How to apply for university if you're not in school or college

Without the guidance of a school or college, applying for university can be a confusing and intimidating process. Maybe you’ve taken a gap year after A Levels, worked for a couple of years and now decided uni is for you, or perhaps you’re a mature student coming to further education later in life.

Our guide should help you navigate the application process.

Where to start

The only way to apply for an undergraduate university course usually is through UCAS – Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. It’s the centralised system that all students and universities use to make and receive applications. It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with their website and the general application process before jumping too far ahead.

However if you want to apply for a course to start this September, you will enter Clearing. This means that you will apply to the university directly via an online form or a Clearing hotline service, and you won't need to use UCAS.

UCAS Apply

All applications on UCAS are made through their ‘Apply’ system. This is simple and easy to use, you just need to register, allowing you to sign in and out of your application at any time.

The application form will ask for your personal information. Depending on your situation and your answers you may then have to work your way through the student finance section. This again is relatively straight forward and there are articles about finance and the support available.

You’ll then have to choose the course you want to study. You can have up to five choices and they aren’t in order of preference.

You will be asked to enter your education and employment history. Then you will have to write your personal statement. This is where you can show potential universities what you are looking to study and why, as well as why you would be a great fit for that course and institution. We have lots of advice on how to write the perfect personal statement.

Once you’ve added your personal statement you can check everything you have already inputted and then send it off to your potential universities


Once you have done all of that there is one final vital part of your application, a reference. This is a written recommendation from a professional who knows you well and academically. Everyone who applies to university needs to have one. If you have taken a few years out of school we recommend getting in touch with a teacher who taught you during your A Levels. If that isn’t an option then your current or a past employer will be ok. Make sure you contact them and check this is ok to list them first. In this section you will pass on their details to UCAS who will contact them about how to submit the reference. UCAS require all references to be submitted online (no email or paper submission), so it’s also important you communicate this with your reference.

Worried? Get alerts and advice.

Be prepared for Clearing with our Clearing guide and alerts about our available courses.


The application process costs £13 if you are applying for a single course. If you are applying for multiple courses it costs £24, as it will if you are applying as a late applicant (after 30 June).


Applying after 30 June will mean you are entered into Clearing which makes your application process slightly different. Not sure exactly what Clearing is or what it will entail? Read our guide.

Missed the deadline?

So it’s after 30 June and you need to apply through Clearing, you will still have to apply following the same steps as above with the only difference being you won’t be able to add a choice until after you have submitted the application. Once you have submitted it you will receive an email from UCAS including details of how to access ‘Track’ (the place where you can check your application progress) as well as your Clearing Number, which you’ll need for your perspective unis.

Steps when applying through Clearing

Find out what courses are available. Not all courses will be available in Clearing, those that are oversubscribed won’t be available. UCAS will have a full list on their site or you can check with universities directly.

Do some research. Before you apply we recommend you speak to any universities you may be interested in. Each institute will have a hotline you can call to do this.

Once you have spoken to a university and they have offered you a place, you can then add them to your UCAS Track. Be aware that you will only be able to add one choice and as soon as you do add your course through Track it will count as you definitely accepting the offer. However if the uni you added doesn’t confirm your place you will be able to add another.

UCAS points

UCAS points can be tricky to understand, especially if you have been away from education for a few years. UCAS points help put a easy to understand figure on your exam results to help universities quickly understand what level of qualifications you have. The tariff changed in 2017, therefore it’s a good idea to double check you understand the new system and scoring.

A Level Result Points
A* 56
A 48
B 40
C 32
D 24
E 16

Studied BTECS? Check out our BTEC points calculator.

UCAS points cover all other qualifications from AS Levels to Scottish Highers and the IB qualifications. Details on these can be found on the UCAS website.

Already have your results? Read our tips on why applying early in Clearing is a good idea.

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