which elements of the course interest your child?

2) What future career are they planning and why?

3) Work experience is important and it does not need to be course related. (Any part-time employment, charity or volunteer work will demonstrate a strong work ethic.)

4) What do they like to do in their spare time? (For example are they in a sports team; do they have musical talents?)

5) If your child is taking or has taken a gap year they will need to give a full explanation of their plans and how this will benefit them when they take up their place.

There are lots of dos and don't that your child should bear in mind, including obvious things such as using correct grammar and spelling, not using humour, not exaggerating and not copying another person's Statement.  It is worth looking online at examples of Personal Statements, but make sure your son or daughter realises that admissions teams are very good at picking up plagiarised content.

Applying for more than one course

When advising your child on the content of their Personal Statement be aware that regardless of how many different types of course and university they apply for - up to a maximum of 5 (check) - they can only submit one Personal Statement.

Therefore your child should consider how their statement will look if, for example, they are justifying how keen they are to study Languages, yet one of their other choices is Media Studies, or how much they wish to study at a University at the top of the league tables if they are also applying for a former Polytechnic as a safe choice.


A Personal Statement should be 4,000 characters long including spaces with a limit of 47 lines. Usually they are written in essay format with a beginning, middle and an end or individual paragraphs covering different aspects they wish to talk about. Once it is completed, your son or daughter should read it aloud to everyone they can to make sure it makes sense and fulfils the criteria. Once they are confident their Personal Statement is complete, it should be submitted online. Specific details are available on the UCAS website.

4. The decision making process

After submission, they may get called for an interview - some colleges and universities interview all applicants as a matter of course, others do not. In the Spring term, each university will offer your son or daughter either a conditional or unconditional place based on factors such as whether they will gain (or have) the grades required and the likelihood of completing the course successfully or if  they do not meet the criteria, they will receive a rejection.Important:If you or your child change address, telephone numbers or email address during this time, make sure you let UCAS know the new details.

5. Once offers are received

When all the universities have replied, if offers are unconditional your child will be in the enviable position of being able to simply choose their preferred one. If places are conditional upon exam grades, a first and second should be selected and if they achieve the required grades they can automatically take up a place there or at their second choice if those grades are met.

6. Adjustment period

An adjustment period was introduced last year for students who achieved higher than expected exam results to enable them to submit a new application without the risk of losing their original firm offer. So if your child did not aim as high as they could when making their choices, they may still be in with a chance to better their offer. The criteria are quite exact, so if your child is in this lucky position, look at that UCAS website to see what constitutes exceeding their offer.

7. No offers

By the end of March if no offers have been received during the first round of UCAS, your child should apply again through UCAS Extra for courses with free places. The final part of the process if no place is offered by August is to enter UCAS Clearing.

8. Clearing

This is the point when the universities and colleges know exactly how many places they have left after those students with offers have accepted or rejected their place and they open those places up. Students who have previously not received offers or who did not achieve the expected grades can now apply directly to the universities for a place. After discussing options with the universities, when your child finally accepts a place, this must still be done through UCAS. And even if they are happy to take their chances and choose to wait until after the July deadline for first application for clearing, they must still register with UCAS and they still need to submit a personal statement and reference.

The latest date for applying through clearing is currently 20 September for the forthcoming academic year but you should always check with UCAS for the most current date.

9. Deferred entry

Deferred entry is simply when your child chooses not to go University or College immediately after their final year at school. They may take a year off to work or travel. Your son or daughter can apply for deferred entry on the UCAS application form giving reasons for wanting to do so. Many admissions teams are happy for them to do this. Alternatively, if your child has a place on a course starting immediately after A Levels and then decides they would like to take a gap year after all, they can apply retrospectively and it is often accepted.

10. Part-time and online courses

There is no central clearing process for part-time or online/distance learning courses. UCAS offers a search on their website for information on part-time courses though enquiries, applications and requests for funding should be made direct to the relevant institution.