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University applications 2021: Covid changes to university entry

How has Covid changed university entry in 2021? Will universities accept lower grades? What will university offers look like? We examine it all.

Jamie Dobbs
by Jamie Dobbs
Last Updated:
25 Aug 2021

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UCAS deadline 2021

Awarding grades in 2021

University applications 2021: Accepting and receiving offers

Covid: Impacts on UCAS Clearing 2021

Covid and university choices

University: 2021 or 2022?

Covid and student accommodation

Covid and student finance

Will there be a freshers week in 2021?

What support are universities putting in place to help students?

The past year has seen Covid alter the landscape of university for current and prospective students. As for university applications in 2021, the story is no different, with students in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales all being affected by change.

Understanding how these changes impact your application and entry into university will help you prepare for what’s to come.

UCAS deadline 2021

The UCAS deadline is the date by which students looking to begin an undergraduate course in the autumn of 2021 can submit their application, other than Oxbridge courses and most medicine, dentistry and veterinary courses.

The 2021 UCAS deadline was Friday 29 January 2021. The original deadline date was Friday 15 January, however, the government decided to extend this by two weeks.

Students can still send in their applications after Friday 29 January 2021, but applications will not be considered equally. Universities will treat these applications on a first-come, first-served basis.

Awarding grades in 2021

A-Levels and GCSEs

Students in England, Northern Ireland and Wales will receive grades decided on by their teachers. These grades will be based on a combination of mock exams and coursework. This is to replace the 2021 summer exams, which have been cancelled.

Read more about how A-Level grades will be awarded in 2021.


BTEC students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland can expect to have teacher assessed grades for these courses. This will be based on coursework and internal assessments.  

Find out further information on how BTEC grades will be awarded in 2021.

Scottish Highers, Advanced Highers and National 5

As with A-Levels, all Scottish Highers, Advanced Highers and National 5 exams taking place in summer 2021 have been cancelled. Students will receive grades based on their teachers’ assessments of their work.

When will students receive their teacher-assessed grades?

For students in England and Northern Ireland, A-Level results day 2021 is on Tuesday 10 August. Students in Wales will receive provisional grades in June, to give them enough time to appeal to their school or college before grades are finalised and released on Tuesday 10 August.

Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers students will receive their grades on Tuesday 10 August 2021. National 5 provisional results will be sent to students on Friday 28 May. The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) has confirmed that the deadline for teachers to submit assessed grades is Friday 18 June.

Will universities accept lower grades in 2021?

This will depend both on the university and the course. Entry requirements for some courses may be lowered, but this is not guaranteed. Visit the course page using Whatuni’s ‘Find a Course’ tool to confirm the latest entry requirements. If you are still unsure, check the university’s website for further clarification.

Universities may accept lower grades or reduce the entry requirements for some courses in Clearing 2021. Be sure to reach out to the university first, explain your situation and see what they can verbally offer you.

Will I still be able to appeal my grades?

A-Level students will be able to appeal their teacher-assessed grades. If you need to appeal your grades before securing a place at university, you will be prioritised.

BTEC students are also likely to have an appeal process in 2021, although this is still to be confirmed. BTEC students in 2020 were given the option to appeal their grades.

Scottish students will be able to appeal their grades. How this process will work is yet to be confirmed.

University applications 2021: Receiving and accepting offers

Are universities still giving out offers?

Yes, universities are still making offers. If your grades meet the entry requirements of your firm choice, you will be accepted onto that course. If not, but you meet the entry requirements for your insurance choice, you will then be accepted onto that course.

Are there any changes to offers that I should know about?

There were no controls on how many students a university could recruit in 2020. This meant more places were available at universities than in previous years.

There has been no announcement on whether universities will have a cap in 2021.

If you don’t get your firm choice, insurance choice or an offer through Clearing, we encourage you to get back in touch with the respective universities to see what they can offer.

Covid: Impacts on UCAS Clearing 2021

What is UCAS Clearing and how does it work?

Clearing is a system that allows students to find a last-minute place on a university course starting that same year. Universities will promote which courses they still have spaces on; students can search for the course that matches the grades they have.

If you don’t receive any offers, or decide you no longer want to accept an offer, you can enter Clearing 2021. Be sure to make a shortlist of courses you are interested in and call each university to see what verbal options you are offered over the phone - even if you are still awaiting your teacher-assessed grades.

It’s important to remember that Clearing isn't just for students whose grades did not meet their offers. It’s open to:

  • Students applying to university after Monday 5 July (which is the date UCAS Extra closes)
  • You applied before 5 July, but you didn’t get any offers from your initial five applications or UCAS Extra applications
  • You’ve changed your mind about your first and insurance choices
  • You’ve got better than expected results and now want to find a better uni (this is called Adjustment).

How will UCAS Clearing 2021 be impacted by Covid?

We’re not expecting changes to how Clearing operates and students will be able to search for suitable courses that match their grades. Clearing opens on Monday 5 July 2021.

Clearing-specific open days may be cancelled due to Covid. Universities have been offering virtual open day events instead. Student interviews may also be carried out virtually this summer.

Can I still use UCAS Extra?

Yes-UCAS Extra will open on Thursday 25 February. It can be used by those who have no offers or have changed their mind about their choices and want to apply somewhere else. The last date to apply for a 2021 course in UCAS Extra is Sunday 4 July.

Covid and university choices

How will Covid impact university courses in 2021?

Over the past year, Covid has affected all university courses. Due to lockdown restrictions, universities have had to adopt a blended learning approach-a mix of online and face-to-face learning. This has meant that almost all university courses have gone ahead, albeit with a different teaching format.

For those courses containing a significant practical element, such as lab-based science or medical courses, many students have been given weekly time slots to be on campus, use labs and classrooms. This time has been regulated to keep students safe within their student bubble.

Sandwich courses, or courses that offer a year of studying abroad or working in the industry, have been significantly affected. International travel restrictions are likely to continue for the foreseeable future but may have eased by autumn 2021.

Where can I find information about my course and if it’s affected?

Whatuni works very closely with UK universities to bring you the latest news, along with fresh weekly content on our advice page. We also suggest contacting your chosen universities for more information or reaching out on our social media.

The same advice goes for students applying for degree apprenticeships. Students worried about the status of their degree apprenticeships should contact the employer or university  for more information.

University: 2021 or 2022?

What are my options if I don’t want to go to uni this year?

If you don’t think you can cope with the potential disruption that Covid is bringing to university applications in 2021, you have the option to defer entry until 2022.

You can do this in two ways. Make your uni application in 2021 but apply as a deferred entrant. The university will accept your application this year, so you have the safety net of knowing you have a place waiting for you at the end of your year out.

The other option is to not apply this year but wait and apply in the next UCAS cycle when you have more of an idea about what you want to study and where. Some people who do this wait and apply directly through Clearing, where they hope to take advantage of unis lowering their grades to pick up a place at a great uni.

You should carefully consider if deferring is the right decision for you. The main reasons for taking gap years include working and travelling, both of which are affected by Covid.

Remember that you don’t have to make a decision on deferring entry until the summer. If you aren’t yet ready to make this decision, then don’t. Continue with your university application as normal and make an informed decision once you receive your grades.

Covid and student accommodation

Will university accommodation be open for uni entry?

We expect university accommodation to be open by autumn 2021. 

It’s worth noting that in 2020, universities opened their accommodation in autumn. They did so with protective measures in place, such as physical distancing, limited capacity and students wearing face masks. Universities such as the University of the West England Bristol offered students flexible move-in dates, to reassure them that they could move in when they felt ready. 

If you want to find out more about your university's accommodation, contact them, as guidelines will differ based on the university.

Should I still book university accommodation?

Yes, definitely. As with your university application, we suggest following your usual process and booking your university accommodation. This allows you to keep your options open, and you will be able to cancel if need be.

Most universities offer new undergraduate students guaranteed places in university-owned halls of residence. If you have been offered a place at a university and have accepted that offer, then you should speak to them directly about what your next steps should be. Be aware of the guidelines, fees, deposits and refunds around moving in this autumn before signing on the dotted line.

Covid and student finance

The student loans companies in EnglandNorthern IrelandScotland and Wales continue to process applications for student finance. If you are not 100% sure you will be going to university this September, still apply. You can always cancel your student finance and uni applications later.

Will there be a freshers week in 2021?

It’s impossible to predict what freshers week will look like in 2021.

In 2020, universities were still able to hold freshers’ weeks. Whether it was a virtual quiz night, a socially distanced gig or sports activities, universities and their student unions got creative with how they welcomed first years.

What support are universities putting in place to help students?

Universities have acted swiftly to support their current students, moving courses online. Lecturers have adapted their teaching, with many offering extra online resources for their students along with taking a flexible approach to both teaching and assessments.

Student mental health has become even more important now than ever. The University of Wales Trinity Saint David has introduced ‘Togetherall’, which is a 24/7 wellbeing support service for all students. The University of Chester has been running daily virtual sport sessions to encourage being active, while Buckinghamshire New University has been hosting ‘evening in’ virtual DJ & film nights.

During the pandemic, many have found support through Student Space. Part of Student Minds, Student Space offers wellbeing resources, advice on how to take care of your mental health and where to find support at university. This is all available right now over on their website, along with 24/7 chat support.

Be excited about university in 2021

Despite all of these changes to university entry caused by Covid, don’t be disheartened about your 2021 application. If anything, be motivated and encouraged-there is still so much to look forward to as a prospective student and there’s support at each stage of the journey. 

Don’t feel as though you need to rush into making any decisions either. Although we advise having submitted your UCAS application by Friday 29th January, you will still have time to submit your application after this date or to change your mind if necessary. 

If you are unsure about anything, or want to know more, reach out to us on FacebookInstagram or Twitter. We’re here to help with what we can whenever we can.


How A-Level grades will be awarded in 2021

How universities offer student mental health support 

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