This article was written by the TSR community

Firm and insurance choices
Whether you have received all decisions from the universities you have applied for, or still waiting for offers, it's a good idea to be prepared for the next stage of the applying to uni process. One of the toughest parts of the process can be choosing the universities you think are right for you and confirming with UCAS. We've pulled together everything you need to know before making your firm and insurance decisions.

Making your Firm and Insurance choices - what does this actually mean

  • Once you've made your application and received all of you offers, the next thing you need to do is decide on is your two favourite university options. These will be your firm and insurance choices which you have to confirm on UCAS Track. UCAS then communicate this with the universities, letting them know that they have been selected.
  • Your firm choice is your preferred university and course. The grades for this course are usually higher than your insurance choice.
  • You choose an insurance choice as a back-up choice in case you don't meet the grades for your firm choice. Your insurance choice offer is usually lower than your firm's offer.
  • You will then hold only these two offers until your exam results are known, usually in the July or August before you go to university.
  • Once you have selected your firm and insurance on UCAS Track all your other offers will be automatically rejected and disappear. Make sure you are absolutely sure of your choices before entering them in to Track.

Important stuff to remember

  • You cannot enter your firm and insurance choices onto Track until all of your chosen universities have made a decision and confirmed it via Track.
  • Once you have made your firm and insurance choices it almost impossible to change them. Therefore, it's really important that you certain of your decisions before entering them on Track.
  • Remember that by choosing choosing your firm and insurance choices in Track you are rejecting all your other offers.
  • If in August you have met or exceeded the the offer grades (conditions) of your Firm your Track will change to say UF - unconditional firm. This may still happen even if you don't quite hit your grades but don't count on it!
  • Your insurance choice comes into play only if your firm has declined you because you didn't meet your offer and your insurance uni has subsequently accepted you. It will say UI or UF beside this uni on Track.
  • You cannot wait until results day and then decline a confirmed firm choice in favour of your insurance.
  • You do have a 14 day grace period to change your mind in line with CMA guidelines after entering your final choices on Track. This only applies though to choices where offers have been received.

Making realistic choices - and why it matters

Make realistic uni choices
At the end of the 2014 admissions cycle two factors showed that many applicants had not made sensible firm choices.
  • There was a 32% increase in applicants going to their insurance choice
  • An extra 12% had no university place at all and had to go through Clearing

Both show that many applicants were far too optimistic about their own ability to achieve the required grades, or they were assuming that universities would be lenient on results day. They ended up missing out on their firm choice, and in too many cases their insurance choice as well.

When do I have to decide?

  • Don't panic. No-one has to make their choices until at least May of each cycle. The deadline you have depends on when all your decisions came through. Make sure you don't 'forget' to reply by the given date - if you don't you risk losing all your offers.
    When to reply
  • Even if you think you are sure about your choices, it's very sensible to leave actually replying to your offers on Track until April or May. You thoughts and feelings about your firm and insurance choices may flip back and forth during the spring term and depending on how well they think their studies are going.
  • Every year too many people will make this decision immediately after they have all their offers and then discover they are stuck with a firm they no longer want.
  • There is no advantage in confirming your choices early.The university's opinion of you won't differ if you firm with them early or just before the deadline so there is no need to rush.
  • Universities are not allowed to pressure applicants to choose a firm or insurance before the UCAS deadlines. This includes not being allowed to allocate better accommodation to applicants who Firm early. You may be able to apply for specific accommodation before you choose your firm and insurance - and even if you can't, the university will not be using the date you went firm to decide who gets which rooms.
  • You might hear lots of silly rumours in sixth forms about an 'accommodation' issue. It‘s nonsense and definitely don't use it as motivation for picking which uni you choose as your firm!
  • Every year TSR sees 100s of threads from people stressing because they picked their Firm, have now changed their minds and want to know 'what to do now'. This could have been avoided if they had waited a few weeks and/or thought more carefully, or simply longer, about their decision.
  • Check out the linked threads at the bottom of this article, and you'll see why making an over-early decision is often really silly.

If you miss your deadline for replying to your offers, UCAS will decline them automatically for you. If this has happened and you didn't mean it to, ring the UCAS Helpline at once; they have been known to be able to retrieve the declined offers and let you make your choices. Don't count on this though - more than a couple of days out and you may find that 'gone is gone'.

What is a firm choice?

What is a firm choice
This is the University and course you most want to go to and is realistic given your expected grades. If you have an unconditional offer for your preferred University (usually because you are applying with your grades already known) then you can only choose a firm. If you have a conditional offer, and you have more than one offer, it is usual to pick an Insurance choice as well. On results day, if you meet the grades for your firm choice then that is where you will be going.

Choosing your university

Where you will live for at least the next three years is an important decision. Do your research, think carefully.
  • Do not be tempted to choose your firm without visiting the university and the faculty.
  • If you went on an open day before you applied, consider going to another for applicants holding offers. Most unis will invite you to one of these, and it is essential to make the effort to go.
  • Remember, there is nothing to stop you visiting the uni on an ordinary working day - you can just wander about the university and no-one will ask you for student ID etc. There will obviously be no open day events running and you wont be able to walk freely into every building, but this can still be a useful visit. It will also give you a chance to think carefully about what the reality of leaving home and what being at the uni would be like, away from all the hype of an open day.
  • If you really can't visit the university (perhaps you're an international student), then there will be videos of open days and online campus tours on university websites. Yes, these will be biased (they are trying to sell you their university), but at least you can see what the university actually looks like, and see the sort of students who go there.
  • Do not base your decision purely on reputation, prestige or league tables. A uni which is a place above another on this year's league table will not make one bit of difference to your enjoyment of the course, your degree result or your employment prospects. Remember, it is still quite possible to be thoroughly miserable or hate the course, the city or the people at a uni you perceived to be prestigious if it isn't right for you!
  • Remember you future career fulfillment ultimately depends on you, not the university you went to.
  • Make sure you check out the student union or guild website to find out all about the clubs and societies on offer, as well as the student support offering. This will give you a really good idea of what your social life might be like at uni.
  • Your success at uni - being able to study effectively and perform well academically at a university really does depend on how happy you are and how much you enjoy your course.
  • Finally, think about cost. There is no doubt that living in London and other major cities is far more expensive than other places. It's not just the rent on first year uni accommodation; look at the cost of second and third year rented accommodation, public transport costs, food, social life and the cost to travel home for the weekend?

Choosing the right uni course

  • Make sure you read everything you can about the course content - is it really the course you want to study for the next three years, or are you just being swept along by the idea of going to that university?
  • Review the current course structure again for your course on the uni website - these are often linked on the course page. Read the detailed descriptions of all the optional units for all the years of the course. Think about which units you would choose if you went there - and why.
  • Make sure you understand what is a compulsory unit and which are optional.
  • Are there any extras like the possibility of study abroad, or a work placement?
  • Can you do optional units in other subjects or faculties?
  • Enjoyment of the course vital and will really impact your motivation to study. Don't gloss over this bit and hope that the overall university experience will make it all okay.

Understanding your offer and what is expected of you

  • It is essential that you understand exactly what all your offers mean before you make this choice: is the wording clear and do you understand exactly what the conditions are? If in any doubt, email the university concerned to clarify the details. You don't want to find yourself in the position of not being able to meet your firm offer because you misread or misunderstood the terms of the offer.
  • One of the biggest factors to take into account when making your firm and insurance choice is how likely you think it is that you will fulfill the conditions of that offer. If you have been asked for AAB in the offer and you already realise that you will not achieve it, then it isn't a safe choice for a firm.
  • Do not rely on the hope that the uni will let you in anyway if you miss the required grades. You may be lucky, but you need to be prepared for the worst.
  • To avoid disappointment don't rely on stories like 'my best friend's cousin got into XXX uni last year with BCC and their offer was BBB. That will tell you nothing about what any uni might do this year.
  • If you are worried about meeting an offer but set on choosing that university offer as your firm then it is a good idea to contact them before picking them on UCAS. They will be able to give you some indication of whether leniency is possible this year or if they are likely to have no flexibility. They may not be able or willing to give you any indication and there is no obligation on them not to change their mind in August. So while this isn't a guarantee it should give you more information before you take a risk with your firm choice.
  • If you really want to pick that course as firm then make sure you do some preparation to minimise the stress. This must include picking a great insurance choice that you know you'll be happy with.
  • Make sure you've checked out and applied for somewhere to live if you end up at your insurance and most importantly mentally be ready for your long shot firm choice to fall through.
  • Ask your parents or teachers for their thoughts on what they think is best for you if you feel this will help you make a decision.

Choosing an insurance choice?

Your insurance choice is your back-up university. It will have less demanding grade requirements than your firm choice. This means that if you miss your firm choice, you still have a chance of going to uni this year and most importantly to one you really want to go to.

You can hold an unconditional offer as your insurance even if your firm is a conditional offer.

If you are holding an unconditional firm, by definition you can't have an Insurance. People who have applied through UCAS Extra do not get an insurance choice at all.

Choosing your insurance

  • Make sure your insurance is sensible in terms of the difference in offer conditions from your firm. If the grade conditions are too close, you could potentially lose out on both your firm and insurance if you miss your grades on results day.
  • Remember, your insurance only comes into play if your firm rejects you. If your firm accepts you (even with lower grades than the offer conditions), you cannot at that point decide that you'd rather go to your insurance.
  • If you only have one offer that you think you'd be happy going to, then don't feel pressured into picking an insurance - it's optional. You can select just a firm and decline all your other choices. This is much better than picking a dubious insurance that you then have to persuade to release you on results day.
  • Similarly, if you only have two offers that you'd be happy going to but the conditions are the same then pick your favourite as firm and set the other as insurance. While it is unlikely that you will end up at your insurance in this case it isn't unknown. It's better to have a high insurance you'd be happy at than a low one you will end up not taking up.
  • Remember, if you do miss your firm it may be a better strategy to take a year out and then either retake your A-levels or reapply to other unis with your grades - rather than accepting an insurance offer you are hesitant about. You don't have to go to uni this year. If the firm is the only course you really want to do, don't compromise.

Do I need a firm and an insurance?

  • No. If you have more than one offer, but really only want to study that one course that you've decided to firm you don't have to choose an insurance.
  • If you are really sure about this, it makes life easier to not have an insurance. If you don't make your firm offer on results day you will be automatically entered into Clearing on Results Day.

Can I have an insurance that is higher than my firm, or both with the same offer conditions?

You can, and on some occasions this isn't as crazy as it sounds, but be aware that it is a strategy that comes with big risks.
For example:
'University A' has given you an offer of BBB - but they exclude General Studies and they won't accept ABC instead - ie. you have to get a minimum of a B in all your subjects. 'University B' has asked you for ABB - but might still take you with ABC - where University A would not. Similarly if the Insurance choice has an option with a Foundation Year or a similar course with lower entry requirements (eg your insurance offer is for AAA for entry to an MSci but the university takes people with ABB on the BSc version of the course).

Remember to re-look at both the terms of your offer(s) and the general admission requirements for each course. This may have useful extra information about their attitude to required grades in key subjects.
But be careful. This is still a gamble. If you miss your grades significantly you may have no university place at all - unlike others who picked a more obvious insurance with significantly lower grades.

Unconditional offers whilst still taking A levels

Many universities are increasingly offering unconditional places for certain subjects despite applicants not yet knowing their A-level results. Don't let this make you feel under pressure to accept, you don't have too. If you are confident of meeting your other offers and prefer those universities firm one of those instead.

An unconditional place regardless of your results might seem like a dream offer but be aware that there are some disadvantages in accepting this as your firm.
  • If you choose an unconditional firm you cannot, by definition, have an insurance choice. You are therefore locked-in to going to that uni only.
  • If you accept an unconditional offer with unknown A-level grades as your firm you are committed to going to that university whatever grades you get on results day. Since the offer is unconditional you are not eligible for adjustment even if on results day you exceed the grades normally required for that course.
  • If you change your mind once you have firmed an unconditional place, you then have no alternative other than to ask to be released from that choice and wait for clearing. This can be risky as the course you want may not be available in Clearing.
  • A-level results will still matter. Many graduate recruitment schemes use high UCAS points or grades as a selection criteria so it's really important that you work hard to achieve the best grades possible.

Accepting a conditional offer as your firm and an unconditional offer as your insurance is possible, and this has the advantage that you then definitely have a university place. However, many of the universities making unconditional offers to an A-level candidate do this only if you accept their offer as your firm - the offer will be withdrawn if you make it your insurance. You should therefore check very carefully the exact terms of any unconditional offer when making this decision.

But I still can't decide!!

Tips to help you decide
One strategy that might help:
Write the name of each Uni and the course title at the top of a separate piece of paper, along with the exact wording of the Offer. Divide the page into 2 columns:
  • The plus points of that course and uni
  • The negatives of that course and uni

Obvious plus points are:
  • It's the course I most want to do
  • It has a year abroad possibility
  • I'd prefer a campus uni
  • All first year accommodation has en-suite bathrooms.

    Negatives could be:
  • The course is a bit of a compromise, half of it doesn't really interest me
  • I don't like the town it's in
  • The accommodation is too expensive

Stick these up on the wall, and add other points to them when you think of them. Writing things down is often a very good way of clarifying the muddle of thoughts rushing about in your head. Seeing it all in black and white can often make you realise important aspects of your preferences. In particular it can make it obvious to you that a uni that you are clinging to, isn't actually the best one for your course or your interests.

By the end of Match you should have been able to eliminate some offers. Then keep taking the bits of paper off the wall as you make a decision against a uni and course.

Even if you think you do know which offer(s) you are going to choose, it is worth then writing that down, posting it on the wall and forgetting about all thoughts of going to uni for a few days or weeks. If you come back to your decision after that and are still happy with that then you can have more confidence that it is the right choice(s) for you. If you realise you still aren't entirely sure, then make a different choice or just give yourself some more time.

Remember - choosing your Firm and Insurance isn't a race. If it takes you until April or May to make this choice, that is fine. You are likely to have made a far wiser, more informed choice than anyone who did it in January.

Other useful pages to read

TSR guide to Results Day

TSR introduction to Clearing

TSR guide to Clearing

TSR guide to Adjustment

UCAS important dates & deadlines