Life After Sixth Form

Helping you get that university place or career

Applicants per place: how do you find out and does it matter?

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You were a bit quiet yesterday morning, but we did have at least one pertinent question that didn’t get a very satisfactory answer because unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a very satisfactory answer.

Joe Pearce (I think it was) asked whether information on the number of applicants per place is available for university courses. As far as I can tell that information, at individual course level, is not available in one central place. The university information provided by the likes of the Complete University Guide often (but not always) has the figure for the university as a whole. For example it tells us that for Leeds University, the ratio of applicants to places is 7.8:1

A small number of universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, are totally transparent about their admissions statistics, and publish them online, broken down by course, school type, gender, ethnicity, and so on. Others, such as Durham, also supply plenty of statistics but in rather less user-friendly format. Many universities, however, either don’t provide such information, or make it very difficult to find. For Manchester University, for example, after much digging around I found a document on widening participation that includes some interesting information and statistics, but nowhere could I find information on the applicants to places ratio by department. The most illuminating data I could find on Manchester’s admissions statistics came from a Freedom of Information request.

Some universities include admissions statistics of one type or another on individual course pages or in their prospectuses, but it’s a bit hit and miss to say the least.

If you do find the applicants to places ratio of a chosen university or individual course, what does it tell you? Most people would assume that the higher the ratio of applicants to places, the harder it is to get in, and the more popular the course is. However, there are other factors that need to be taken into account.

For example if you look at the overall figure for Cambridge the number of applicants per place is about 4, whereas further east at the University of East Anglia it is 5.4 (as reported by the rather entertaining Push university guide). Does this mean that UAE is more ‘competitive’ than Cambridge? The answer, fairly obviously, is no unless we take a very narrow and unusual definition of competitive. The pool of applicants for a university is to some degree self-selecting. People know that Cambridge has very high entry requirements and a competitive selection process, so that reduces the number of people who decide to apply in the first place compared to other universities.

Even so, you might think that the self-selection factor evens things out so that 5.4 may look like pretty poor odds, and that if you’re the type of person who’s likely to apply to UAE, you have less chance of getting in than the type of person who applies to Cambridge has of getting in there. But remember there are other factors in the equation, too. If everyone just made one application it might be straightforward enough, but most people make five applications through UCAS. Some will receive five offers, and reject four of them: they are rejecting the universities – not the universities rejecting them – but still, the offers were made and appear in the statistics). Others will receive no offers, and fail to get a place at all. The overwhelming majority will be somewhere in between: being rejected by some universities, rejecting others, and eventually taking up one available place. Consequently most universities have to make significantly more offers than they have places available to account for people accepting one of their other offers instead, and to ensure they don’t have unfilled places, but they have to make sure they don’t make too many offers so that they end up over-subscribed.

What would be at least as interesting as simple applicants to places information, therefore, is the ratio of offers made to places available. For Cambridge it works out at about 1.2 – because almost everyone who is offered a place meets the entry requirements and takes up the place. However, for most universities, finding that information is very difficult.

There is a mass of statistical information available on the UCAS website, but accessing it in an easy to interpret form is not for the faint-hearted. If any statisticians out there can help a clueless English teacher out with this, I’d be delighted to hear from you!

Your best bet, if you’re interested in admissions data for a particular course at a particular university (and you should be!) is probably to ask them direct. The worst that can happen is that you get no response or are told the information is unavailable, but the very process of engaging with universities may well  yield some potentially interesting insights into how helpful (or otherwise) they are likely to be if you end up studying with them.

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