It’s always a good idea to be prepared for every stage of the university application process
One of the toughest parts of applying to uni can be choosing your top universities and confirming with Ucas. Here’s everything you need to know before making your firm and insurance choices.
What are firm and insurance university choices?
Once you’ve made your application and received all of your offers on Ucas Track, you’ll need to pick your top two university options: these are your firm choice and your insurance choice.
Your firm choice is your preferred university and course, while your insurance choice is there as back-up in case you don’t get the grades you need for your firm. Your insurance choice should still be a university and course that you would like to go to, but the offer should be for grades that you know you’ll be able to achieve.
The exception to this if you have an unconditional offer to your preferred university, in which case that will be your only choice.
Once you’ve chosen these top two on Ucas Track, all your other offers will be automatically rejected and disappear, so it’s important to be absolutely sure of your choices before you confirm them on Track.
If you miss the grades for both your firm and insurance choices, then you risk not holding any offers. This would mean that you’d need to either apply through Clearing or wait and apply again next year.
When do I have to decide?
The specific deadline that you’ll need to respond by will depend on when all your decisions come through, but it probably won’t be before May at the earliest. For most 2021 applicants, the deadline is 10 June.
Don’t feel rushed into choosing right away – even if you think you’re sure about your choices, it’s a good idea to leave replying to your offers on Track until April or May. Your feelings about your firm and insurance choices may flip back and forth during the spring term, and might also depend on how your studies are going.
There’s no advantage in confirming your choices early, and every year there are hundreds of threads on TSR started by stressed university applicants who are having regrets about their firm choice. By giving yourself a bit of time to think properly about your decision, you’re less likely to be in this situation.
Picking your firm choice university and course
Your firm choice university should be the one that you most want to go to, and that’s realistic given your expected grades. On results day, if you meet the grades for your firm choice then that is where you’ll be going.
Where you live and what you’re going to study for the next three years is a hugely important decision. You’ll want to make sure that you do your research and think about it carefully.
Here are a few things to think about when you’re deciding which course to do:
- 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?
- Look at the current course structure on the uni website and read the detailed descriptions for all of the optional units you could be taking. Think about which units you would choose if you went there, and why.
- Make sure you understand which units are compulsory and which are optional.
- Are there any extras like the possibility of study abroad or a work placement?
And some advice when it comes to settling on your firm choice university:
- It’s best to go to an open day before making your firm choice, and an applicant day if you’re invited to one of these. There’s also nothing to stop you visiting the uni on an ordinary working day to get a feel for what the reality of leaving home and being at the uni would be like, away from all the hype of an open day. If the coronavirus lockdown means you haven't been able to visit in person, here's how to use virtual open days.
- 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.
- Don’t base your decision purely on reputation, prestige or league tables. Picking the right uni for you is more important, and league tables change every year anyway. Being happy with your course and university will help you to perform well academically and get the most out of student life.
- Make sure you check out the student union website to find out all about the university’s clubs and societies, 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.
- Finally, think about cost. London and other major cities tend to be more expensive, which could affect your budget and how much you can do. It’s not just the rent on first year uni accommodation: look at the cost of second and third year rent, public transport, food, social life stuff and the cost to travel home for the weekend, too.
Our article on choosing the right university is packed full of useful resources to help you decide. You can also use our quiz to help with your decision.
Picking your insurance choice
Your insurance choice is your back-up university. It will probably 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 want to go to.
You can have an unconditional offer as your insurance even if your firm is a conditional offer. If you have an unconditional firm, however, then you won’t have an insurance choice because you won’t need one – in that case, you’d be going to your firm no matter what happens on results day. And if you apply through Ucas Extra then won’t get an insurance choice at all.
A few things to think about when you’re deciding on your insurance choice:
- Make sure it’s 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.
Do I have to choose an insurance university?
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 is optional. You can select just a firm and decline all your other choices. This is much better than picking an insurance that you then have to ask to release you on results day.
If you don’t choose an insurance university and you don’t make your firm offer on results day, you’ll be automatically entered into Clearing.
You might only have two offers that you’d be happy going to, but the conditions are the same – in this case, pick your favourite as firm and set the other as insurance. While it is unlikely that you would end up at your insurance in this case, it could still happen. It’s better to have a high insurance that you’d be happy with than a low one that you won’t want to end up taking.
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 confirmed 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.
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 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 its terms.
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, for example, and you already know that you will not achieve it, then it isn’t a safe choice for a firm.
Do not rely on the hope that the university will let you in anyway if you miss the required grades. You may be lucky, but you need to be prepared in case you are declined.
If you’re worried about meeting an offer but really want to choose that university as your firm, it’s a good idea to get in touch with the admissions department before picking it on Ucas. They may be able to give you some idea of how likely they are to be lenient this year, or if there’s not going to be any flexibility. Bear in mind, though, that even if they are willing to share this kind of information, there won’t be any guarantees – everything could well have changed by August.
If you decide to pick a firm choice with an offer that will be tricky to reach, make sure you’re mentally and emotionally prepared for the possibility that you might not get in. Minimise stress by having a great insurance choice that you know you’ll be happy with.
What if I’m given an unconditional offer before I get my exam results?
Unconditional offers have been on the rise in recent years, with universities offering unconditional places for certain subjects despite applicants not yet knowing their A-level results. Don’t let yourself feel pressured into accepting, though. 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 to 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.
- 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 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 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 A-level candidates 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.
I’m still struggling to choose. Any tips?
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 two columns, one for the plus points of that course and university, and one for its negatives.
The kind of plus points you might use are:
- It’s the course I most want to do
- It has the possibility of a year abroad
- I’d prefer a campus university
- All first year accommodation has en-suite bathrooms.
Negatives could include:
- 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 the pieces of paper somewhere you can easily see them, and add other points as you think of them. Writing things down is a very good way of clarifying your thoughts, and seeing it all in black and white can often make you realise which are your most important preferences.
By the end of March, you should have been able to eliminate some offers. Then keep taking down the pieces of paper as you make a decision against a uni and course.
Even if you think you do know which offer(s) you’re going to choose, it’s worth writing that down, posting it on the wall and forgetting all thoughts of picking a university for a few weeks. If you come back to your decision after a few weeks have passed and you’re still happy with it, you can be confident that it’s the right choice(s) for you. If you realise you still aren’t entirely sure, 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. Waiting will help you to make a more informed decision than if you rush to get it done in January.
What happens with my offers on results day?
If your results meet or exceed your firm choice offer, your Track will change to say UF – unconditional firm. This may still happen even if you don’t quite hit your grades. However, there is no way of predicting this and highly competitive courses at top universities are unlikely to budge on their offer.
If you don’t meet your offer and your firm choice declines you, this is when your insurance choice comes into play. If your insurance choice accepts you, Track will update to reflect this and you’ll see UF appear beside this university.
If you miss your grades and both your firm and insurance choices decline you, then you will be placed into Clearing and given a specific Clearing number.
You won’t be able to decline a firm choice in favour of your insurance on results day. To do this you will have to ask to be released into Clearing and then reapply to your insurance university. Make sure you contact them to ask if there are places available and get an offer before you enter them in as your Clearing choice.