Surviving the UCAS Application Process: A Parent’s Guide

The Year 11 exam season is in full swing and whilst students are studiously revising for this crucial time in their educational journey, thoughts begin to wonder to the next stage of that journey; where will they study at Sixth Form?

Included in the process of helping your child choose the right Sixth Form is the scrutiny of how that Sixth Form will help your child achieve a place at the right university through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).  What support is on offer to guide them through the process?  How can you be sure which university is ‘the one’ for them?  Is there ample careers guidance on hand for those students who choose to follow a different path?  What is UCAS, anyway!?

This year sees me coming to the end of the whole UCAS application process as a parent, as my two youngest children finish their A Levels and, fingers crossed, go on to the next stage of their lives.  So, now might be a good time to reflect on how parents can survive, indeed actually enjoy, the UCAS journey.


Deciding on a course can be the first major hurdle, particularly as the range of university courses is now so diverse. Where university courses were once a relatively modest buffet of recognisable options, with Law and Medicine as the centrepiece, students are now faced with a veritable smorgasbord of choices. Students often confine their initial research to the subjects they like best at AS Level, or courses related to their parents’ professions.  Whilst this is a reasonable starting point, it can be very limiting. At Cheadle Hulme School, we provide detailed and up to date careers advice, mapping students’ career aspirations against the relevant courses they should consider, but the best way to broaden your horizons is to choose one university and browse all their courses, to formulate a long list of possible courses which you can then explore online at a full range of institutions.

Being open to new possibilities can be daunting but hugely exciting and all universities have clear, alphabetical lists of undergraduate courses on their websites. An initial search for Politics, for example, might take you to Politics and American Studies with a year at a US University, or Government and European Studies with the option to study in Europe for part of the course, or to International Relations with a language.


If your son or daughter is considering a Gap Year, it is well worth sitting down with them and really thinking though their motivation.  Are they thinking beyond just imagining themselves on a beach in Thailand at a full moon party?  Can they cope with being at home for five months working whilst most of their friends are busy Instagramming photos of Fresher’s fun?  Will they be comfortable starting university with a cohort a year younger than they will be? The traditional ‘work crazy hours in a bar from September to January and then travel the world with a group of friends’ model can be great, but it can also be an expensive and worrying option for parents.

There are some fantastic alternative options with charitable organisations like Project Trust and Projects Abroad which not only offer volunteers opportunities to teach, run outward-bound activities or participate in meaningful conservation projects, but also the chance to earn valuable UCAS points which count toward applications.  Parents, too, can be comforted by the safety net provided by these organisations, and the selection process tends to open applicants’ eyes to the realities of a year abroad.

One in five 18 year-olds now take a gap year and although it can be tempting to delay application for a year, do remember that applications for deferred entry are welcomed by nearly all universities. Having firm offers in place is a great idea, particularly if students plan to be out of the country in the November to March period, when applicants may be called for interview and the UCAS process is at its most vital.


This is the fun bit for parents!   You get to travel to new cities and explore areas hitherto unfamiliar. Obviously, Open Day visits are a great way to get a feel for a university, but do think about going on independent visits too. Most institutions welcome individual visitors outside of Term Time, and you can then dovetail a couple of visits with a family trip away; we did a day in Durham, a night in Newcastle and an afternoon in Leeds and came away with very distinct impressions of each option in just 36 hours!  Recently, we looked at Bath and Bristol and popped into Birmingham on the way home, all in the same time frame.

Try to look beyond the campus and the halls of residence, and visit the areas students tend to live in for their second and third years. Get a feel for the local area, the transport, the shopping, the arts and culture. Look at rental costs and house prices (students may settle in their university town or city) and the range of job opportunities in the area. Seek out the nicest areas to stay in when you come to visit so you can make a lovely weekend of it!

Above all, I would advise that you are not simply swayed by the notion that your child has to apply to the ‘best’ universities with the highest grade requirements. A much better criterion is whether the place fits in terms of your son or daughter’s character, interests and aspirations. Would a smaller campus university work for them? Do they need a big city? Do they need access to great sporting facilities? Closer to home or further afield? If you know students currently attending university, ask them for their honest evaluation of the highs and lows of their experience so far.


Having decided what and where to study, my strong advice is to trust the Sixth Form to guide students through the application process (particularly the writing of their personal statements) and trust the students to actually produce the statement themselves. Cheadle Hulme School provides tailored, personal support with a nominated UCAS expert.

The very best personal statements are written in the voice of an enthusiastic 18 year-old, not that of their overly helpful parent! Be very wary of sounding too pompous, too adult and, as a consequence, insincere (and, yes, that is the voice of experience speaking). UCAS provides a really helpful downloadable guide for parents which will help you to provide the right kind of gentle ushering towards deadlines, without being too interfering!

My final tips for parents are simple. Firstly, enjoy this process as much as you possibly can….these are the last few months with your child before adulthood claims them; share the excitement with them.  Secondly, try your best to avoid starting any sentence with ‘Well, when I was at university…”. The university landscape has changed so dramatically that your own experiences are probably irrelevant, almost certainly incriminating and definitely embarrassing!

Former Assistant Head (Admissions), Mrs Sally Petrie