Higher education – choosing what and where

When starting to think about higher education, there are 3 choices that all students must make:

  1. What qualification will you take?
  2. What subject will you study?
  3. What institution will you study at?

What qualification will you take?

  • Bachelor’s degree 
  • Higher National Certification/Diploma 
  • Foundation Year 
  • Degree Apprenticeship

Remind yourself what these qualifications are and how they are studied here

What course will you study?

With so many courses, and many similar ones available, it’s important that you do a lot of research and find the course that is most suited and of interest to you.

Things to think about when choosing a course to study:

  1. What do you enjoy? – You are going to be studying it for a long time, so it is important that you enjoy the subject, and will be motivated to learn more about it and study it in depth.
  2. What are your career goals? – Certain careers will require specific qualifications or accreditations, therefore it is important to look at this first and choose a subject accordingly.
  3. What is actually available? – With there being over 90,000 different courses for you to choose from, you have probably not even heard of some of the courses of offer. It’s therefore important to do research to understand some of these different choices for you, so you can consider these options when making a decision. Use the UCAS search tool and type in key words of things you’re interested in. This is an unbiased place to research all courses across the UK: https://digital.ucas.com/search

Where will you study?

Once you know the subject area and/or course, you need to do research into the course and compare it across different institutions. Remember that although a course may have the same name at a number of different institutions, each course will have different teaching methods, different modules focused on different topics, and different types of assessment.

Ask yourself the following questions in order to help yourself  compare courses when you’re look at their profiles.

There is no right or wrong answer to any of these – it’s based on what your personal preference is, what you enjoy, and what suits your learning style and individual needs…

  1. Course structure – make sure it plays to your strengths!!
    1. How much contact time is there (time being directly taught by a lecturer/professor) and how much time for independent study?
    2. How are the classes taught? How many lectures/seminars/labs/etc.?
    3. What is the assessment type? Is it coursework, exams, group work? Is it throughout the year or all at the end of the year?
  2. Modules – are you happy with these?
    1. What are the core modules of the course? Are they of interest to you, and what you expected the course to teach?
    2. Will there be optional modules for you to adapt the course into something that is of interest to you?
    3. Does the course have accreditation that is necessary for your career path?
  3. What are the entry requirements? – ensure that this is a realistic option for you!!
    1. What are the GCSE requirements? Do you meet these now? Do you need to resit any subjects or look elsewhere?
    2. What are the Level 3 requirements? A-Levels? BTEC’s? Are your predicted grades meeting these requirements? Universities will usually base offers on whether your predicted grades meet their entry requirements
    3. Do you need work experience to get onto the course? Do you have it, or can you get it before applying?
    4. Do you need to have an interview or do an entry exam as well as an application?
  4. Employability
    1. What is the destination of graduates from this course? Is it the sort of career that you are interested in?

Alongside being happy with the course, you also need to ensure that the university that you are looking at is in a location that you would be happy to spend a lot of your time, and that the institution is suited to you and your needs.

Other things to  think about when choosing where to study

Where is it? – Is the institution close enough/far enough away from your home?

  • If you want to commute to university – are the transport options suitable?
  • If you want to live away – are you happy with the distance that you must travel to get home during school holidays/weekends?

What is the local area like? – you’ll be spending a considerable amount of the next few years in this area, therefore you should feel happy and comfortable in the city/town, and be happy with the surrounding area.

Can you study abroad or do a placement year? – not every university/course will offer this, so if it is something you’re interested in, it’s important to take this into account.

Do they have sports facilities, or societies/an SU that you would want to join?

What accommodation is available to students? – if you’ll need or want to live in student accommodation, it’s important that you are happy with the accommodation options available.

Have you attended an open day?  – this is an opportunity for you to see the facilities, explore the area and talk to the course tutors. It’s a great chance for you to ensure that you would feel at home/part of the community in the place of the institution. If you can’t attend campus in person, see if places you are interested in studying at host virtual open days too!

Check league tables that rank universities –  The Guardian, The Times and The Complete University Guide are impartial producers of university rankings.

Speak to current students on Unibuddy, and find out what it’s really like to study at that university.


For more information:

Applying to Higher Education

Once you’ve chosen your course, and your institution, the only thing left is your application. You can start your application in Year 12, but you won’t submit it until Year 13. Here’s a brief summary of what the application process looks like…

What is UCAS?

This is the ‘University and Colleges Admissions Service’ and is the service that processes all applications for undergraduate courses at UK universities and colleges. It is the place where you can search for all available courses, and then submit an application to your top 5 choices.

Making an Application

When you’re in Year 12 (or your first year in FE college), your teachers and advisors will make you aware of  UCAS deadlines for making applications to study in HE. These are deadlines you will need to meet towards the end of Year 12 and throughout Year 13. The deadlines begin in Year 12 for some students as they may need to take extra tests before applying for courses like Medicine and Dentistry.

These courses (Medicine, Dentistry, Veterinary Science) also have early application deadlines, which are right at the start of Year 13 (October), as do all courses at the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge (collectively known as Oxbridge)

When you apply (through UCAS ), you can choose to apply for up to 5 courses. Your five choices could be the same course/subject at different universities (eg. five Biology courses at five different HE providers), different courses at the same university, or a mixture of both .

It is important that you check the entry requirements for your choices before applying. You should apply to courses where you are a likely to be able to meet their entry requirements so that you stand a better chance of the course admissions staff making your an offer to study with them.

You will apply through  www.ucas.com/apply, and if you are applying through your school/college/sixth form, then you will be given a buzzword to provide when starting your application, to ensure that your teachers are able to add the information that they are required to provide as part of your application.

There are several sections you will need to complete:

  1. Personal details
  2. Student finance
  3. Your 5 choices
  4. Your previous education (including GCSE results and Level 3 predicted grades)
  5. Your previous employment (if you’ve had a part-time job)
  6. A personal statement (more information below)
  7. A reference (provided by your teacher)

What is a personal statement?

A personal statement supports your application to a university or college. As they don’t know you personally, they need more information than just your grades and previous education to help them decide whether you might be suitable for their course.

Your personal statement is a chance for you to articulate why you’d like to study a particular course or subject, what skills and experience you possess that show your passion, and information showing that you will be successful if you study with them.

Although you’ll receive support in writing this from your school or college, you can also find lots of useful information about how to write a personal statement on the UCAS website and different universities will provide other forms of support in writing this.

What happens next?

Once your application has been sent off, it will be reviewed by admissions staff at your chosen HE providers. You may then be invited to interview, accepted straight away or rejected. Once you have received decisions from all courses, you will be required to decide which one you’d like to accept as your ‘Firm’ choice, and which you would like to put as your ‘insurance’ choice.

  • Your firm choice is the course/university that you would like to go to/is your top choice
  • Your insurance choice is the course/university that has slightly lower entry requirements, so if you don’t get the grades to get into your firm choice, then you will be able to go to a different university and/or study a different course.

The majority of offers will be ‘conditional’. This is when HE providers say they will accept you onto to their course if you obtain certain grades for your Level 3 qualifications (A Levels, BTecs etc) or better. If you don’t obtain those grades on results day, they don’t have to maintain their offer to you and can withdraw it. On results day, based on your grades, your university will either accept or reject you.

This UCAS webpage explains HE offer making in a lot more detail so if you’re still unsure about this process – take a look!

Contextual admissions

What is contextual admissions?

Contextual admissions means that universities consider your UCAS application in context. They know that the circumstances in which you’re studying can have an impact on the grades you achieve and your opportunity to take up work experience. Contextual admissions means that universities can take these things into account which helps them to ensure everyone has a fair chance at earning a place to study.  The data universities consider is automatically provided on your UCAS form

Why? Research shows that where you live, the type of school you attend, and your socio-economic background, can all impact attainment at A-Level or other Level 3 qualifications. These are all factors outside of your control, and therefore universities want to mitigate these and take factors, other than just attainment, into account when you apply to university.

How is contextual data used?

Generally, universities will use:

– Postcode
– Whether you have been in care or looked after
– The performance of your secondary school where you took your GCSE’s
– The performance of the school/college where you took/are taking your their A-Level or equivalent qualifications

At The University of Manchester, we use the following:

If you live in  an area that has low progression into higher education, you’ll receive a WP Flag, which means that our admissions staff will be encouraged to give your application further consideration than someone without a WP flag.

If you live in an area of low progression into higher education and meet at least one of the education indicators identified in the ‘how is contextual data used’ section above, or if you have been in care for more than three months, you’ll receive a WP Plus Flag. This would mean that you’re potentially eligible for a contextual offer, which is usually one grade lower than the standard offer.

For more information:

University Access Programmes

What is an Access Programme?

University Access Programmes are schemes and activities that are aimed at talented students from backgrounds that are currently underrepresented at higher education, to give them a taste of the university experience and help them take their first steps towards higher education.

PLEASE NOTE: A University Access Programme is NOT an Access to Higher Education course! An Access to HE diploma is a formal qualification which prepares people without traditional qualifications for student at university. They are delivered by colleges in England and Wales.

Watch this video below from our Access Manchester team to find out more about University of Manchester Access Programmes:


Who can do an access programme?

They’re usually for students in Year 12 or Year 13, who are currently applying (or are close to applying) to university. Each access scheme will have  its own eligibility criteria that you’ll be able to find on the university’s webpage, but they are usually based on things such as:

  • Home postcode (living in an area with low progression rates to university)
  • Entitlement to school bursaries
  • Experience of local authority care
  • Academic potential (usually based on GCSE grades)

What are the benefits of doing an access programme?

The benefits that you may receive from undertaking an access programme MAY include:

  • A reduced offer in the A-Level grades required to study at the given university
  • Advice and guidance on applying to university, and feeling confident in applying
  • Opportunities to complete work experience that in turn may help  students decide on a programme of study or career, and will help to strengthen their application
  • The chance to become familiar with university study and get a feel for student life

What schemes are available at The University of Manchester?

As your local university, it’s likely that  you’ll choose to apply for an access programme at our university.

For more information on our schemes, including eligibility criteria and what  the programmes entail, have look at our Access Manchester webpages: http://www.access.manchester.ac.uk/schemes/

Now you should have all the tools you need to get researching!

Why Study?

Why not check out our Why Study? page to find out what our students really think about their courses and about student life.

Visit the University of Manchester's Why Study? page!