Students, you might feel this is the worst possible time to be applying to university. A toxic combination of a cap on student numbers and funding concerns causing universities to shut departments has squeezed the number of places. And at the same time, more students like you are getting better A-level results and submitting university applications. That, plus fears that tuition fees could rise for applicants in future years, has pushed up demand, so competition for university places looks set to be higher than ever next year.
The Guardian University Guide 2011: What to study, where to go, how to get thereThe Guardian,£14.99Buy this bookOn top of all that, the new government has already slashed £200m from England's higher education budget, following more than £1bn-worth of cuts announced since December. The situation, says Clare Beckett, head of recruitment at Thames Valley University, is "totally unique". She adds: "There are new qualifications, higher entry criteria, fewer places, more competition and a race to start before the cap on fees potentially comes off."
But before you give up on your dream or consider leaving the country (and more on that later), take another look. There are still tens of thousands of places out there, and universities are ready to fill them with passionate, hard-working students just like you. What you need to do is convince them that you're the ideal candidate for their course – and have the grades to back that up.
The predicted great university rush of 2011 does, however, mean that you need to work hard to maximise your chances. This year, more than ever, you need to do lots of research, make sure your course choices are realistic, and portray yourself in the best possible light. Here's how:
Follow your passion
The most important thing is to pick a course that you're interested in enough to motivate yourself to study: at university, no one's going to ring up mum if you don't hand in coursework. And if you're passionate about what you're doing, it'll be much easier to win over admissions tutors with your application.
Think about the subjects you enjoy most at school and the way you like to study – practicals in science, or essays in English? Language-learning or HTML code-learning? This year, it's a good idea to put some special emphasis on a degree's career prospects: as Britain crawls slowly out of recession, you'll want to make sure your course will put you in a position to secure your ideal job on graduation.
Next, you need to research what courses are available. Read prospectuses and watch sample lectures online. Visit open days and talk to current students to discover things such as what the course is like, the teaching methods and assessment techniques … and the quality of lecturers.
Once you've got a list of courses that interest you, it's time to think strategically. Make sure your final five (or less for certain subjects, such as medicine) Ucas choices ask for a range of entry requirements – if you're predicted three Bs, apply for at least one course asking for BBC. And be aware that prospectuses indicate the typical offer that a university might make – the actual grades of those offered a place might be higher or lower. As Paul Teulon, head of student recruitment at Oxford University, says: "A medical course might have a typical offer of AAB, but students gaining places have closer to AAAB."
Visit the Unistats website (www.unistats.ac.uk) to find information on the average number of Ucas tariff points per student on thousands of courses. The site also offers past students' reviews of courses and universities.
If you're desperate to study a particular course, say, medicine, but are seriously concerned about your chances of getting in, widen your horizons. Many universities offer similar courses – with medicine, for example, you could apply for biomedical sciences or medical sciences, then gain points towards a medicine degree or transfer later on.
Finally, make sure you fulfil each of the entry requirements that the course describes as essential. There's no point wasting one of your few Ucas choices on a course that lists an A in maths as essential if you're predicted a C: be realistic to maximise your chances of winning offers. Remember to keep your notes about the pros and cons of all the courses you look into, even when you've identified your top choices – it'll save you time if you need to go through clearing later on.
Choosing a university
Once you've narrowed down your course choices, it's time to look at where you want to study. Remember this is a place you'll be spending three (or more) years, so don't apply somewhere just because you think you'll get in. Doing your homework and finding out everything you can about a university will be worth it in the future.
First, the academic stuff. Luckily, this is made a bit easier by Education Guardian's university tables, published today. Look at the top performers for your course, and compare the student satisfaction rates, spend per student and staff ratios. Whereas other university league tables tend to focus on universities' research record, the Guardian's tables are all about the teaching, which is what undergraduate applicants most need to know about. You can tailor-make your own table for the courses that interest you, and see which institutions perform well, according to the students who have actually been there.
Next, think about where you want to study: right now you might want to get as far away as possible from mum and dad, but think of all those hours you'll spend on a cheap, packed coach travelling up and down the country, and it might not seem so much fun. Also be aware of the extra accommodation costs of moving out of home. Other things to consider include each university's facilities, accommodation (if you're moving out), and the availability of scholarships and bursaries.
For many students, money worries will be more important than ever this year. Although you won't pay fees upfront, the average graduate's debt is now said to be about £23,000, and top-up fees are tipped to rise. It's unlikely that this would kick in immediately – when the fees were first passed by parliament, for example, it was two years before students had to start paying – but the cost of a degree, which is currently around £10,000, could go up.
The Guardian's A-Z profiles of universities (guardian.co.uk/education/universityguide) offers information about what bursaries are on offer. You can also try bursarymap.direct.gov.uk.
Don't just assume the conventional full-time, three-year UK degree is for you. Consider the "earn while you learn" option, avoiding heavy debt while boosting your employability at the same time. At Birkbeck, University of London – a specialist provider of evening higher education, undergraduate applications rose 20% year-on-year in 2009 as more students liked the sound of a flexible course.
"It's an attractive option to students who don't want to graduate with large debts in an uncertain job market," says Birkbeck spokesman Simon Watts. "We'd encourage prospective students not to wait for clearing to secure their university place – our open evenings are seeing a significant number of younger people coming."
Another idea is fleeing abroad. In America, for example, universities have much more spending power and can offer generous bursaries and opportunities. Universities in Australia this year launched a roadshow to lure British students to their campuses. If you do want to go down this route, find out more here: www.direct.gov.uk/en/BritonsLivingAbroad/EducationAndJobs/DG_071576.
Alternatively, you might want to join the thousands of students who take a break from school and opt for a pre-university gap year. If so, get organised. Last year, an estimated 130,000 students missed out on degree places and caused soaring demand in gap-year schemes, so it's crucial to decide early what you want to do. Consider whether you want to make a deferred Ucas application, sending in your form before the 15 January 2011 deadline for entry in 2012, or just apply the following year. If you do apply deferred, remember that universities will want to know what you're doing during your gap year, so write about it in your personal statement, and try to show what you will gain from the year out.
The dreaded PS
After you've made these important decisions, filling in most of the Ucas form is pretty easy. Most students now apply online, at www.ucas.ac.uk/students/apply. It's mainly fact-filling: your grades and course choices. But there's the more stressful part: the personal statement. Here you'll have about 400 words to sell yourself to admissions tutors, telling them why your academic and extracurricular credentials mean you would be an ideal student.
To get started, jot down notes on the factors that attracted you to the course (Career prospects? Personal interest? Enjoying a subject at school?) and the qualities you have that would allow you to flourish on the course – with proof. So if you're applying for a degree in English literature, you might discuss your passion for theatre, and flag up a few recent shows you've seen and your response, or your love of haikus, as demonstrated by your recent haiku-writing prize – you get the picture.
Never copy anyone else's personal statement – your application could be binned if you're found out, and anyway, how is cousin Graham's bid to apply for a maths degree going to be relevant to your application to do chemistry? If you want to see some examples to help you write your statement, visit www.studential.com/personalstatements.
More students opt for college, p6
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