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Applying to university? It's time to narrow your choices down to two

Applying to university? It's time to narrow your choices down to two Science & Technology World Website


If you’re in sixth form, with a bit of luck, university offers will be trickling into your inbox about now. But it’s not time to relax just yet. Whittling your offers down to one “firm” and one “insurance” choice will require careful consideration, a bit of strategic thinking, and some self-confidence.

So whether you’re deciding which universities to put as your firm and insurance options, or trying your best to remain calm when you haven’t got the offers you want, here’s what sixth-form tutors, careers advisors and students say you should do next.


Take your time before accepting offers

Don’t rush to accept, says Tom Holland, pastoral lead at Blackpool sixth-form college. “Take a breath first. And, if it’s been a couple of months since the application went in, basically re-start the process,” he says. “Look at the websites and course outlines again and go back and revisit the universities.”

Holland advises students to look carefully at the date you’ve been given to respond by – it may be weeks, or even months away – and try to do as much research as you can beforehand.

Remember that most offers are conditional - you’re going to have to get the grades before your place is secure.


Take off your rose-tinted spectacles

Get to know the university and the town better by visiting again. “You need to go when it’s raining,” says Claire Gaygan, head of student services at City of Stoke on Trent sixth-form college. “Go in winter, because everywhere can look nice in the summer.”

And look at the whole town or city, not just the university buildings. “It’s very easy to sit in a hall having coffee, and think it’s very swish,” says Scott Peasey, head of sixth form at Kingston college. “But that’s not the reality of what it might be like. Students are often seduced by a university based on its reputation, but it has to be right for you. Talk to current students and ask about their timetables and the feedback and support you’d get, have a walk around the town centre and get a feel for it.”

A second look at a university could even change your mind. “Quite often you discover that the place you thought was your favourite isn’t quite what you thought it was,” says careers consultant Alan Bullock. “Or somewhere else leaps out and surprises you with how good it is. So I always advise students to go to open days.”


Find ‘the one’

Your firm choice should be the university you really want to go to. “It has to be ‘the one’,” says Holland, “regardless of grades almost.”

But shouldn’t you aim high as possible with your firm choice? It’s good to be ambitious, but be realistic, tutors advise. Some universities will accept “near misses” if you don’t quite get the required grades, so Bullock suggests asking the university whether they will accept you if this is the case. “It’s one of the most useful questions you can ask at an open day.”

Also think about the extent to which you’d be happy to go to your insurance option, take a gap year, or go through Clearing if you don’t get accepted. “I’ve seen students go for broke and aim high, on the basis that they would take a gap year and reapply next year if they didn’t get in,” says Bullock.

The bottom line is that your firm choice should be your favourite – so don’t worry about league tables or where your friends are going. “What’s right for your friend might not be right for you,” says Bullock.

And don’t be too seduced by unconditional offers, warns Peasey. “Some students say they’ll take them on the basis that it’ll take the pressure off their A-levels,” he says. “Sometimes you’re given quite big enticements, but think very carefully about what you might be getting at the end of three years from that university.”


Research your insurance choice too

Consider your insurance offer as carefully as your firm choice, Gaygan and Holland say. “Get away from thinking of it as a second choice,” says Holland. “Your insurance choice is still a commitment. And you can’t swap around your firm and insurance options.”

Don’t put somewhere down unless you would be happy to go there, tutors warn. “Students often choose the offer that requires the lowest grades as an insurance choice,” says Peasey. “But if you don’t want to go there, there’s no point. You’re setting yourself up with a problem from the start.”

One of the biggest pitfalls is making careless insurance choices, says Bullock. “And it will come back to haunt you on results day,” he says. “The number one cry I hear is, ‘but I didn’t really want to go there’.”

That said, if you’ve aimed high with your firm choice, your insurance should be realistic. “To aim high for both [universities] is kind of strange – particularly if they’re asking for the same grades,” says Peasey. “I wouldn’t gamble with the insurance offer. Keep it in line with what your current grades are.”


No offers? Changed your mind? Don’t panic!

Universities send their offers at different times, so be patient. But if you do end up without any offers, then think about why that might be. “Often it’s because you don’t meet some basic requirement, for example, a particular GCSE grade,” says Peasey. “In that case, you may need to change course option, or take a year out and get the GCSE.”

If you don’t have any offers, or you’ve changed your mind and want to reject the offers you’ve received, you can do so through Ucas Extra, which is open between 25 February and early July and allows you to apply for another course before Clearing. “Plus there are apprenticeships, or overseas universities that you can apply to alongside the Ucas process,” says Bullock.

Callum McCulloch, 22, a third-year English literature student at the University of York, missed out on his firm offer. Instead of taking up his insurance choice, which he didn’t want to go to, he took a gap year to work and travel. “It’s one of the best decisions I ever made,” he says. “It’s much better to stop and take a year out, even if you have to redo an A-level or something. You can still have fun and you’ll be in a much better position going to university a year later than you would be rushing into a place you’re not 100% on board with.”

Your application can also be stronger if you reapply later, McCulloch says. “Universities like work experience and worldliness. It gave me the chance to read things I really wanted to, which helped my application.”

Things happen for a reason, he says. “Not getting the results isn’t the be-all-or-end-all and a lot of really great things can happen from not doing as well as you’d expected.”

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