UCAS - What? More forms to fill in?
Right, so bureaucracy isn't fun, filling in forms is hardly an entertaining pastime and it takes a lot of organisation and discipline to make a system work. Of course we all know it is sometimes necessary to organise things (Err… well at least we know that we should do so - just don't check my desk please!), and forms can assist you by helping you to provide exactly the right information that is needed for whatever you apply/sign up for.

If you have applied for a job before, you may have encountered the company's standard application form - annoying aren't they? They don't even leave you the space to boast about all your great achievements! But that is exactly the point of these forms - they let you provide your prospective employer with exactly the information they need to assess your suitability for the job, no more, no less - and the same goes for the UCAS form.

But we've all had bad experiences with bureaucracy - lost forms, disorganised companies / councils / colleges / schools and so on. If you've been spared from the bureaucracy menace so far, then nice one for you but I certainly haven't!

When I signed out of Uni in Switzerland, I had to wait half an hour at the enquiry desk - because they had lost my card in their student register. Gee thanks, what else have they lost? My exam results? Thankfully not, but you never know!

When I signed up for college here, I saw the receptionist type in my details correctly, yet half a year (and several phonecalls and complaints) later, they still kept sending my stuff to the wrong address - this got even worse when we moved house last August, after filling in the 'Change of Address' form three times (!), they still seem to think that I live in Switzerland - is there something I don't know about? If anyone knows where my private jet is, please tell me because I am sure the 'Yorkshire Traction' bus I go to college in ain't it!

Then, 3 months after the beginning of my course, I got a nice letter from my college, telling me 'to pay my first fee instalment immediately or else...'! This was funny, because I had paid the whole £3,507 (overseas student fees) in one lump sum three months previously, just like I had told them when I enrolled!

And last but not least there's the form that allows you to take 25% off your council tax if you are a full-time student. Now I spent most of my savings (from 8 months work) on those overseas student tuition fees, so I really couldn't afford to pay the full 50% (I live with my boyfriend) - but of course the college didn't manage to handle the council form correctly - all they had to do was put a stamp on and hand it back to me, but they ended up changing my hours (because the course register had some grave errors in it) and sending it back to the council directly - which they weren't supposed to do, it even says it on the form!

It took several hour-long sessions at the local council (where most of the staff were temporary relief workers, thus only 2 out of the 10 people dealing with council tax enquiries actually knew what they were doing) and a meeting with the college's financial advisor to sort it out.

Stop waffling - What is UCAS then?

Now to the UCAS form - is it just another bureaucratic loophole or a slick solution to cut down on administrative work?

Okay, UCAS stands for 'Universities and Colleges Admission Services' and is a system that allows students to apply for up to 6 (4 if you apply for medicine, dentistry or veterinary science) different courses at different Colleges and Universities throughout the country - via a relatively simple, 4-page form.

You pay a one-off fee of £15 if you apply for several courses and/or different Universities or £5 if you only apply for one course at one University, and administration is handled centrally, saving students a lot of time and money because they only have to apply once, no matter how many institutions and courses they apply for. The form is checked by your course tutor (or another reliable referee if you are a mature student) who then writes his or her own recommendation and sends it off to UCAS, where it has to arrive by the middle of December in the year before you want to start your studies.

The UCAS form is usually filled in by hand, but most colleges will be provided with a UCAS CD-ROM that lets you fill it in on a PC. This option is intended for disabled students who have trouble writing by hand, but if you ask nicely you can use it as an able-bodies student as well, especially if you tutor knows that your handwriting is a bit messy - after all a messy, jumbled personal statement really wouldn't give your prospective Uni a good impression, would it? If you have a very small handwriting it is also recommended to use the electronic form, as UCAS will forward the form to the Unis copied onto one A4 sheet (saves paper I suppose) and an already tiny handwriting won't be easy to read once they've shrunk it down.

- Page 1 -

On this page, you have to give information about your name, address, age, origin, previous secondary education and your chosen courses and Universities as stated in the UCAS directory, a relatively thick brochure that contains codes and information for all available courses and educational institutions.

- Page 2 -

This is where you have to state all your previous qualifications as well as the ones you are in the process of completing, namely A-Levels or GNVQs etc. Make sure that you use the correct information (the official course description and the name of the exam board) to avoid problems and hassle, as they will otherwise contact your referee and you may have to fill in the form from scratch.

- Page 3 -

Here, you can mention any special needs you may have - essential if you have a disability that requires your prospective Uni to provide assistance, for example if you need a computer to help you write your exams. Also, the page allows you to list all previous (paid) work experience you have had and you have to state any previous criminal convictions - hopefully you haven't had any, but if you have then be honest, as they have ways of finding out and lying in this part will come out sooner or later, possibly costing you your acceptance at your chosen Uni!

Page 3 is also where you write your personal statement, an account of your previous experience and an explanation on why you think you are suitable for your chosen course(s).

As you should also mention your interests and your future plans, this is a great opportunity for the Universities to check your suitability. The way you express and present yourself and whether or not you have a genuine interest/background in the course(s) you selected is just as important as your grades, and can make or break your application - therefore you have to spend a good amount of time and thought on this part of the application. Make sure it doesn't contain any spelling mistakes and check the grammar - it's first impressions that count after all!

- Page 4 -

This is a page to be filled in by your referee, who has to be a tutor, headmaster, employer or senior colleague - friends or family won't do. A referee has to check whether the applicant has filled in the form correctly and whether his/her information is correct.

In addition, he/she has to write a statement about the candidate's suitability for the selected course(s), predicted grades (if the candidate still has to finish A-Levels etc.), ability to work independently, communication skills, interests, career plans and other factors that might influence their future.

So is the system any good?

First off, the system saves both the applying students and the universities a lot of time and money. In Switzerland (where I come from) for example, such a system is not in place as of yet - mainly because we have very few Unis and a much smaller choice of courses. None the less I would have appreciated this system, as you currently have to apply to each University individually (competition is high so you have to apply for more than one course/Uni as a backup), which means filling in several forms (if you apply at different Unis) and paying approximately £40 each - so the measly £15 for the UCAS application really shouldn't be worth complaining about, as it would be much more hassle for you if you had to apply directly to each Uni!

The form itself seems very well thought-out and gives applicants the chance to sell themselves and make a good first impression through the personal statement. This is essential, as not all courses can offer interviews, and it also has the benefit of basing the Uni's first impression of an applicant on their personality, interdisciplinary skills and interests rather than purely on their grades - let's face it, even if we try hard we don't always perform as well as we would have wanted, and you can still be talented and intelligent without being a straight 'A' student!

Although I am sure many students lie (well, twist the truth more like it) in their personal statements and make up work experience, skills and interests to make themselves look more suitable for a course, I do believe that any referee who gives a thing about his position will notice the scam and 'correct' it in their reference - the blame is on them if they don't. Lying in your personal statement will therefore shine a very negative light on your application, as the Universities are much more likely to believe your referee's assessment of your personality and skills than your own, should they contradict each other.

Many people have complained about how complicated the UCAS form is, but I seriously don't understand what they mean. For a start, if you ever want to work in your life and if you are serious about going to University, then the ability to work independently (without anyone telling you what exactly to put in each box) and to understand and fill in forms is essential - so why not start before it's too late? The UCAS form is only the start in a massive line of forms you will have to fill in within your lifetime - what a joy!

Apart from that, UCAS provide a large amount of useful guidance material, in leaflet/brochure form as well as on their website, http://www.ucas.co.uk where you can look up the rules and guidelines for each section of the form - it really is pretty much foolproof! And should you still have a problem, your course tutor or communications/career teacher will be pleased to help - that's what they're there for!

Once they have received your application you receive a confirmation and forward copies of your application to your chosen Universities, and after up to four weeks they will send you your personal application number which allows you to track the state of your application via their website.

Although I never sent my form in (if anyone wants to donate £9,500/year in overseas fees to sponsor me, feel free to E-Mail me!), most students on my GNVQ course did and they have not had any problems with it - they all received confirmation of their application within a few weeks and were promptly contacted by their prospective Universities and, depending on the courses they have chosen, invited for 'Open Days', interviews and so on.

From what I have seen, and having filled in one of those forms myself as part of our 'Communications' lesson, I would say the UCAS system is a very effective, affordable and efficient way of dealing with the overwhelming amount of administrative work connected with the application process - Switzerland is always seen as such a 'neat', well-organised and bureaucratic country, but next to the UCAS system the Swiss Uni administration looks like [insert something bad here] compared to a masterpiece of [insert favourite music style/author/chef etc.] like [insert your favourite album/book/food etc]!

The process saves everybody time and money and makes sure that candidates provide all the information necessary for a successful application and the personal statement gives applicants a chance to emphasise their qualities, so applications are not treated solely on their grades, and last but not least the reference guarantees that a candidate hasn't just made up everything he/she has written in the form and personal statement - usually, referees demand to see your exam results and qualifications before they agree to write a recommendation.

All in all, the system saves a lot of people - especially you, the students - a lot of hassle and filling in the form is a good exercise in independent working - an essential quality for anyone planning to go on to higher education!