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The real story behind university entry requirements

A key thing to look at when comparing uni courses is entry requirements. But there’s more to entry requirements than meets the eye...

We've put these under the microscope to highlight the 'unspoken rules' of university entry requirements, so you know exactly what an offer and different entry requirement types mean before you apply.

They're not always as black and white as they seem.

Wait, what’s an entry requirement again?

These are set out by a university to evaluate quickly whether you are suitable for a course. These can vary in form, but usually come down to specific advanced-level qualifications and grades you must achieve, to indicate that you have the required skills and knowledge for that course.


So, what's lying below the surface of university entry requirements...?

1. Uni entry requirements can take many forms

For any course at uni, Ucas entry requirements might be listed in several different ways. They might be shown as:

  • Grades: eg DDD (BTEC), AAB (A-level), AAAB (Highers)
  • Ucas tariff points: eg 112 points
  • Ucas tariff points with a grade requirement: eg 112 points with a B in a specific subject

Don't worry too much, as they all roughly equate to the same thing. But throughout your university research, whether talking to friends, university representatives or school teachers, they may well be referred to in a way that you're not used to or aren't relevant – and be warned: DDD at BTEC and DDD at A-level are two very different things!

A-levels and Scottish Highers to Ucas points | Which? University

Calculate Ucas points for BTECs, Welsh Baccalaureate and International Baccalaureate

2. Universities don't just look at grades – subjects can matter

A university may require you to have taken specific subjects to show that you're suitable for a course. It's an important factor to consider when choosing your A-levels, especially if you have a degree path in mind at this point. 

Sometimes these subject-specific requirements are essential; other times more of a preference that can help your application.

On the other hand, some universities may not accept certain subjects, or may request extra requirements if you do apply with these. For example, Leicester states on its website (as of 9 November 2017) that it does not accept general studies when applying to biological and medical sciences, medicine and economics.

Meanwhile, although Nottingham and Manchester do accept media studies A-levels, they clarify that this should be combined with ‘traditional’ subjects too.  

It’s not always essential to have studied a subject prior to degree level either. For instance, you don't have to had studied law at A-level to study it at degree level.

3. Sometimes, qualifications will matter too

While some universities make offers based on Ucas tariff points – which could comprise of several different qualifications – most will be specific in terms of the level and mix of qualifications they're looking for. 

For example, De Montfort University lays out the following A-level entry requirements for its Pharmaceutical and Cosmetic Science course: ‘A minimum of 104 points from at least two A-levels including chemistry at Grade C or above, with one other science subject at C from: biology, human biology, physics, statistics, maths/further maths, or psychology.’

Meanwhile, if you're a BTEC student, look out for courses that name specific units you need to pass with specific grades.

The Royal Veterinary College, for instance, looks for DDD overall for BTEC National Applied Sciences applicants, as well as distinctions in specific units (including genetics, physiology and biomedical science techniques).

4. Look out for GCSE entry requirements 

The majority of university courses look for at least Cs (or 4/5 under the new grading system) in GCSE English, maths and perhaps science. Some university courses go further and list specific subjects and grades they expect you to have.

With AS-levels no longer counting towards your final A-level grade (in England, at least), universities may also look to your GCSE grades as a formal indicator of your academic ability.

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    5. Universities may not accept retakes or resits

    Some highly selective courses, such as medicine, may state that A-levels should be taken at the same sitting, after no more than two years of study. This can affect you if you're looking to repeat some exams after sixth form or if you've taken some exams early.

    6. Do entry requirements say anything about the university or course?

    You could argue that these are used as a statement on how a course wants to be viewed against other universities and courses. A course requiring grades of A*AA-ABB or equivalent will be considered differently to one with more flexible course requirements of grades CCD and lower.

    But using Ucas entry requirements to make a judgement about the value of a course isn't necessarily that helpful. We've seen many courses ask for ‘mid-market’ grades (e.g. BBC) that lead to good employment opportunities, or have a strong academic reputation in a particular field.

    We'd recommend cross-referencing information on entry requirements with the percentage of applicants who receive offers, a stat you'll find on Which? University when you search for a course; this can give you a more rounded view of how competitive a course may (or may not!) be.

    7. Can university entry requirements change?

    Right up to the moment you receive an offer (such as BBB at A-level or DMM at BTEC National), a university can change its entry requirements.

    So you could apply for a course thinking that the university will be looking for BBC at A-level, only for it to make you a conditional offer of BBB. This might work the other way around, too. You do not have to accept this offer. If you do, though, it won't be changed.

    8. Do universities stick to their stated entry requirements?

    In theory, yes. But in practice, there are shades of grey.

    • Sometimes a course may be asking for AAB and that will be the absolute minimum the uni will consider when you get your results.
    • Some will be looking for those grades or equivalent – so an alternative set of grades like A*AC may suffice.
    • On the other hand, a university might ask for BBC or 112 Ucas tariff points but be far more flexible when results come out, letting in people on the course with sometimes far lower grades.

    There are often some surprising differences. Here on Which? University, you can see the most common A-levels studied (and the grades achieved) by previous students on different courses, and compare these with the entry requirements that university asks for – simply search for a course and read the course profile.

    9. What if you don't meet the entry requirements come results day? 

    You may find that your grades fall short of the entry requirements you needed for your university offer. Don't despair yet!

    There's still a chance a university will accept you with lower grades if you narrowly missed the mark (though trying your luck with three Cs when your offer was ABB probably won't work). There can be a disparity between what a university asks for and what it will accept. 

    If you find yourself in this situation, contact the university as soon as you can on results day to confirm your status and see if it will still accept you. Otherwise, you can still apply to a different course through the Clearing process, when a university's view of entry requirements may be slightly more flexible.

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