Step-By-Step Guide to Helping Your Students with Their University Applications

Becky Kleanthous  · Dec 5th 2023

Oh to be 18 again. All that potential; all those opportunities. Relationships, independence, work, study and travel all suddenly become tangible juggling balls, paused in mid-air as life seems to enter slow motion.


Where to go? What to do? Who to become? But as quick as a flash, time speeds up again and those juggling balls can get muddled up, dropped or thrown out entirely. One of the biggest and heaviest of all of them is the university application ball, because it carries inside it a multitude of other factors. Choosing to go off and study at Cardiff is going to be stuffed with its own future pathways: entirely different courses, jobs, experiences, and relationships than if that student chose Exeter, or Southampton, or St. Andrews.

Time to steady the ship then, teachers. Your students are likely to need a bit of help with their UCAS applications, from the very early stages, all the way through to results day and beyond. But other than patting them on the shoulder and offering the same words of advice that your own teacher offered you ("If you ever put glue on my chair again, Sykes, I will hunt you down and tear you limb from limb,") how can you help?

Take a peek at the guide below to see the multitude of ways you can support your students with their UCAS applications, you absolute legend.

Further Education choices

When your students are but an academic embryo, filling out forms to choose their A Level, Higher or IB subjects, that’s when you can first lend them your wisdom. Swoop in behind them like an educationally-fixated ghost, appearing at their shoulder as they write: "WoOoOoOo! Food technology? Are you sure, Shannon? I thought you wanted to be a lawyer!"

Because of course, the pain of regret would be fierce if they only realised such a mistake when it was too late. Many degree programmes have specific subject prerequisites, but if your students aren’t crystal clear which field they want to pursue, then it might be wise to keep their options open with broader complementary choices in their interest or ability comfort-zone. E.g. English Literature, History, Sociology and Music would offer a pathway into most areas of the humanities, whilst Maths, Physics, Economics and Computing would open avenues in various technical and scientific areas. Students with an interest in the environment might opt for Biology, Geography, Sociology and Environmental Science.

Keep time

One of the most important things you can do throughout the whole process is to keep referring to a timeline to keep students ahead of the game. Alongside studying for their current exams, and their busy social lives, they might take their eye off the ball, possibly with disastrous consequences. Some families may be applying pressure at home or being very supportive, but not everyone can depend on parents to steer them through the maze, so do remind them again and again and again when it comes to deadlines.

Choosing a subject

The first major decision your students will face is what area to study. While they can apply to multiple courses, there’s only one personal statement to accompany all, so the theme should be closely related to avoid application catastrophe (try writing a personal statement to support an application for Latin, Drama, Politics, Film Studies and Psychology!) They do need to be narrowing down their preferences, then, first of all.

If they have a strong idea of their future career (always wanted to be a police sergeant, a social worker, a museum curator, a pharmacist…) then they can work backwards, combing professional websites and recruitment pages for those fields to see what qualifications are required or preferred. They can also look at university websites to see what kind of careers graduates entered after completing that degree programme.

If they only have a vague idea of their strengths and interests, but no concrete destination, then it might be wise to look at traditional and well-established and respected courses such as Philosophy, Chemistry, Art History, French etc. These ‘whole’ disciplines keep many doors open and allow for further study afterwards, such as a Masters, a Law conversion or teaching qualification. They are also broad enough that the student will likely develop a favourite topic or specialism during the course, helping them focus in on a career idea before they graduate. Something very narrow, and less traditional (and therefore often less respected) may not be the right choice for a student with more holistic interests; a joint honours in American Cinema and Gender would be fascinating and rewarding to the right person, but could be very restrictive to another, and not open the same variety of career doors.

Guide undecided students towards the UCAS complete list of subjects so that they can browse and make lists based on their gut reaction to each: yes, no and maybe. They should think about their enjoyment of subjects as well as their past achievements within the field. The ‘yes’ and ‘maybe’ lists can then be explored in more detail, looking at specific universities’ offerings to see what appeals.

Narrowing it down to five courses

Once they settle on an area of study, it’s time to get even more specific, by choosing up to five courses to apply for. See our guide on choosing a university for more advice.

  • The university itself: The campus, the area and location (transport, ameneties, general vibe), proximity to home, proximity to existing friends, cost of living, the university’s academic and professional reputation, whether bursaries are available.
  • Type of course: full-time, part-time, year abroad, work placement…
  • The course: How interesting and enjoyable it seems, contact hours, teaching methods, assessment methods, career prospects, past results, student satisfaction levels, grade requirements for entry, whether it has a defer option if the student is planning a gap year.

The extras

If your student is as much of a deluded, optimistic sucker-for-punishment as you are, they might be looking to enter an honourable vocation such as nursing, social care, medicine or teaching, in which case, they almost certainly need some therapy work experience under their belt to support their application. Other professions such as town planning or civil engineering will also benefit from some hands-on experience, so do give your class some time with the computers along with a list of local volunteering websites, and maintain your own directory of local companies and workplaces who have been happy to take on students in the past.

The same goes for extra-curricular activities; students who wish to demonstrate their enthusiasm, commitment and time-management skills would do well to build a life outside of studying. Let them know about all the great opportunities at your school or college: the newspaper, the radio station, the sports teams, film club, salsa, the debate club, the vet society… and if there’s something missing, they could even start up their own group.

Making sense of the application forms

Most of the UCAS application system is self-explanatory, and who doesn’t love a bit of extensive form filling to make the long evenings fly by…! They’ll need to have all their details handy, including past and predicted grades, but they can save each stage of the online application, so there’s no pressure to complete it in one sitting.

One part that could possible get them in a muddle, though, is the UCAS tariff. Not all courses use this - only around 30% in fact - but if they do, they might be talking about points rather than grades. The system has been overhauled recently, so don’t assume that you know the equivalencies as they have all changed. See the tables below for the points conversions.

AS Levels
A 20
B 16
C 12
D 10
E 6
Scottish Highers
A 33
B 27
C 21
D 15
A Levels / Advanced Highers / Welsh Baccalaureates
A* 56
A 48
B 40
C 32
D 24
E 16 (except for Scottish Advanced Highers)

International Baccalaureate diploma components
Higher level
H7 56
H6 48
H5 32
H4 24
H3 12
Standard level
S7 28
S6 24
S5 16
S4 12
S3 6
Extended essay / theory of knowledge
A 12
B 10
C 8
D 6
E 4

If the course they’ve chosen uses this tariff, and they want to bump up their points value, students can earn further UCAS points by completing various other qualifications, including (but not limited to) the ASDAN Community Volunteering Qualification, music grades, LAMDA drama, ESOL courses, dance qualifications, evening courses to achieve a diploma, award, certificate etc.

The personal statement and reference

The personal statement and reference are absolute beasts in their own rights, and as such, we have a comprehensive guide to producing each, to ensure that you and your student communicate clearly to successfully showcase their skills and talents to recommend them for the course.

They, and you, should be aiming to demonstrate - with evidence and examples - academic ability and enthusiasm, responsibility, dependability, organisation, teamwork, leadership, problem-solving and ambitions.


Not everyone needs to attend an interview, but if they do get called in for one, make sure they are fully prepared:.

Deciding on an offer

They’ve already had to make so many decisions, but now it gets really serious. Once the offers roll in, they should recap on all their options by going over the prospectus and syllabus to refresh their memory, and definitely attend an open day to get a feel for the place. One other factor to consider is how realistic the offer is: if it’s way above the student’s predicted grades, they have a high probability of having to go through clearing at the last minute.

If that seems like a lot of juggling balls, that’s because it is. But two hands are better than one, and two pairs of hands are even better than that. Be your students’ lifeline during this hectic period by keeping them on track and on time, helping them narrow down their options, and being their champion through the personal statement and reference process. You never know, after all this juggling practice, if teaching doesn’t work out then you could always run away and join the circus.

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