If you've already received decisions from all the universities you applied to, or still waiting for offers, it's a good idea to be prepared for the next stage of the UCAS application process.

One of the most difficult parts of the process can be choosing the universities you think are the best fit for you and confirming these with UCAS.

It really is thrilling when you receive an offer but now the hardest and most important part of applying to university is deciding which offer to accept as your firm choice and which as your insurance choice.
This is key to your future so don’t rush the decision when you receive the first two offers back.

We've put together this post with everything you need to know before making your firm and insurance decisions.

You can’t actually input your offers on UCAS Track until you’ve received a decision from all your university choices, so take this time to think it through. UCAS replying to offers is a great video to watch for advice and guidance.

What are firm and insurance university choices?

  • Once you've made your application and received all of you offers and they're showing on Track, all you need to do is decide which are your two favourite university options.
  • You can't enter your firm and insurance choices onto Track until all of your chosen universities have made a decision and confirmed it via Track.
  • Your firm choice is your most preferred university and course, and the grades for this course are usually higher than your insurance choice.
  • You choose an insurance choice as a back-up choice in case you don't meet the grades for your firm choice. Your insurance choice offer is usually lower than your firm choice offer.
  • You will then hold only these two offers until you find out your exam results in July or August before you go to university.
  • Once you have chosen your firm and insurance universities on UCAS Track, all your other offers will be automatically rejected and disappear. This is why you need to be absolutely sure of your choices before entering them in to Track.

Think carefully

If you miss your grades for both your firm and insurance choices then there's a chance you won't be holding any offers.

This means that you will need to either apply through Clearing, or wait and apply again in the next UCAS cycle.

This is why it’s important to make careful decisions about your firm and insurance choices, and make sure that your firm choice is your preferred university.

An insurance choice is your backup, and should be a university and course that you enjoy. It should also have grades that you know you’ll be able to achieve.

How long do I have to decide?

Try not to worry, since you don't have to make your choices until at least May.

Every year too many people make this decision immediately after they have all their offers and then find they are stuck with a firm choice they no longer want.

The deadline you’ll need to respond by will depend on when you receive your decisions. Make sure you don't forget to reply by the date stated - if you don't, you risk losing your offers.

However, it’s better to wait until nearer the deadline before you make your choice, so you are 100% certain you're making the right ones.

Unfortunately, some students end up anxious and stressed because they picked their firm choice, but changed their mind later on. By giving yourself plenty of time to think rationally about your decision, you’re less likely to be in this situation.

If you miss your deadline for replying to your offers, UCAS will decline them automatically for you.

If you didn't want this to happen, call the UCAS Helpline as soon as possible. Sometimes they are able to retrieve declined offers and let you make your choices. This isn't always a dead cert though, so don't wait more than a day or so to get in touch.

Even if you believe you are sure about your choices, it's a good idea to leave replying to your offers on Track until April or May.

You might change your mind several times or more during the spring term about your firm and insurance choices, but this could be a result of how well your studies are going.

Remember that there is no benefit in confirming your choices early. The university doesn't mind if you firm with them early or just before the deadline, so there is no need to rush.

Universities are not allowed to pressure applicants to choose a firm or insurance before the deadlines set by UCAS, and this includes not being allowed to allocate better accommodation to applicants who pick them as their firm choice early on.

You may be able to apply for specific accommodation before you choose your firm and insurance, but even if you can't, the university will not be using the date you made your firm choice to decide who gets what.

What is a firm choice university?

This is the university and course you most want to go to, and is realistic given your expected grades.

If you have an unconditional offer for your preferred university, normally because you are applying with your grades already known, then you can only make a firm choice.

If you have a conditional offer, and you have more than one offer, it is usual to pick an Insurance choice as well.

On results day, if you meet the grades for your firm choice then this is the university you will be attending.

Making your firm choice

Your firm choice is the university you definitely want to study at, if you meet the entry requirements, so it’s important that this is the one you really want to study at. It also means you need to be realistic about the entry requirements.

If they’re offering you a place on AAA grades only and you’re predicted BBB grades, then this may be out of your reach.

However, it might not be if you’re predicted AAB grades as this isn't such a significant difference and some universities can accept slightly lower grades than they advertise, though this isn’t guaranteed.

Take a look at the tariff scores on the course for previous students on Unistats, where you can find out if this has happened in the past.

Remember you'll be living at this university for the next few years, so it's important you're happy with your choice.

Once you’ve logged your decision on UCAS Track you can’t change your mind the next day, although there is a 14 day cooling off period from the date you log your decision.

If your grades end up higher than expected and you meet your firm choice, you’ll automatically be allocated it, even if your insurance choice was the university you really wanted to go to.

What is an insurance choice?

Your insurance choice is your back-up university, and should carry lower grade requirements than your firm choice.

This means that if you miss your firm choice, you still have a chance of going to university this year, and most importantly to one you want to go to.

  • You can hold an unconditional offer as your insurance even if your firm is a conditional offer.
  • If you are holding an unconditional firm, then by definition you can't have an Insurance. This is because your offer is unconditional, so you will be going to your firm no matter what happens on results day.
  • People who have applied through UCAS Extra do not get an insurance choice at all.

Making your insurance choice

It’s important to keep remembering that your firm choice is your first choice and your insurance choice is your second choice.

Your insurance choice is optional. If you know you only want to go to your first choice university and nowhere else, then you don’t have to select an insurance choice, or if you only receive two offers back after your interviews, you don’t have to accept them both as your firm and insurance offers. The decision is yours.

An insurance choice really should be a university course with lesser entry requirements than your firm choice. If they are the same entry grade requirements, where is your back-up if you don’t do as well as predicted in your exams? For your insurance choice don’t just pick any of your other offers - pick the one you know you’ll be happy with.

If you haven’t visited your insurance offer university on an open day, do try and go and see the campus before you make your decision. We have lots of tips on making the most out of open days, and advice on why you should go to an open day.

Remember you don’t have to choose an insurance offer - it’s optional. However, this is risky, because if you don’t meet your firm offer when you receive your grades on results day and you haven’t chosen an insurance offer then you’re likely to end up in Clearing.

If you receive 5 different offers all with similar grades, that’s brilliant news, but take your time over which ones to accept as your firm and insurance choices.

Also check to see if they are conditional or unconditional offers as universities can occasionally offer you an unconditional place but only if you list them as your firm choice.

It’s great to have an unconditional offer as it means you have a guaranteed university place; but do you really want to study at that university? Consider all the different aspects of university life:

  • How did you feel when you visited the university?
  • Are you happy with the location and campus facilities?
  • Which course content and modules did you like the best?
  • Which university tutors did you get on well with when you chatted to them during your interview and visit?
  • What was the social scene like at the university?
  • Revisit the UCAS course details for course success rates, graduate employment rates etc.,

Please do chat with your school/college tutors for advice. They’ve had years of experience of their students going to numerous universities across the country.
At the end of the day each university that’s made you an offer really wants you to study with them; so you have the upper hand, it’s your decision.

Your offers and what to do next

  • Make sure you know exactly what all your offers mean before you make your firm and insurance choices, and what grades you are expected to achieve. If there's any uncertainty, contact the university directly to check. You don't want to find yourself in the position of not being able to meet your firm offer because you misread or misunderstood the terms of the offer.
  • The main thing to think about when making your firm and insurance choice is how likely you think it is that you will meet the conditions of that offer. If you have been asked for AAB in the offer and you think you may not achieve it, then it isn't a safe option for a firm choice.
  • Don't assume that the university will let you in anyway if you miss the required grades. It's possible they will still let you in, but you need to be prepared in case you are turned down. Just because someone else got in without the required grades, doesn't mean that you will too.
  • If you are worried about meeting an offer but set on choosing that university offer as your firm, then it is a good idea to contact them before picking them on UCAS. They will be able to give you some indication of whether leniency is possible this year, or if they are likely to have no flexibility. They may not be able or willing to give you any indication and there is no obligation on them not to change their mind in August. So while this isn't a guarantee, it should give you more information before you take a risk with your firm choice.
  • If you really want to pick that course as firm then make sure you do some preparation to minimise the stress. This includes picking a great insurance choice that you know you'll be happy with.
  • If you’ve picked a firm choice with an offer that will be difficult to reach, make sure you've checked out and applied for somewhere to live if you end up at your insurance, and most importantly be mentally and emotionally ready if things don’t work out like you hoped.
  • Ask your parents or teachers for their thoughts on what they think is best for you if you feel this will help you make a decision.

Do I have to make an insurance choice?

  • If you only have one offer that you think you'd be happy going to, then don't feel pressured into picking an insurance. If you don't want to choose an insurance university, you can just make a firm and decline all your other choices. This is much better than picking an insurance that you then have to persuade to release you on results day.
  • However, if you don't meet your firm offer on results day you will be automatically entered into Clearing on results day.
  • Similarly, if you only have two offers that you'd be happy going to, but the conditions are the same, then it's a good idea to pick your favourite as firm and put the other as insurance. While it is unlikely that you will end up at your insurance in this case, it could still happen. It's better to have a high insurance you'd be happy at than a low one you know you will turn down.
  • Remember, if you do miss your firm it may be better to take a year out where you can either retake your A-levels or reapply to other universities with your confirmed grades, rather than accepting an insurance offer you are unsure about. You don't have to go to university this year, and if your firm choice is the only course you really want to do, don't compromise.

Is it OK to have an insurance choice that is higher than my firm?

There's no reason why you can't do this, but it carries some significant risks.

For example one university has given you an offer of AAA, but they exclude General Studies and won't accept AAB instead, which means you have to get a minimum of a A in all your subjects. Another university has asked you for ABB - but might still take you with ABC - where the first university would not.

Similarly if the Insurance choice has an option with a Foundation Year or a similar course with lower entry requirements (e.g. your insurance offer is for BBB or entry to an MSci but the university takes people with BBC on the BSc version of the course).

Remember to look at both the terms of your offer(s) and the general admission requirements for each course. This may have useful extra information about their attitude to required grades in key subjects. But be careful, as you're still taking a huge gamble. Remember that if you miss your grades, you may have no place at university at all.

What should I do if I receive an unconditional offer?

More universities are now offering unconditional places for certain subjects despite applicants not yet knowing their A-level results.

However, you shouldn't let this put you under pressure to accept their offer. If you are fairly confident you can meet your other offers and prefer those universities, then make one of those your firm choice instead.

An unconditional place regardless of your results might be amazing, but there are several disadvantages in accepting this as your firm choice.

  • First, if you choose an unconditional firm you cannot, by definition, have an insurance choice. This means you have to go to this particular university.
  • If you accept an unconditional offer with unknown A-level grades as your firm you are committed to going to that university, whatever grades you get on results day. Since the offer is unconditional you are not eligible for adjustment even if you exceed the grades normally required for that course.
  • If you change your mind once you have firmed an unconditional place, you then have no alternative other than to ask to be released from that choice and wait for Clearing. This can be risky, as the course you want may not be available in Clearing.
  • A-level results will still matter. Many graduate recruitment schemes use high UCAS points or grades as selection criteria so it's really important that you work hard to achieve the best grades possible.

Accepting a conditional offer as your firm and an unconditional offer as your insurance is possible, and this has the advantage that you then definitely have a university place. However, many of the universities making unconditional offers to an A-level candidate do this only if you accept their offer as your firm - the offer will be withdrawn if you make it your insurance. You should therefore check very carefully the exact terms of any unconditional offer when making this decision.

Any other advice?

If you're still struggling to make a decision on your firm and insurance choices, take a look at our choosing a degree and choosing a university guides for more tips and advice.

Again, make sure your firm and insurance choices are realistic in terms of the grades you are expected to achieve, but most of all, choose universities where you know you’ll be happy for at least three years.

Further information

For more tips and advice, please see: