Frequently asked questions

How do I find out about UK universities?

Question: I have been using the Times of London's "University League Table" as a guide to evaluate UK schools. I assume it is a good source, but thought it would be worth checking with someone who knows the UK university system (i.e. you). So, is there another source that would be better for identifying top (and not top) universities? Also, the Times League Table only identifies about 120 universities. Are they choosing only the top set of schools (as in -- here are our top 120 out of 500) or is that the total number of universities in the UK? Thanks, DPC La Manche School


Answer: Hi DPC, The Times is fine. The Guardian and the Independent also have guides online. UCAS lists some 305 HEIs (Higher Education Institutions in the UK). Of these, about 110 are the familiar universities; another 20 or 30 are specialist institutions - Music, agriculture etc. The rest are mostly Tertiary Colleges which offer Foundation Courses or a limited range of degree courses which are validate by the universities. These are not without merit but are limited. (Google ‘Leeds City College’ if you want an example.)

Can you explain the UCAS process?

The UCAS process – a one page summary

Nick Lee, University Liaison Officer – February 2010

The UK university application process is confusing for a number of reasons, not least because whilst all applications are made through UCAS, a central body, the decisions about which applications are successful are incredibly decentralised, sometimes being made by central university admissions departments, sometime by individual course admissions tutors who may be admitting only half a dozen students each year.

The UCAS process:

This now operates entirely online.
Students generally apply in the academic year before their university course is due to start. They must sign up with UCAS.
They will probably have done research such as looking at information on the UCAS and university websites, and visiting Higher Education Fairs and University Open Days.
They apply for 5 courses for the same or related subjects, usually at 5 different universities. The best strategy is to choose a range of universities so that several ‘offers’ (see below) are received.
In their application students also record their previous qualifications such as MYP or GCSEs (if they have them) and make a Personal Statement in which they state their own interest in the course(s) applied for, any relevant experience, and a bit about their own interests and activities.
The school predicts what grades the student is likely to achieve, and writes a Reference stating their suitability (or not) for the course(s) applied for.
Application for Oxford, Cambridge, and medicine, dentistry and veterinary science must be made by October 15th.
All other applications must be made by January 15th.
In their own time, universities consider applications and either reject students or make conditional ‘offers’ to them. For example, this could be: 40 points and 7, 7, 6 at HL (not unusual for Oxford or Cambridge); or 32 points with a total of 16 points at HL; or 24 points (Diploma pass), etc. Where appropriate, UK universities will require certain grades at HL in the subject(s) that the student will study at university. For example, a student for English literature will need a good grade in English A1 at HL; a student for Medicine will need good grades in Biology and Chemistry HL, and so on.
These offers have to be made by 1 May.
Students then state that they will ‘hold’ two of their offers. One, the higher one, and by implication the offer from a more selective and therefore more prestigious university, is held as their ‘firm’ offer. The second, a lower one, is held as an ‘insurance’ offer, in case the student does not make the grades required for the firm offer.
Some students who only do IB Certificates may be made offers, especially at the less selective universities.
When the IB results are issued on 6th July, students will know whether they have achieved their firm offer. If they have, they can relax, and wait for further information from the university.
If they have not achieved their firm offer, they may choose to take up their insurance offer, or they may negotiate with the university which made the firm offer.
Some final decisions are not made until the end of August, as universities, or to a lesser degree students, may wait until the English A level results have been released

Any advice about applications?

ULO’s advice to schools on applications to UCAS

Nick Lee: June 2010

Any advice about filling in the UCAS applications?

Predicted grades now need to be made with exact precision in the UCAS application. My advice is  to put a few words in to explain how confident you are about your predictions. For example, ‘Our prediction of 33 points for James is in the middle of the range that we expect, 32 -34 points.’ and ‘Whilst Karen is not a certain 7 for Maths Higher level, she is a highly competent mathematician, and if everything goes well this year she should get there.’
Universities hate schools to over-predict.
If you are a new school, or even heading for your second set of results, do not be afraid to state something like, ‘XXXXX is part of only our first (second) set of DP students, thus our teachers are not yet fully experienced in making predictions.’

Personal statements?

§ Diploma candidates should have plenty to say, especially if they took a full part in CAS. However, be warned that universities say that they like to see two thirds of what is written to state the student’s reason for choosing their course and their interest in their key subjects – generally the Higher levels.

The Reference

As there are still some people in UK universities who are unfamiliar with the DP, it is safest to put a sentence into the reference such as: This student is taking the IB Diploma Programme, which requires them to take six subjects from a range of subject areas. Three of these are taken at the more demanding Higher level; three at Standard level. In addition they take three Core components: a critical skills course called Theory of Knowledge, a 4000 word research essay called the Extended Essay, and extracurricular activities which come under the heading of Creativity, Action and Service (CAS).

Universities are interested to see transcripts. In the UK they are accustomed to seeing a ‘trail’ of grades – GCSE, AS modules, A2 modules. A transcript, especially one using the DP 1 – 7 scale, will reassure them, so find a way of indicating Pre-DP and first year of DP grades. UK universities like to see external exam results such as GCSEs and ASs, but they know full that most systems internationally do not have them.

After the results come out – 6 July to candidates

Many students will achieve their firm offer – congratulations!
Some will achieve only their insurance offer – could be worse.
Some will miss an offer by 1 or 2 points, maybe even 3 points. They should appeal to the university, with back-up from you. Universities are generally aware that a miss by a few points is less significant than a miss by one A level grade. There are 3 possibilities:
Immediate acceptance – hooray!

Have to wait until A level results come out – can lead to acceptance or rejection – depends on how A level students have done.
Rejection – sorry!

Some will miss their insurance offer by 3 or more points – into clearing, or retakes, or take a new direction.

Students who fail the Diploma

Selective universities are unlikely to look at them.
Recruiting universities may do so if the student has adequate scores at HL.

Final advice

Do not forget that whilst the UK applications system is incredibly centralised (through UCAS), the admissions process is incredibly decentralised, often through individual tutors for individual small courses in the universities.
As a result some unreasonable offers are still made.
However, please do not think that one unreasonable offer is typical of a whole university’s point of view.
What is more, do not be afraid to challenge an offer that you feel to be unreasonable. Do this politely but firmly – universities resist when they feel that schools are putting things too strongly.
And finally, even when universities moan or appear obtuse, remember that ultimately universities are interested in recruiting good students, and they know that the DP produces such students.

What about predicted grades?

‘What is it best to tell my teachers with regard to UCAS predicted grades? Is there a good strategy that will help to get offers for my students?’

In general, both schools and universities tell me that predicted grades must be realistically optimistic, but not in any way over-inflated.

It is also a problem that students are doing 6 subjects and are unlikely to achieve their best possible grade in all of them.

There are a number of reasons why schools should be cautious with their predicted grades.

It does not help a student to receive an offer or offers that he or she is never going to achieve.
Some offers are based on predicted grades – so excessive predictions lead to excessive offers!
Universities hate over-prediction. In my recent visit to Cambridge they put it on the agenda. I told them that it was equally a concern of mine as over-prediction helps no one, not the student, not the university, nor the school. I asked them to tell me in confidence if they were concerned about any school or schools, because I would speak discreetly to them

How does a school make its UCAS predictions for ToK and the EE?

How does a school make its UCAS predictions for ToK and the EE?

Re-reading this, I am not sure that I agree with my own advice. Comments welcome! Nick

From DPC,

La Manche School

Subject: UCAS predicted grades

Hi Nick

With the huge uncertainty of Extended Essay and ToK results, I find it very annoying that I now have to put in a specific prediction. I had been in the habit of predicting everyone 1 (a bit harsh I know, but it seemed to work out in the end) – now for example, I have to predict one of my very best students 44 points, rather than 42. I am a bit worried about all this! I would rather not mess about with the subject scores – would you suggest UNDER-predicting what we hope for ToK and EE just in case? Or just to go for it?

Best wishes



I guess that the best is to be cautiously optimistic with the subjects scores and cautiously pessimistic with the Core scores, except where it matters for the course / university(ies) being applied to.

To my mind, there is nothing wrong with explaining this in the reference.

Best wishes

Engineering at Cambridge - Special Considerations?

Copy of email correspondence with Nick Lee - Edited Feb 2010 -

Dear Nick,

I've had a query from a student who is studying at my old school in Thailand and considering applying "to Cambridge for Mechanical Engineering or Physics (MEng or MSci)". He's doing Maths HL and Physics HL and may well be predicted '6’ or '7' for both. He's also doing his Extended Essay in Maths. I remember hearing from you about admissions to Cambridge for Engineering. Any tips I can pass on to this lad?

Best wishes, XXXXX


Cambridge Physics and Engineering do not officially discriminate between A level and IB, and in the end they want good students so they will always look at DP applicants. Their reservation is the lack of applied maths, but lots of A level students are the same these days so.

However, they are likely to ask for 7s for both Maths and Physics, and if these are not predicted then he may well not get interviewed. There is no bias against the IB in this. They have embraced the A star as well, which is roughly equivalent to a 7.




7th July.

You have seen the results.....

Your students have seen the results.....

Most schools that have been in touch with me so far are reasonably happy with their results, though some have too many students who have missed offers by one or more points.

Here is my advice for near-misses (1 - 4 points). If they still wish to go, the student should contact the university with a polite enquiry giving their score, to tell them that they are still keen to come and that they hope that they will still look favourably on the application. If the HL results are good, emphasise that to the uni. If the EE result is good, and in a suitable subject, emphasise that. If the overall score is good, emphasise that. And so on. Remind the uni that a miss by a point or so in the DP is less than a miss of a grade at A level.


After the results come out – 6 July to candidates

For students who achieve their firm offer – congratulations!

For those who achieve their insurance offer – could be worse.

For those who miss an offer by 1 or 2 (or even 3) points – appeal to the university. It is best that the student does this him or herself, perhaps with a letter or email message of support from you. Universities know well that it is of less significance to miss an IB offer by this margin than by an A level grade. They may be merciful, especially if the HL grades are good, or it can be argued that a good extended essay result can compensate for a weak result elsewhere .….. However, in these straitened times what is most likely is that they will say, ‘Wait until the A level results come out.’ My advice then is for the student to contact the university a week or so before the A level results are issued to students. This may bring their application up to the top of the pile at the right time. However, there is no guarantee that the place will then be given. If enough A level students meet their offers to fill all the places, then the university has to take them.

For those who miss their insurance offer by 3 or more points – go into Clearing, or retakes, or take a new direction.

Results to unversities

How do student results get to the universities?

1. Requests for Results:

From the Handbook of Procedures:

Requests for this service must be submitted on IBIS using the Request for results service form according to the deadlines below.

Universities in:

Deadline for May session

Deadline for November session

Australia and New Zealand

15 October (after May)

15 October (before November)

Canada and the United States of America (USA)

1 July

1 January*

All other countries

1 May

1 November

For students applying through UCAS, it is their UCAS ID number that is required.

2. However, it is reported in the UK that this system is fallible.

The system whereby DP grades reach universities: student chooses – school submits – IB computer talks to UCAS computer – UCAS computer talks to university computers – grades get to correct admissions person(s). Is ‘still not working effectively’ (Reading Uni). It is my advice that schools should print out the 6 July transcript of results, stamp it, and then send it to the university concerned. (Usually to the central office, as it is they who do the admin.)

Nick Lee

July 2011

Certificates - An explanation for universities?

Reply by Nick Lee

February 2010

The attached document, ‘Explanation of IB Certificates’, may be of use. I am grateful to Liz Reece, of St Clare’s, Oxford, for sending it to me.


International Baccalaureate Certificate - Summary

All students are encouraged to follow the full IB Diploma Programme. Those who fail to satisfy the entire set of requirements or who elect to take fewer than six subjects are awarded a certificate for examinations completed.
Tariff entry The Tariff Expert Group which met to discuss the IB Diploma in September 2004 did not allocate Tariff points to the Certificate. Following a UCAS review in 2008, Tariff point allocations were allocated for 2010 entry.

Can students do a mixture of IB Certificates and A levels?

Answer from Sandra Morton of Impington Village College.

October 2009


It is perfectly possible to run A levels alongside IB certificates. This is a way of broadening access by increasing flexibility and it can be a way of supplementing an A level programme. The UCAS tariff is vital here. All universities do not use it but are often willing to do so if they understand the need to refine an offer. So, if a published standard offer is three B grades at A level and a student is predicted an A , a C and a 6, then the school would need to clarify with that uni dept what they would expect the A in ie which subject is leading. If you then explain that the student would be coming with an A at A level, the equivalent of a low grade A and a grade C then it will be up to them to make the decision as in any other case. They are actually getting a student with 2 grade As and a C so it just depends on whether they are happy to take someone with a C – no different to a student with two As and a C at A level as opposed to three Bs.