Words by: TSR Community

Getting five university rejections - or even just two or three rejections - hurts. It is a horrible, confidence sapping experience, and can happen just when you don't need this sort of body blow, ie. just when you are about to seriously revise, complete assessments or sit exams.

Read the following advice carefully, so that you make sure you understand the application process and get offers.

Being rejected by all or most of your five UCAS choices means ......

Multiple rejections happen because applicants were either far too ambitious or simply didn't do their homework before gleefully whacking in their UCAS application.

To avoid this, you must be very realistic about how the University application system works, why Universities ask for particular subjects/grades - and be very honest with yourself about your own abilities.

In particular you must remember that the best way to avoid this situation is to spread your 5 choices across different sorts of Universities asking for a range of different grades.

Stop and think about the reality of Results Day next August. Realising at that point that all the advice in this article was true and you didn't heed any of it, and as a consequence have no University place to go to, is way too late.

Careful preparation is the key, particularly if you are applying for highly competitive subjects like Medicine, English, Economics, History, and Law.

The point of this article is to help people avoid the obvious pitfalls and no-no's of applying for uni. It is not about anyone being able to tell you what your chances of an offer are! Even a low risk choice can result in an unexpected rejection: the important bit is for you to have made informed choices, rather than find out after the rejection has appeared on Track that your application was unlikely to be successful for some very obvious reason.

The practical things you can do to minimise your risk of getting 5 straight rejections come under these main headings:

Be open minded about which Unis you apply to

Don’t be blinded by prestige or league tables or 'Russell Group' – many UCAS applicants get obsessed about this and don't realise that much of it is over-blown marketing hype. The brand-name of the University means nothing if you hate the course you are studying. Lots of info and advice about league tables here.

Even if you are a high achieving applicant, choosing 5 Russell Group or other 'top' Unis with close or identical grade requirements is not a bright idea, simply because you could easily be rejected from all 5, and/or you will not have a lower offer to make your Insurance choice.

Just because a Uni is asking for high grades does not make either the course or the Uni 'better' than one asking for lower grades.

Spread your choices

Don’t pick five ‘high risk’ choices; a better balance is 1 ‘high’, 3 ‘medium’, and 1 ‘low’, bearing in mind that typical offers consistent with your predicted grades may still be high risk (see below).

Oxford, Cambridge and any subject at any Uni asking for an A* grade is by definition 'high risk' simply because Oxbridge and A* courses always reject more people than they accept.

Even if you are predicted A*AA and can write a stellar PS, it does not mean you will automatically get an offer. Any University asking A* will be able to be very picky about who they take. Remember there are heaps of other people out there with predicted A* grades, not just you.

Read the entry requirements

Do not, absolutely not, apply for a course with a stated requirement (eg: Maths GCSE at B or AS French at A) that you don't/can't meet; those requirements are stated for a reason and all you will do is make the admissions tutor’s job very easy.

If they are asking for top GCSE grades (ie. 'must have at least 6 A grades at GCSE with minimum grade B in Maths and English'), they mean it. Even if your A level predictions are stellar, if you don't meet the GCSE requirements your application will immediately be rejected.

If the course requirements say something is preferred or recommended and you don’t have it, consider that choice by definition as high risk even if you have the grades the uni seems to be looking for.

More on TSR:

Find all your relevant uni discussion from this big list

Read through our complete guide to UCAS apply

The applying to uni hub has loads more useful info

Not all courses are the same

Subject choice is important - in 2015 a student satisfaction survey found that more than a third of that years graduates wished they had chosen a different subject at Uni. That's about half a million people who realised too late that they had applied for the 'wrong' course or even entirely the wrong subject.

Read the all the course descriptions for the courses you are applying for. Not all History courses (or any other subject) are the same. They do not have a universal syllabus. If your PS witters on about how much you love modern history and one of the courses you've chosen concentrates on medieval history, the decision maker will put your application straight into the No pile.

Don't just look for a degree in the subject you enjoyed most at A-level. More unusual subjects get less applications - that means you have more chance of an offer if you apply for International Development, Classical Studies, Social Policy or Chemical Engineering, than Geography, History, Sociology or Chemistry. The same applies to any joint subject with a language - you have more chance of getting an offer for Drama with German than you do for straight Drama simply because fewer people will apply for it.

Do not apply for 5 wildly different subjects - if you apply for a mess of different subjects you will be unable to write a PS that will be sufficiently convincing for any of your choices and and the Admissions Tutor will quickly realise that you aren't really committed to their subject. Work out what subject you want to study (even if its a course combining two subjects) - advice on this point here.

More about grades

A high grade in one subject does not 'bump up' lower grades in others. If you have an A*CC prediction, it is pointless applying for AAA courses in the hope that all they will see is the A*. They want consistent ability across 3 subjects. You don't have evidence of that.

Beware of grade ranges: if the course page states something like "typical offer AAA-ABB", it usually means that the lower grade set is used for applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds - sometimes referred to as a "contextual offer". If you do not qualify for this, you should assume that the higher grade set will apply to you. If you are not sure what the criteria are for these contextual offers, email the uni and ask, before you apply.

Do not pressure your teachers to inflate your predicted grades. Remember, holding several offers asking for grades way outside your ability is pointless - making one of them your Firm is even sillier. An offer is exactly that - you do not have a place at that University until you have achieved those grades.

Think carefully about the reality of your choices

You are applying for an intensive, academic course that will take up most of the next three or four years of your life. Do not pick a subject without thinking about the reality of doing that subject (and only that subject) every day of the course.

Do not ever apply for any course in the hope that you can swap to something else that is more interesting/you don't currently have the grades for etc, at the start of term. Firstly, Unis aren't silly - if they want AAA, they will still want it at the start of term, even if there are spaces. Secondly, if the swap doesn't happen, you could get stuck on a 3 year course you never actually wanted to do at all. How silly is that.

Do not choose a Uni or course just to fill up the form. If you don't want to go there, don't choose it. Remember, each choice could be the only offer you get. You do not have to make 5 choices - if there are only 4 courses you are actually interested in, leave it at 4.

Remember that you do not have to fill in all five choices at the time of submitting your application; you can add choices in later, as long as you have added them in by 15 January (this does not apply to any courses with a 15 October deadline!). This can work well if you want to take a risk with some of your choices, as you may have decisions from them in time for 15 January and can target your remaining choices accordingly.

Find your perfect uni in 60 seconds

The Really Important Bit

If you have grasped nothing else from the stuff above, then at least focus on this bit. This is what your 5 UCAS choices should look like:

1 'risky' choice - just above your predicted grades
2 or 3 - at your predicted grades
1 or 2 - below your predicted grade

Not only will you be likely to end up with more than 1 or 2 offers, but you will also have a range of offers. This is important when picking a Firm and Insurance choice later on in the year - if you have no 'lower' offers at that stage you have no fall-back choice to ensure you still have a Uni place if it all goes wrong in August. Equally, when all your current confidence starts to ooze away around Christmas and the reality of not getting that A grade becomes almost certain, it's then way too late to wish you included some choices with grades you can actually get.

Things to think about if your predictions are higher than your actual AS grades

For competitive courses and 'top' Unis, a big gap (ie. more than one grade in more than one or at most two subjects) between what you actually got at AS and are predicted for A level usually makes a choice very high risk. If your academic referee doesn't explain convincingly why there is such a discrepancy, the Admissions Tutor will rightly conclude that this is an inflated prediction. With no evidence that you can actually work consistently at the required level, they won't waste their time making you an offer. Anything more than a one grade improvement between AS grades actually achieved and A level predictions is likely to be viewed with scepticism, unless your reference makes it clear why such predictions are realistic. (See bullet point above about pressuring teachers for overinflated predictions).

If your predictions were unrealistic, but you accepted such an offer anyway, there's a good chance that you will end up with immediate disappointment on Results Day, and possibly a stressful time in Clearing. Whatever you may have heard, unis are not always 'lenient' if you miss your offer for a course requiring high grades. For one thing, high and/or subject-specific grades may be required because the uni knows from experience that students without these struggle on the course. For another, they are just as likely to be able to pick up candidates who do meet the grade requirements through Adjustment or Clearing.

Therefore, any uni choice where the entry requirements are greater than you achieved at AS, regardless of your predictions, should be considered a very high risk choice, and you would be well-advised to limit those to one per application, unless you don't mind the gamble and can live with ending up with more rejections than offers, or possibly no University place at all.

Things to think about if your predictions are lower than the required grades for the course

As suggested above, one 'risky' choice where your predicted grades are a wee bit lower than the stated requirements is okay, so long as you understand that you may not get an offer at all, or if you do it will be for the required grades - and you still have to get those high grades to get a place.

A wee bit lower does not mean applying for an AAA course if you are predicted BBB. Where a 'top' University is asking for top grades, they know they can get lots of people predicted that high or fill up any spare places in August via Adjustment. They do not need to give out offers to people who are clearly way below the ability they require.

Do not EVER assume that getting the offer is the important bit, and that any Uni will still take you in August even if you miss the required grades. If every Uni did this, there would be no need for Clearing would there. So ignore all the "I've head that last year that Uni accepted ...." stories.

The reality is that for any course asking for A* or A grades, you are probably wasting your time if your predicted grades are any lower than than one grade off the requirement in one subject (and not the degree subject). This is why the suggestion is one 'risky' choice - several 'risky' choices is just asking for the humiliation of multiple rejections, or only offers than in reality you realise, now or later, you cannot possibly achieve.

'Lower' Universities, or any subjects that are not that competitive (Modern Languages for example or Joint subject degrees with unusual combinations) will not be so picky. Therefore applying for a BBB course with BCC predictions isn't that ridiculous.

Remember that Universities asking for UCAS Points rather than grades will also be more flexible about what they will accept.

One recommended option is to wait until you have your grades and apply for Uni next year, rather than apply this year with dodgy predictions. This also means you can work your butt off this year without the distractions of UCAS.

Work experience

For vocational degrees such as teaching, architecture, and for any medicine, nursing or healthcare subjects, you need relevant work experience. Without this your application will get put straight on the No pile. You need to demonstrate that you have had enough experience/exposure to this work area to be making an informed, mature decision regarding your career. Doing paid/voluntary work on weekends or during holidays, and/or work shadowing a relevant professional, or considering a practical Gap Year, is essential for this type of application.

Make sure your Personal Statement is as good as it can be

Apart from your teachers at school/college, there are plenty of resources around to help you do this:

TSR Personal Statement Help
TSR Subject guides to writing a Personal Statement
UCAS guidance here
Advice sheet about writing a Personal Statement from the University of Bristol (advice applies to all Unis) here
Daily Telegraph examples of Personal Statement howlers

Tips :
  • The fundamental question you should answer in your PS above all others is : I want to study this subject at University because...
  • university websites quite often have general guidance on PSs as well as subject specific guidance (often called Admissions Statements). When available, this advice will alert you to the particular things admissions staff are looking for, and the importance they place on each factor. Here are those for the University of Bristol - most of the general points will apply to other Universities as well.
  • go to University Open Days: you may be told what that Uni is looking for
  • try to be original in your PS, but at the same time don’t go in for fancy language that just isn’t ‘you’: simple language is usually just as effective, and it is important to appear confident and capable without sounding arrogant
  • look at the courses you are applying for in detail: it's no use saying "I'm really interested in X" if one of the courses you've chosen doesn't offer a module in X
  • reading around your subject is useful - but do not just list the books you have read or give the Admissions staff a book review.
  • watch some podcast lectures on your subject to get an idea of the thinking level required at University. This can help you get the tone of any 'academic' sections right. Here are some from the University of Bath and Gresham College, London.
  • take your time with your PS: consider whatever advice you can get, whether from teachers, TSR, or elsewhere, and don't send it off until you are happy with it and it represents what you want to say. Remember you don't have to act upon every bit of advice you get - some of it may be conflicting and/or you may simply not agree with it.
  • check, and double check, your grammar and spelling. It matters.

More on TSR:

Writing an excellent personal statement in 10 easy steps

Create your Personal Statement with our brilliant builder tool

Everything you need to know about applying to uni

Take into account the advice of others

Parents and your teachers do know you quite well and may understand you better than you think. You do not have to take their advice, but at least stop and think about whether they just might have a point. Being resentful because a teacher has told you that they think applying for Durham is, in your case, pointless, can deflate your ego a bit. Do not use your UCAS application as a form of petulant teenage revenge. They want the best for you - not floods of tears and anger on Results Day because you insisted on applying for Durham anyway - and missed.

Equally, if your parents are pressuring you to apply for something that they think leads to a "proper job" or at a particular University and it's not what you want to do, be firm. If need be, enlist the help of your teachers/referee to help you explain to your parents why you don't want to follow the path they have in mind for you. In the end, it's your life, and your education, so you must take responsibility for it.

Schools can sometimes get obsessed about how many of their students get into 'Oxbridge' or 'Russell Group' Unis (they use this to show off to potential parents) without actually thinking very hard. If you want to go somewhere else to do your degree, stick to your decision. Its you going to Uni for 3 years, not your Head Teacher.

[Note: Medicine/Dentistry/Vet Med are in a class of their own; although some of these principles will apply there are other points to consider, so make sure you check out the specialist forums and Wiki articles for these as well.]