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Hopefully by now your university offers are coming in thick and fast from your chosen universities. Once you’ve received all your decisions, you have to reply to UCAS telling them where you'd like to attend, and the dates that UCAS requires you apply by depend on when you received your decisions from universities and when you applied. Track will inform you of your deadline, and they are:

  • 6th May - if you have received all decisions by 31st March 
  • 7th May - uni decisions due on applications submitted by 15th Jan
  • 4th June -  if you have received all decisions by 7th May
  • 25th June -  if you have received all decisions by 4th June
  • 16th July - uni decisions due on applications submitted by 30th June
  • 23rd July - if you have received all decisions by 16th July

Luckily, in most cases, this gives you a couple of months to think about where you want to go, and don't feel obliged to get your decisions in quickly - you are making the decision of where you might like to study and live over the next few years, and the friends you make there may well become friends for life.

In replying, your chosen universities will have given you either a conditional offer whereby if you meet their obligations to have a place at that university, an unconditional offer whereby you have a definite place at that university, or they may have declined you meaning that you have failed to gain a place with them. 

Firstly, look through the offers you originally applied to. If you visited them via an open day previously, read through the notes you made on the day. If you've not visited, then take the opportunity to do so on one of their visit days - once you've been given an offer universities will invite you to one of their visit days designed to help you find out more about your course and the institution. 

If you can't make an visit day, or want to re-familialise yourself with the university, you can always go along on one of your days off - the university won't mind you visiting, they just won't have talks and extra activities on offer. 

Compare your universities

After visiting, you may have automatically rejected some of your universities as you just don't feel as though you like them enough and will feel happy living and studying there. If you're still stuck about which universities to choose (you are most likely to choose a firm and insurance choice - see below for more details), you can think about:

University vibe

- the look and feel almost dictates all your decisions, it's where you'd feel happy to live for three years. Would you prefer a campus or city university, what is the university town like, are there places to go out, what is the accommodation like in second and third year? Is it expensive? Is it easy to get home if you'd like to go home often? 

Graduate prospects

- whether you're likely to obtain a job after graduation. Eluceo's university guides state the percentage of people who obtain a graduate job 6 months after graduating. If you're on a course where you've a specific job in mind this is less of an issue, but if you are choosing a degree where you can go into any industry on graduating, you may look at choosing a university with a high academic reputation. 

Student satisfaction

- do people who attend the university enjoy it there? What is the nightlife and student union and organisations you can join like? What is teaching and feedback from teaching like? Are these factors important to you? 

Course content and assessment

- what are the modules like, do they involve what you want to study, are they examined in the way you'd prefer? Is there a chance for a year abroad or a year in industry?

University and employer links

- if you are in completing a placement or a year in industry does the university work with companies that you'd like to work with during your university years or in the future?

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Photograph: iStock

How firm and insurance offers work

Firm

The UCAS system lets you choose two universities out of the five you originally chose. These are known as your firm (first) and insurance (back-up) choice universities.

Your firm choice should be the university and couse you most want to go to, and are confident you can obtain the grades they require. If you firmly accept an unconditional offer you've a definite place in the Autumn, while if you firmly accept a conditional offer and meet all the conditions when your results come out, the university must accept you and you must attend. 

Knowing whether you will get in can be hard as university offers vary. Some may ask for ABC and be happy with you obtaining BBB, while other may need you to obtain an A in a certain subject, such as maths if you are looking to study maths at university. Furthermore, in theory, you will only obtain a place if you meet the conditions of your offer, however many universities accept students who have narrowly missed their grades. Universities often ask for higher grades on their prospectuses as it makes them look better, however current students may attend with lower grades. Use our Eluceo university guides to find out what the typical UCAS points are for the university and these will give you a rough indicator or the actual grades you need to attend.

If you don't understand the terms of your offer you can always e-mail the university to ask them to clarify the details. If you are worried about meeting an offer but want to go to that university you may also contact them before choosing them as your firm choice as they may be able to give you some indiciation of whether they might be flexible on results day. It may be that you have the option to take a Foundation Year if you don't get the grades, or, if you require AAB for the MSc course you've chosen, but the university takes people with ABC on the BSc course, you might be able to switch to this and have the option of the Msc at a later date.

If you've taken a risky approach in choosing your firm choice, be mindful that it might not pay off on results day, and get organised as to what you'd do if you didn't get onto any universities of your choice. See our Clearing guide for more information. 

Insurance

If you fail to meet the grades of your firm choice and the university still doesn't accept you, your insurance offers you the chance to choose a second university - if you obtain the grades for this university the university must accept you and you must attend. 

Usually, your insurance choice will have lower grade entry requirements, as this means you are more likely to get into one of your universities. If grades are too close, you may loose out on both choices and will have to go through Clearing. If there's only two universities that you'd like to attend and they both ask for the same grades, firm the one you want to go to most and then use the other one as your insurance - just remember that if you fail to get the grades there's a chance you'll have to go through Clearing. You can also choose an unconditional place which means that if you fail to get into your firm choice you automatically have a place at your insurance choice university. 

Make sure that you'd be happy to attend your insurance university - if you fail to get the grades to your firm choice the UCAS rules require that you go there, so you want to choose somewhere where you'd be willing to spend three years. Furthermore, remember that putting a second choice down is optional. In some subjects, such as chemistry and engineering, Clearing places are easier to obtain, so you may want to just choose your firm choice and go into Clearing if you fail to get the grades rather than choosing a second university you don't want to attend. 

If you have a change of heart on results day, you can't decide that you want to go to your insurance choice if you have the grades to your firm - so make sure that your firm university is the one you really want to attend!

If you've been offered an unconditional place while still taking your A Levels don't feel as though you have to accept it (or them!). Since UCAS Adjustment and uncapped places were introduced, many universities found that they were loosing their Firmers who, having exceeded their expected grades, went on to apply to other universities. They feel that in offering unconditional places they are discouraging this. You can obviously accept an unconditional offer if you want to go there, however if you accept an unconditional offer before your A Level grades you are not eligible to Adjustment and can only go through Clearing.

If, having visited your five universities, you decide that you don't like any of your choices, you can always go through UCAS Extra or Clearing. Don't choose a university you don't like just because you think it will make your life easier!

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