Replying to offers: your game strategy

Thursday, July 24, 2014 12:00 AM

Johnny Rich, Founder of Push, shares advice on how and when to respond to uni offers.

Choosing five unis and getting your application off to UCAS isn’t always easy, but that’s just the beginning. The real game starts when the offers come back from them – or worse still, when they don’t.

That’s when you have to make two jigsaw pieces fit – what you want and what’s on offer – and they don’t always go together neatly.

The first thing to remember is that you don't have to play the game at all until it’s your turn and you know everyone else’s move. In other words, you can wait till you’ve got responses from all the places you applied to before you have to respond to any of them.

Assuming your own application was submitted in good time, you should have heard from them by March at the latest and it’s worth chasing them if there are any stragglers. Once you have heard, you have to get your answers back by 7th May. (There are various ifs and buts to these deadlines, but that’s the general timetable.)

Apart from asking you to attend interviews, auditions or take any extra assessment tests, the unis can respond to your application in one of three ways:

Yes: This would be an ‘unconditional’ offer. In other words, they’re accepting you as a student and you just need to accept them. If you haven’t got your grades already (A levels, Highers, etc), unconditional offers are virtually unheard of.

No: They reject you. That’s your cue to say, “Meh, I didn’t want to go their crumby uni anyway.” (Technically, they can also answer ‘withdrawn’ if they’ve dropped a course from the menu, but that’s the small print.)

Maybe: The most likely kind of offer is a ‘conditional’ one. They’re saying you can have a place, so long as you meet the conditions they set. These might be grades (eg. ABC), UCAS tariff points (eg. 300 points) or even something else (such as passing a maths GCSE). They might well specify a grade in a particular exam – such as requiring you to get an A in your French A level to study a French course.

With luck, you’ve got more than one offer. In that case, you need to decide which is the one you want to accept most. Which is the best university for you? Which is the best course for you? Which course and uni will help your career most?

If you haven’t already, it’s time to use bestCourse4me to compare them closely, to look at what students who’ve studied those subjects and at those unis have ended up doing in the past. And what have they ended up earning? How does that match with what you want from life?

Ideally you won’t have applied anywhere that you weren’t keen on in the first place, but we all make mistakes and some may be more exciting than others. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the place with the highest offer is the ‘best’ university. The question should be, which is the best for me?

Which to accept?

You can accept offers from just two – the rest you have to reject. If you change your mind after you’ve rejected them, they’re under no obligation to make the same offer to you in future.

Of the two you can accept, one has to be your favourite. That’s the one you give a firm acceptance to. It should be an offer with grades that you realistically think you could get and it should be the place that excites you most – the course, the lifestyle, the whole future it offers.

You can accept another uni’s offer as an insurance, but that’s only a back-up, just in case you don’t make the grades or meet the conditions they set.

Obviously, the insurance choice should be setting the standards for your grades lower than your firm choice – ideally something that you should get easily enough which will guarantee you a place at uni even if it’s not at your first choice place. If the insurance offer grades are the same or higher, there’s no way on earth that could ever be useful to you.

To accept an offer, you do it through UCAS. You don’t have to do anything to reject the others: once your two choices are made, UCAS will let them know.

What if I’ve only got one offer?

If you only have one offer – or if your first choice maybe made a relatively low offer – then you may not get the chance to accept anywhere as your back-up. Okay. It’s better to have no insurance offer and end up having to reapply with grades in your pockets than to end up at a place you don’t really want to be.

Having said that, to be realistic, some compromises might have to be made. The idea of allowing you to have both a firm and insurance choice is to help you aim high and keep it real at the same time.

What if I haven’t got any offers?

If you don’t get any offers – or you don’t fancy the ones you get – don’t worry, there are two more bites at the cherry:

• UCAS Extra, which is a second chance before the exam results are published; and

• Clearing, which takes place after the grades are announced.

These are the courses that are left over, the ones that didn’t have enough good applicants to fill their places, and usually at less competitive universities. That doesn’t mean you won’t find what you want – especially if you’re after something a little out of the ordinary – but, like shopping in the sales, the popular stuff has often been snapped up already.

Having said that, Extra and Clearing rarely offer you anything you couldn’t have also got by taking a gap year and reapplying next year when you’ve had a chance to look properly at all your options and not take a rushed or desperate decision you may regret. 

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