How to Apply to Top UK Universities

When applying to UK universities as an international student, where do you start? We’ve created a helpful guide to walk you through the very basics of the UK admissions process.

Katie Broadbent - 27 April 2021 · 14 min read

For many years now, the UK has come to be one of the world’s most popular higher education destinations for international students. And with over 140 universities and a range of universally-recognised qualifications to be earned, it’s easy to see why. In fact, there are more than 485,000 international students enrolling in UK institutions each year.

Thinking of applying to a UK university in the future? Use our helpful article for guidance and information on what the application process involves, including how it differs for the internationally-acclaimed Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.


Why Apply to a UK University?

The UK is one of the most popular destinations for overseas undergraduate students and will only gain in popularity over the coming years. There are multiple reasons why the UK attracts so many ambitious international students. 

Firstly, the UK has some of the most renowned higher education institutions in the world, coupled with huge amounts of funding in academic research and facilities, most recently and notably highlighted with the ground-breaking research which led to the production of the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine

The UK is also a very multicultural country where students are able to mix with individuals from all around the world, leading to tremendous opportunities to build connections that could have huge benefits both personally and professionally once you enter the working world. 

The length of study and living costs are also highly attractive for international students, alongside the ability to apply for a post-study visa which allows students who graduated from summer 2021 onwards to stay and work in the UK for a further two years. 

How to Research Which UK Universities to Apply For

If you are looking to study at a UK university, there are a number of ways you can go about choosing the right higher education institution for your academic and personal needs. The below are a few tried and tested ways to narrow down your search:

  1. Rankings - There a number of different sites that provide rankings baked on a number of categories including student satisfaction and teaching effectiveness. These include World University Ranking and Impact Ranking, among many others.

  2. Virtual Tours - Due to the limitations of the pandemic, many universities now offer a virtual tour of their campus, teaching facilities and sometimes even the city they are in, making this a fantastic way of getting a feel for an institution you are considering. Simply head to their website and there should be the option for a virtual tour!

  3. Ask for a prospectus - Most universities will either be able to send you this through an email or via the post. A prospectus will have information such as course listings, student testimonials and photos of the facilities and campus. There is also usually a page in any university prospectus entirely dedicated to international students and their needs. 

An Introduction to the UK Application Process

Here in the UK, most undergraduate applications are made through an online application service, known as UCAS

There are some key things you need to know about UCAS, including their Tariff Points system, the number of applications you can make, as well as those all-important deadlines for submitting your application. We’ll cover these in more detail below.

The UCAS System

In the UK, there is a centralised service that students use to apply to universities. This is called UCAS, which stands for Universities (and) Colleges Admissions Service.

Almost everyone who wishes to study an undergraduate degree in the UK will need to apply through UCAS. Students use the service to pull applications together and send off to their chosen universities. It’s all conducted online, making it very easy to track the progress of your applications.

Essentially, you should think of UCAS as the messenger between you and universities. With the service, you can research, select and submit your application to universities. The universities take your proposal on UCAS and then decide whether or not to offer you a place. 

You can use UCAS to confirm a select university to study at and reject offers from others. In this sense, all communications about your application are conducted through the UCAS platform. 

How many universities can you apply to in the UK?

On UCAS, you can apply to up to five universities in the UK, or up to five different courses at one university. 

How much does UCAS cost to use?

Many students forget that submitting an application through UCAS costs a fee. For 2021, the application fee is £26 for multiple choices, or a single application to one university or course costing £20.

What are the deadlines for applying to universities via UCAS?

Whether you’re a UK or international student, you will need to make sure you submit your application by the deadline to avoid missing out on a place on your dream course.

You can submit your application from as early as the September before the course is due to start. However the final deadlines for 2021 are:

  • 15 October, 6pm (UK time) - For the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge

  • 29 January, 6pm (UK time) - For most other universities and degree programmes

Please note, most Medicine, Dental, Veterinary and Conservatoire courses also have October deadlines for applications - so check individual universities to make sure you don’t miss the date to submit your application.

If you apply after the end of June, you will automatically be entered into Clearing, where you will need to contact universities directly to see if there are any spaces available on the course you wish to apply for. However, most international students apply well before this so they have plenty of time to make the necessary arrangements for travel and accommodation.

UCAS Points

When browsing courses at UK universities, you may see that some of them list a set number of UCAS Points as part of their entry requirements. 

Although many people in the UK apply to university with their A-Levels, GCSEs and BTEC qualifications, there are actually hundreds of different qualifications being studied across the world at the same level, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) and higher diplomas.

With all these different qualifications and grading systems, the UK education system created UCAS Points as a way of finding a universal grading system that recognises all these different qualifications and grades. So, when students apply to universities, they can use the UCAS Points system to quickly understand what grades they need to achieve to secure a place on a course.

UCAS Points will take all your different qualifications and grades (of Level 3 and above) and translate them into a numerical value. This one value can then determine where and what you study at university. 

Essentially, UCAS Points allow students from all different backgrounds to apply to UK universities based on one grading criteria - which can typically be made up of a whole range of different qualifications. We’ll cover more on this later.

The UK Education System vs International Education

In the UK, students have to legally attend primary and secondary education, which runs from around 5 years old until the student is 16 years old. After 16, students either need to be in full time education, have an apprenticeship, or be working full-time. 

The education system is broken into “key stages,” which breaks down as follows:

Key Stage 1: 5 to 7 years old

Key Stage 2: 7 to 11 years old

Key Stage 3: 11 to 14 years old

Key Stage 4: 14 to 16 years old

Key Stage 5: 16 to 18 years old

Generally, Key Stages 1 and 2 are taken at primary school, and at the age of 11, a student will move onto secondary school and finish Key Stages 3 and 4. Some students also stay at their secondary school to complete A-Levels (Key Stage 5) or they can go to a local college. 

Secondary school

In the UK, students usually study two major types of qualifications during secondary school: GCSEs and A-Levels

GCSEs (Level 2 qualifications) are usually studied from Year 9 to Year 11 (ages 13/14 - 16), with exams at the end of the final year. GCSEs cover the core subjects: English Literature, English Language, Mathematics, Biology, Chemistry and Physics, as well as a number of additional subjects chosen by the student, including Modern Languages, History, and Geography. 

In total, students will study around 10 different GCSE subjects in total and be examined in all of them. These GCSE grades then usually determine what a student will go on to study next.

Sixth Form / College

After sitting their GCSEs, many students go on to study A-Levels (Level 3 qualifications). These are from Year 12 to Year 13 (ages 16-18) and are the equivalent to 11th Grade (Junior) and 12th Grade (Senior) in the US education system. 

Usually, students choose three A-Levels, which they study for the entire two years. As they only choose a few subjects, A-Levels cover information in a lot more detail than at GCSE and require a lot of time to study.

For students who prefer non-exam-based subjects, students may also choose to study BTEC qualifications instead of or combined with their GCSE and A-Levels. BTECS are popular in the UK as they do not require a final exam and are coursework-based qualifications. 

Aged 18, many students will then go on to apply to universities with their A-Level and/or BTEC qualifications. That is, any qualification classified as Level 3 or above. UCAS Points are only calculated on qualifications set at Level 3 or above, hence why GCSEs are not included. 

Some universities will also ask that students have at least 5 GCSE qualifications. However, it is important to note that GCSEs are not counted as UCAS Points, as these are Level 2 qualifications. They are usually a supplementary addition to a university’s entry requirements.

A-Level Qualifications as UCAS Points

Many top UK universities will ask for specific grades from students studying A-Level, such as ABB or A*AA. However, as we established earlier, some universities will list UCAS Points as part of their entry requirements.

If you’re looking at a particular university that asks for UCAS Points, take a look at the conversion table below, outlining what points your A-Level qualifications could earn you.

A* = 56 UCAS Points

A= 48 UCAS Points

B = 40 UCAS Points

C = 32 UCAS Points

D = 26 UCAS Points

E = 16 UCAS Points

BTEC Qualifications (also known as Nationals)

Similarly, if you are applying to university with BTEC qualifications, take a look at what your grades could translate to in terms of UCAS points. 

D*D*D* = 168 UCAS Points

D*D*D = 160 UCAS Points

D*DD = 152 UCAS Points

 DDD = 144 UCAS Points

DDM = 128 UCAS Points

DMM  = 112 UCAS Points

MMM = 96 UCAS Points

MMP = 80 UCAS Points

MPP = 64 UCAS Points

PPP = 48 UCAS Points

International Qualifications vs UK Qualifications

If you’re applying to a UK university as an international student, you may never have studied or even heard of A-Levels or GCSEs. 

As mentioned above, UCAS Points allow students from all different educational backgrounds to apply to a UK university, using the qualifications they have earned in their home countries. 

UCAS has an entire document outlining which qualifications and grades translate into UCAS Points. But, as a rough guide, here are some of the most commonly studied qualifications.

International Baccalaureate Qualifications in Higher Level

H7 = 56 UCAS Points

H6 = 48 UCAS Points

H5 = 32 UCAS Points

H4  = 24 UCAS Points

H3 = 12 UCAS Points

H2 = 0 UCAS Points

H1 = 0 UCAS Points

International Baccalaureate Qualifications in Standard Level

S7 = 28 UCAS Points

S6 = 24 UCAS Points

S5 = 16 UCAS Points

S4 = 12 UCAS Points

S3 = 6 UCAS Points

S2 = 0 UCAS Points

S1 = 0 UCAS Points

US Applications: Advanced Placement Courses (AP Courses)

In the USA, students can take Advanced Placement courses (APs) in high school, which can earn you college credit and/or qualify you to enter more advanced classes when you begin college. 

If you are a high school student, looking to apply to study at a UK university, it is worth noting that your AP courses can earn you UCAS Points. These, in line with your other high school qualifications can be used towards applying to universities here in the UK. 

Below, you’ll find the tariff table:

Grade 5 = 28 UCAS Points

Grade 4 = 24 UCAS Points

Grade 3 = 20 UCAS Points

Grade 2 = 16 UCAS Points

Grade 1 = 12 UCAS Points

Note: Please remember, not all universities follow a universal entry criteria. Some UK universities may accept AP courses as part of their entry requirements, others may not. 

Therefore, you should always check individual entry requirements for each university and course before applying. 

Other International Qualifications and UCAS Points

Not seen your qualifications listed above? Take a look at the official UCAS Points table to see what your qualifications are worth.

Applying to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge

In the UK, two institutions which thousands of international students apply to are Oxford and Cambridge. 

It’s not surprising why so many students wish to study here; both of these universities hold worldwide recognition for their academic excellence and commitment to research, often ranking as some of the best universities in the world to study at. 

However, unlike other top UK universities, both Oxford and Cambridge operate on a collegiate system. That is, they are both higher education institutions that are divided up into a series of different colleges.

Therefore, if you are thinking about applying to Oxford or Cambridge, it’s important to note that the application process is slightly different to other UK universities. 

How does applying to the collegiate system work?

The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge have a great deal in common, including their collegiate structure and tutorial methodology of teaching. However, there are some minor differences in applying to these two institutions.

Below, you’ll find the steps involved in applying to the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge:

  1. Review their admissions timeline - Oxford and Cambridge operate on different admissions timeline, with one of the most important being their UCAS application deadline - 6pm (UK time) on 15 October. Make a note of this so you don’t miss it!

  2. Choose a course - Browse the universities’ prospectuses, attend an open day (if possible), and select the subject and course you wish to study there. Remember to check that you meet the entry requirements of the course you want to study!

  3. Explore the colleges - Oxford and Cambridge are made up of several different colleges (45 in Oxford, 31 in Cambridge) and you’ll need to either express a preference or make an open application on your UCAS form.

  4. Submit your application - via UCAS, by 15 October. If applying to Cambridge, you may need to also complete an online Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ). This will be emailed to you if it is required.

  5. Written assessment - Most applicants are required to submit a written assessment after their UCAS application has been submitted. Again, you will be notified by the university if you are required to do this.

  6. Interviews - Once you have submitted your written assessment and the university has reviewed your application, you will be invited to attend an interview. Here, you have the chance to visit the university, explore the city, and meet your prospective tutor.

  7. Outcome - After attending the interview, the university will write to you to let you know if you have been accepted. This is done before the end of January - giving you time to apply to other universities if you need to.

Can I apply to both Oxford and Cambridge? Or do I have to choose?

Unfortunately, you cannot apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in the same year. Therefore, you should take the time to research both universities and decide which one is more suitable for you and the course you are applying for.

If you are unsuccessful in your first application to one of these universities, you can then submit another application the following year if you wish to.

Guidance for international students applying to a UK university

Thinking of applying to a UK university? Discover Melio Guidance - a tailored, one-on-one support and coaching programme from an expert tutor. 

They’ll help you to assess your options, sharpen your skills for assessment and interview, and help you to make the perfect application for further study. 

Want to find out more? Contact our admissions team to speak with one of our advisors.

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