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Deciding what and where to study

There are thousands of courses available, so research is the key to making an informed decision about what to study and where.

Brian Heap writes in his book University Degree Course Offers that deciding your degree on the basis of your current studies is a “reasonably safe option since you are already familiar with the subjects themselves and what they involve” and that for many occupations “the degree subject is often not as important as the degree itself”.

He also adds that a large number of graduate jobs are open to graduates of any degree discipline and specialist training for many careers starts once you have your degree.

You can choose up to five university courses. There's no preference order and your universities won't see where else you've applied.

However, you can only choose a maximum of four courses in any one of medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine or veterinary science. Also, you can only apply to one course at either the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge.

After you've sent off your application you can see how it's progressing by logging in to the UCAS system called Track.


Consider the following to help narrow down your degree course choices:

You could decide to:

  1. Continue with one of your present subjects.
  2. Combine two or more of your current subjects.
  3. Combine a subject that you are studying now with a new one.
  4. Take a completely new subject or subjects.
  5. Take a general vocational course linked to a broad occupational area. Examples include art & design, business/finance, computing/IT, construction, education, engineering, health & social care, media, hospitality, public services (this links to careers in the police, fire service or armed forces), retail, science, sport and travel & tourism.
  6. Choose a course related to a specific job. Examples of degrees linked to particular jobs include accountancy, acting, primary teaching, social work, speech & language therapy, audiology, medicine, veterinary science, pharmacy, optometry, nursing, midwifery, dentistry, radiography, optometry, physiotherapy, sport therapy, quantity surveying, journalism, architecture, archaeology, design (for example, furniture, graphic, textiles) and agriculture.

You then need to research your chosen degree course ideas and which universities offer them. Use the UCAS website, check out university prospectuses, go to open days/conventions, contact admissions tutors and use the useful websites in this section.  

In particular, research the following:

  • The specific university course entry requirements to make sure you have the right subjects and the right UCAS Tariff points/grades needed.
  • Type of qualification on offer: For example, is it academic, vocational, single honours, joint honours, combined honours, modular or sandwich? Sandwich means the course usually includes a year working.
  • Reputation: What is the quality of teaching and research? What do recent students say about it?
  • Student satisfaction.
  • Academic facilities.
  • Course teaching methods: What is the balance between lectures, seminars, tutorials, practical or work-related activities?
  • Course assessment: Is it all examination-based or partly based on coursework?
  • Tuition fee costs.
  • Graduate destinations: How many find employment? What kind of careers do they go into?
  • Location and distance from home: Do you want to live in a big city or somewhere quieter?
  • Costs: Some places are cheaper to live in than others!
  • Accommodation: Are all first-year students offered accommodation?
  • Is study or employment abroad part of the course?
  • Part-time and holiday work: Does the university help and encourage this and do they have a student employment service?
  • Social activities: What clubs, societies and sporting facilities are there?

University league tables

University league tables can be used to compare universities. There are a number of different league tables available to use, although it’s worth knowing that they calculate their tables using different criteria and weighting. However, all should include student satisfaction scores, student to staff ratio, graduate prospects and entry grades.

Although they are a useful source of information, they do have their limitations! For example, not all indicators are updated yearly and student feedback may not be objective.

The UniGuide website adds the following points:

  • Just because a university is at the top of a league table doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right one for you.
  • League tables are often closely bunched together at the top, middle and bottom, so don't read too much into universities placed five to 10 places apart. A university in 20th place can be separated by the one in 30th place by only a few percentage points. It adds that this is also why some universities and courses fluctuate from year to year - small differences in the score can mean big differences in the ranking order.
  • League tables don’t always tell you the full story as certain university courses may be well regarded by employers in specific career areas, even though the universities may not feature in the upper reaches of the tables.

Here are two sources of league tables to check out:

Remember though, you need to choose the right course and university for you, based on factors that are important to you! You therefore need to decide your priorities – create your own list of key factors and do your research. 

Art foundation courses

If you wish to study art at university you may need to study an art foundation course first, so you must check the specific entry requirements for your chosen universities

How to apply


You need to use the UCAS website to apply for most undergraduate courses.

The UCAS website provides detailed information to help you with your UCAS application. It also provides lots of useful videos, such as a step-by-step guide to applying.

You make your application via the UCAS online system, Apply. You don’t need to do it all at once – you can save your progress and sign back in anytime.

You apply for performing arts courses at conservatoires through UCAS  Conservatoires



The usual UCAS deadlines are 15 October for the universities of Oxford, Cambridge or any professional course in medicine, veterinary medicine/science and dentistry; the last Wednesday in January for the majority of courses.

Some course providers require additional admissions tests to be taken alongside the UCAS application, and these may have a deadline.

More information is available on the UCAS website.

If you miss a deadline your application will be classed as late. Most universities will still look at your application if they have vacancies left on the course you apply for, but there are no guarantees! Late applications can be made up to 30 June. Contact universities direct to see if they would consider a late application (less likely for competitive courses).

UCAS tariff


The UCAS Tariff is a means of allocating points to compare post-16 qualifications used for entry to higher education. However, it’s worth noting that only one-third of universities make tariff offers; meaning two-thirds of offers request specific grades.

For example, the tariff points for A levels are:

  • A* = 56 points.
  • A = 48.
  • B = 40.
  • C = 32.
  • D = 24.
  • E = 16.

For more information about the Tariff go to the UCAS website. 

Admission tests

It is possible that you may need to take an admissions test. This will depend on what course you have applied for (for example, law, medicine) and where you have applied (for example, Cambridge and Oxford).

Most admissions tests take place early in the school year, so if you do need to take one you'll need to register for it early, possibly before you've sent your application off.

UCAS add that many of the courses that use admissions tests are also the courses that have the 15 October application deadline, so it's worth checking these details in advance.

More information is on the UCAS website

Personal statement

Course tutors use personal statements (plus estimated grades and references) to compare applicants, so make sure you sell yourself so that your application stands out from the rest!

UCAS advise you not to mention universities by name as you need to use the same personal statement for all the courses you apply for.

The UCAS website gives useful tips for writing your personal statement. 

University interviews

It is possible that you may have to attend an interview, especially if you have applied for a competitive course or to certain universities.

To prepare for an interview use the UCAS website. 

Conditional offers and unconditional offers

A conditional offer usually means you are required to get certain grades or points in your A levels (or equivalent). This will mean waiting for results day in summer to see if your exam results meet the conditions.

An unconditional offer usually means you've already met the entry requirements, so the place is yours if you want it! By accepting an unconditional offer you are committing to go to that university.   

Some universities may make an unconditional offer to students before they take their A levels (or equivalent). Sometimes universities require students to put them as their first choice for the unconditional offer to stand (sometimes referred to as a “conditional unconditional offer”). You should only accept an unconditional offer if it is the right course/university for you.

You can accept a maximum of two choices – one firm and one insurance. You can only have an insurance choice if your firm choice is a conditional offer. If you accept an unconditional offer as your firm choice then the place is guaranteed, so you cannot have an insurance choice.

You will only attend your insurance choice if you don't meet the conditions of your firm choice but you do meet the conditions of your insurance offer. So make sure your insurance offer is somewhere you would be happy going to.

You also have the option to decline offers. If you decline all offers, or are not made any offers, you can use UCAS Extra and/or Clearing

Study overseas

It is also possible to study abroad and an increasing number of students are considering this option due to the cost of UK university tuition fees. Use the following websites to carefully research your options and the financial implications:

  • A Star Future Use to search for courses taught in English abroad.
  • The Student World This gives guidance about where to study, why, the process and financial implications.
  • Eunicas Enables UK and Irish students to apply to degree programmes, taught through English, in universities across Europe.
  • Fulbright Commission
  • Study in the USA Use to explore studying in the USA.
  • Study options Use to explore studying in Australia and New Zealand.
  • Study portals Provides a database of courses around the world.
  • StudyLink Information and guidance about studying abroad.
  • Medical Doorway Free advice to students aiming to study medicine, dentistry or veterinary medicine in Europe.

Useful websites

What and where to study, applications and year out:

  • UCAS The key website. Search and apply for courses. Lots of other useful and helpful information e.g. choosing what to study, the applications process and student finance
  • The UniGuide Has an easy-to-use search facility.
  • PUSH Guide to UK universities, student life, gap years, open days and student finance. 
  • Apply to Uni Has a range of advice and information. 
  • The UniGuide - A level explorer  See where your A-level choices will take you.
  • Pure Potential  Has lots of useful information relating to higher education and includes a very useful section called “Events and Opportunities”, which includes details of opportunities that may interest you, such as masterclasses and conferences.
  • Prospects Guide to taking a gap year. 
  • Independent Gap Advice Useful advice about gap years.
  • Getting in Has a range of useful information, such as applying, open days and personal statements.
  • The Guardian Links to league tables.
  • The Complete University Guide Links to league tables.
  • Informed Choices Russell Group universities guide that helps you explore how A level choices link to future degree options, particularly at Russell Group universities.
  • Career Companion Independent and impartial gateway to careers information on the internet.
  • UniTasterDays This provides a directory of university events for school groups and individual students.

Alternative options to university:

UCAS Extra

Extra is a way of making a further course choice. If you've used five choices and weren't accepted or you decided to decline any offers you received, you can use UCAS Extra to apply for more courses (one at a time). It is open between 25 February and early July.

More information about Extra is available on the UCAS website. 

UCAS Clearing

Clearing helps universities fill any places they have left on their courses and is available July to September each year. So you can use it if you have no offers, didn’t meet your conditional offers or you’ve declined your firm place using the ‘decline my place’ button in Track.

More information about Clearing is available on the UCAS website.

UCAS Adjustment

Each year some applicants pass their exams with better results than expected. So if you've met and exceeded the conditions of your firm choice, Adjustment gives you the chance to potentially swap your course for another one. It’s available from A level results day to 31 August.

If you try Adjustment but you don't find anything, you'll still keep the course you gained on results day.

More information about Adjustment is available on the UCAS website.