University Preparation students
UK education and careers

UK high school exams

Between 14 and 16, students in the UK study for GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) exams. GCSEs are available in a large range of subjects. Students can study up to 11 subjects and the exams normally take 2 years to complete.

At Kings, it is possible to complete a GCSE course in a year. The courses give important and basic knowledge and help students make choices for A-level study. Many GCSE exams test similar thinking skills. Students must learn to explain what something is, why it’s important, how it works and to give its advantages and disadvantages. In some subjects, such as Art or Geography, students’ ‘coursework’ during the year is a big part of their final GCSE grade. In subjects such as Maths, the exams taken in May or June at the end of the last GCSE year make most of the final grade. Grades range from A* to U.

The GCSE exam grades help decide the best choices for study at A-level. Students normally take 3 or 4 A-levels in subjects they want to learn about in more depth, and use in studies at university. A-levels normally take two years to complete, but there are exams in each year. The first year is called ‘AS’ (Advanced Subsidiary) and second year is ‘A2’ year. There are exams at the end of each year, and both are part of the final grade. The A-levels build on the knowledge and thinking skills that students learn on the GCSE course, but also ask that A-level students judge the success of something by giving their own opinions on it. A-level exams are graded from A* to E, and also by a points system. The A-level subjects chosen and the grades will help decide degree course choices at university.

Did you know...?

Exams such as GCSE and A-level often ask questions using the same exam instruction words. These are: Define, State, Explain, Compare, Contrast, Evaluate, Analyse, Assess.

Many exam points can be lost because the student does not understand the question. Make sure you know the meaning of these words.

UCAS and University application

University Fairs
To help you choose a university or course, there are also university fairs. This is a big meeting of people from a large range of UK universities. Large numbers of students visit the fair for information about their university and courses. This is a great way of getting information and a general idea of the universities and courses available. Universities also print a book every year called a prospectus, which is a description of their university and all their courses, and will be available at the fair and online.

Open Days and Prospectuses
When you have decided on courses and universities you are interested in, it’s a good idea to visit the university. Many universities will have ‘Open Days’ for interested students, which means that you can visit a university campus, hear information on the courses and get an idea of how it will fit you. Go to for information on dates and times. Open days normally start from September to December every year.

The Role of UCAS
UCAS (University and Colleges Admissions System) processes students’ applications for all universities in the UK. UCAS has a list of all university and college courses on their website,, so you can search for a particular subject. Students must register with UCAS and are given a UCAS ID to apply online. The deadline for completed applications for most courses is on or close to 15th January every year, but deadlines are much earlier for Oxford, Cambridge, Art and Design and Medicine courses.

Choosing a Course
UCAS lists all universities and the courses on offer on A university course may ask for particular A-level grades or points. Students can choose 5 different courses when they apply.

Applying to UCAS
To go to university in the year following their A-levels, students must apply before they receive their A2 Level grades. This means that their teachers must give their predicted A-level grades. The College will also give a reference, explaining why their student would be a good choice for the university. Your Director of Studies may be able to help you with applying to UCAS.

Personal Statements
As part of their application, students must write a personal statement. This explains why they are interested in the subject or course, and why they are a good choice for the university. Universities are also interested in the experience and skills you have outside your studies. Your Director of Studies will give you advice on your application and feedback on your personal statement before you send it.

Conditional Offers
Each university considers applications from international students separately from British applications. Based on your predicted grades and your information, universities may make a conditional offer to you.

Accepting a Place
If a student gets the A-level grades he or she needs, they must formally accept an offer from a university. If he or she does not get the grades needed, he or she can try the ‘Clearing’ system. This tells students about spaces on degree courses. Some students who do not get the A-level grades they needed are instead accepted on other degree courses.

Studying at university

University Degrees
These degrees are called ‘Bachelor’ Degrees and are normally 3-4 years long. Some degrees, such as those in Medicine or Law, are longer. Students who are studying degrees are called ‘undergraduates’.

Degree courses have special codes which help show what the degree is about. Language and Social degrees are described with the code ‘BA’. Science and Mathematical degrees are described with the code ‘BSc’ and Engineering degree courses are described as ‘BEng’.

Students who complete a degree are called ‘graduates’. On completion of a Bachelor’s Degree, graduate students can choose to study for a further two years in a ‘postgraduate’ course. This is called a ‘Master’s’ Degree. These courses are described as ‘MA’, ‘MSc’ or ‘MEng’.

Studying at University
University students need to be much more independent than college students. They will need to do a lot of study or do research alone and may only have classes at university for 10 or 15 hours a week. Many university ‘classes’ are lectures, when a large number of students listen to an expert, such as a professor, talk and take notes. Students will have a personal tutor who they see every week or month about their work. Normally a degree student will be asked to write a thesis of around 10,000 words in his or her third year. It is important that the student has developed questions, ideas and opinions about their subject in this time.

Starting University
It is important to find accommodation as early as possible, as many students will be looking at the same time. Information on student accommodation is normally given by the university when you accept a university place. Universities normally have a special Accommodation Department to help. Some accommodation called ‘Halls of Residences’ is owned by the university, and this is often given to first year students. Many students, however, will have to find accommodation for themselves, with the university’s advice, and will pay rent to a landlord. Sometimes students starting at university have a ‘Freshers’ Week’, so they can get settled, make friends, buy books, join clubs, and start their new life.

Choosing careers
When you are choosing your A-levels or thinking about university, it’s a good idea to think about the kind of job you might enjoy doing, as some areas such as Medicine or Law need extra years of study at university. Many students, however, do not have a clear idea of what kind of job they would like, and so there are a number of people and services to help you get a better idea.

There are also a variety of careers advice services and websites available to help you. Many websites ask you to do a ‘personality or skills test’ to see what subjects you most enjoy and therefore what job you might most enjoy doing. If there is a career that you are interested in, or would like to know more about please tell the Librarian and your Director of Studies. Kings may also have visiting speakers and visits to a variety of businesses and industries. If you are interested in visiting a particular workplace or business, please tell the Director of Studies.

Help and advice
Many websites can able to help you with education and career. Start by looking at these ones:

You can also visit the Learning Resource Centre for books and information on university, degree courses and careers. The Librarian will be able to help you with any information you might need.