Applying for higher education: understanding the options

signs university campus

If your child's poised to leave sixth form or college in the next 12 months, you'll be keen to make sure they know what their next steps will be.

Getting your own head round the options and how it all works is a start, and will allow you to support and guide them through this period. This information should help you through the process.

What are the options?

If your son or daughter's set on going to uni and they're suitably gung-ho about their career and academic ambitions – great. Encourage them to visit different institutions, research courses and chat to other people about what they studied and different career options. Remember that further education isn't all about academics - there are numerous practical, physical or creative courses as well.

After a few campus visits and talks with their school or college career adviser, they may want to consider alternative routes. Sometimes even the best plans go awry, so it's important that your teen has an idea of all the different options available to them.

For example, if they're planning a break from full-time education, travelling is a great way to get an insight into a new culture. If they're keen for a new experience they could consider learning a language abroad, volunteer work, a conservation project, or even teaching English overseas.

Many youngsters are keen to get out into the workplace, but getting a foot on the career ladder doesn't mean they necessarily need to commit to a single job. Businesses of all shapes and sizes are increasingly keen to offer work experience. Some bigger companies have dedicated school leaver programmes that focus on training employees on the job.

There are also numerous vocational courses that allow students to balance work and study, often leading to professional accreditation – from apprenticeships and traineeships to BTECs, HNDs, and NVQs.

If your teen's got other ideas, or is more career-focused, they can get further information online from their regional careers service:

  • National Careers Service
  • Careers Service Northern Ireland
  • Skills Development Scotland
  • Careers Wales

It's worth exploring all of these avenues to ensure the route they eventually take is informed, rather than something they've fallen into because it's all they know. 

If they decide on continuing education, then they'll need to consider the next steps. And as the parent of a budding undergrad, there are things you, too, should know about the  application process.

So, what's UCAS?

UCAS (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) handles all undergraduate applications on behalf of UK universities and higher education colleges. This means your son or daughter will need to make their application via UCAS, rather than directly to universities or colleges.

The UCAS website is an excellent resource for finding out more about higher education. It provides:



Making an application

Firstly, be patient: the process can take up to a year from registration through to starting a course.

If your son or daughter is considering studying music, dance, or drama, take a look at the Performing arts section of the UCAS website to find out more about CUKAS – a dedicated conservatoire application service.

The online application form itself is straightforward enough, but there are certain elements that need care and attention – in particular, your teen will need to write a personal statement; an account of up to 4,000 characters (or 47 lines) of why they're applying to the courses they have chosen. Plus, they'll need to secure a referee - usually a school teacher, college tutor or trusted adviser.

But before they put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) it's important that they do their research – and have an idea of their preferred type of study and which subjects they're interested in.

The UCAS search tool lists every available undergraduate course at each UK university and higher education college. Within each listing, users can find out more about the places offering their course, as well as each course's entry requirements – the grades needed to secure a place, plus any additional conditions.

For more information, take a look at UCAS's advice page on when to apply.

It's worth remembering that UCAS doesn't hold any sway on the selection process, nor does it handle student loan applications - see its student finance advice to find out what to do for this.

Awaiting a decision

Once your child's decided where they want to go (they can apply to up to five institutions if they wish), and submitted their application, they'll have to wait for their chosen universities to respond. They can keep an eye on their application's progress using UCAS Track and will be notified when their chosen unis respond with a decision.

Where to get more info

For a clearer picture of everything you need to know about higher education applications, check out the parents and guardians section on, and the downloadable Parent Guide. You might also like to sign up for the UCAS parent email newsletters for further information and advice through the application cycle.

Other useful resources

  • Finance

MoneySavingExpert guide to student finance

National Association of Student Money Advisers

  • International students

Student visas 

UK Council for International Student Affairs


More useful info...

Starting university: advice for parents and students

Guide to student loans and finance


Last updated: about 1 year ago