Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS)

By on October 30th, 2020

For students looking at university options in several different countries, one key difference can stand out when comparing the U.K. to alternatives in the U.S., Canada, or Europe: U.K. universities set out, in detail, the grades they require for students to study a specific course. 

For example, a student looking to study Mechanical Engineering at one university might need to achieve AAA at A-Level or 38 I.B. points, in addition to As or 6s in math and physics, for the course. No physics or significantly lower predicted grades, and there's little point in applying. The same applies for most subjects at most U.K. universities, with more selective universities able to ask for higher grades.

So why does this process vary so much from the ones used in other countries? 

One key reason is that students are being admitted directly to a predefined course of study in the U.K. At some point in the admissions process, a professor or the like will help set that entry criterion. They'll work out the grades and various qualifications that a student needs to have as a minimum to step straight from high school into day one of the course and cope with the advanced material. 

This is quite different from other systems, whereby some first-year classes (e.g., the 101 options) are introductory-level courses, with students not expected to have mastery of academic content; in the U.K., there are no 101 level courses. 

To flesh this out, let's take one popular example: BSc Economics at the LSE, the London School of Economics. Economics at most U.K. universities require you to have a high level of mathematics, but LSE asks for even more - the highest possible grade you can get in math (be that IB, A-Level, or something else). Behind this requirement lies a point that many students miss: the academics at LSE demand that you not only are good at math but good at doing it quickly; otherwise, you'll likely fail their course. 

LSE isn't asking you to have an A* at A-Level math (and ideally further than A-Level math) for their amusement; this is based on their assessment of the skills needed to succeed within this area of study from day one onward. This is the reason that entry requirements are set and replicated across U.K. universities. 

Once students have their entry requirements matched against a course of study, the rest of the process falls into place rather quickly. The personal statement is used to support the match for a course of study. It should be academically focused – making points to explain how and why the candidate is well-suited for this course of study, by referring to their academic background. The UCAS reference, usually completed by a teacher at the student's school, needs to do the same. The school will also add the predicted or achieved grades for the student's high school leaving exams.

The student then needs to select up to five choices for their application (usually the same course across five universities), and then the application is sent to UCAS. Universities will choose whether to make students an offer based on grades, statement, and reference. When all replies are received, the students can decide which two offers – one as a firm and one as insurance - can be carried forward to results day.

The process is streamlined, with firm staging points for students. Understanding the role that predicted or achieved grades plays and the pathway through the process of application, offers, and confirmation can make everything much more manageable for everyone involved. 


David Hawkins

Founder, The University Guys