Guide to UK Applications • Undergraduate

The UK UCAS: How to Shortlist Undergraduate Universities

POSTED ON 04/19/2023 BY The Red Pen

The UK has more than 380 universities and colleges that offer full-time undergraduate courses. But the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), a centralised admission and application service, lets you apply only to five colleges for your undergraduate degree. How do you shortlist your universities on the UK UCAS platform? 

Here’s how to shortlist undergraduate universities for your UCAS application:

Begin with research before selecting UK universities on the UCAS website

Researching UK universities is key to finding one that’s best suited for you. To organise your research, create a spreadsheet and include the following: 

1) The course

If you haven’t decided on your major, begin your journey by exploring the undergraduate subjects available in the UK. To arrive at your specialisation, look at what inspires you and weigh them against your capabilities. Now, explore universities that are best known for the subject you want to explore. Remember that a highly recommended university may not be ideal for the course you wish to pursue. 

Each university offers different topics for an academic subject, as well as opportunities to study combinations. For example, Durham University lets psychology students pursue several joint programmes, such as philosophy and psychology or economics and psychology. University College London, on the other hand, does not offer joint honours programmes, and students working towards a psychology degree must complete the compulsory and optional modules. 

Therefore, it’s important to compare courses offered by different universities. The Uni Guide is an excellent place to start. But you must visit university websites to cross-check modules, the number of lectures and how students are evaluated. Since these websites outline the interests and skills required for specific courses, they will help you assess whether a course works for you. 

You may also check league tables that rank universities through The Guardian, Times World University Rankings, and The Complete University Guide to guide your decision. 

2) The entry requirements (grades):  

Entry to certain courses might be more rigorous than others, so it is also worth considering if you are prepared to go through the process. Most universities in the UK have very specific entry and subject-specific requirements. For example, at the University College London for a bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry, you require a total score of 18 points in higher-level chemistry, mathematics and biology, and your scores for each higher level subject shouldn’t be less than five. The programme will accept either ‘Mathematics: Analysis and Approaches’ or ‘Mathematics: Applications and Interpretation’ at higher level.

UK universities also need predicted grades, based on which you will receive a conditional offer. You must get in touch with your school counsellor and ensure these are calculated correctly. You can also use these predicted grades to narrow your college list further. Sort them into the following categories:

  • Target universities: In this category, list mid-risk universities whose entry requirements are a few points lower than your actual or predicted grades. For example, if a university requires A-A-A in the A-Levels, your predicted score should be A*-A-A. 
  • Safe universities: This list should include low-risk universities with entry requirements much lower than your actual or predicted grades. So, if your predicted grades are A-A-B, select universities with an entry requirement of B-B-B. Ideally, select one safe university as a backup.
  • Dream universities: Under this category, select universities that you’ve always aspired to attend. But ensure that the entry requirements of these universities align with your predicted grades. 

Besides meeting the minimum admission requirements, you must also submit a completed UCAS application. Here’s a guide to the UK UCAS platform.

3) The research opportunities: 

UK Universities vary in terms of the research opportunities they offer. For example, The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme at Imperial College London provides many research opportunities for STEM undergraduates. It includes stem cell research, systems medicine, multi-scale computational chemical engineering and more. But if you’re researching social sciences and humanities, you may need to look at what other universities offer. King’s College London, for instance, is home to one of the oldest English departments in the country and is better suited for students interested in research across language and linguistics. Information about research opportunities is available on the university websites. As you chip away at your college list to bring it down to the final five, you will learn which universities are better suited for your research. 

4) The location and campus culture: 

When shortlisting universities in the UK for UCAS applications, you must consider their location. If you’re looking to cut living expenses and dream of attending a Hogswart-like university with vast open campuses, look at institutions in the countryside or small towns. Those looking for access to multiple options and experiences should consider city universities. But that would be a far more expensive choice. You must also shortlist  universities with campuses where you’ll thrive. For better insight, speak with current university students about the campus culture, peer norms, events and unwritten rules. You might just stumble upon something that university websites do not offer. There are several platforms like Unibuddy, Univ connect and Discover Uni where you can connect with current students. 

5) UK universities that offer a year in industry

Several UK universities offer undergraduate students a placement year as part of the degree programme. Also referred to as a “sandwich year,” it allows students to take a year-long break from their degree programme and work full-time in an organisation that’s related to their major or field of study. Whether you’re looking to start your career after graduation or pursue further studies, the placement or sandwich year is a valuable way to gain real-world experience. Typically you will pursue your undergraduate degree in the first two years, take a break for placements in the third year and return to complete your degree in the fourth year. 

6) The finances: 

Cost of tuition and living expenses are decisive factors when shortlisting universities or courses. For example, humanities, arts and education courses are less expensive than engineering and medicine courses. To offset these costs as an international student, you can apply for scholarships like the Chevening scholarship. If you require financial assistance, contact financial aid offices to discuss options. 

Most universities in the UK offer on-campus living. If you can’t find accommodation within the campus or wish to live more independently, you may have to look at homestays and rented apartments. If you’re renting, you will have to pay council tax and for utilities, such as electricity, water and wi-fi. Most students living off campus usually share an apartment and divide the expenses. 

While you must do some preliminary research on the cost of living in a particular city or town, you can find information on tuition fees and campus accommodation on university websites, UCAS. But do chat with current students to assess whether living outside the campus is more feasible. 

Make the right decisions

Once you narrow your university shortlist down to the final five, the next step is to choose firm and insurance universities. These choices will help you respond to university offers. 

1) What is a firm choice university? 

A firm choice university is the one on your list that you wish to attend the most. To identify your firm choice, strike a balance between pursuing a specific course and estimating whether your grades will meet the conditional offer you have been given. For instance, if the highest conditional offer for a course is 38 points in the IB, and you’re confident of achieving 40 points with 6-7-7 in the higher-level subjects, this course can become your firm choice. However, if unsure, choose a course with a conditional offer that matches your predicted grades. But remember that the conditional offer can be higher, lower or the same as the minimum entry requirement. If you meet the conditions of your firm choice, you must attend that university, even if you’ve had a change of heart. But what happens when you don’t meet the conditional? Well, you move to plan B.

2) What is an insurance choice university?

Your insurance choice university is plan B. It’s a university you are happy to attend if you don’t meet the conditional offer of your firm choice. While zeroing in on your insurance choice, make sure that it has lower conditions than your firm choice, or you’ll run the risk of not meeting the conditions of both choices. 

Once universities make their final decisions, UCAS will provide a deadline by which you must declare your firm and insurance choices. You cannot reverse your choices after announcing them, so make your choices in advance after careful consideration. 

Here are 9 compelling reasons to study in the UK. You may also want to read about the higher education system in the UK. But if the thought of narrowing your list from 380 plus universities down to five is daunting, please reach out. Our UK undergraduate specialist will simplify the process for you.