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How to Get UCAS Points

How to Get UCAS Points

10 min Read|February 07 2024
|Written by:

Thomas Babb


Navigating the world of university applications can be a daunting task, especially when you're trying to understand the intricacies of UCAS points. At its core, UCAS points are a way of translating your qualifications into a numerical value, which universities use to assess your application. Whether you've aced your A-levels, excelled in extracurricular activities, or achieved other notable qualifications, they all contribute to your UCAS points total. This article will delve into what UCAS stands for, the significance of these points, and practical tips on how to maximise them. So, if you're a high school student keen on securing a spot at a top British university, read on to get a comprehensive understanding of UCAS points and how to get them.

What does UCAS stand for?

UCAS, or the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, is the centralised service that students use to apply for undergraduate courses in the UK. Established in 1993, UCAS has since become an integral part of the British higher education system, processing over 700,000 applications annually. The organisation's primary role is to facilitate the application process for students, ensuring that they can access higher education institutions that best suit their academic and personal aspirations.

UCAS doesn't just handle applications; it provides a wealth of information and guidance for prospective students, parents, and educators. From course searches to advice on personal statements, UCAS is a one-stop-shop for everything related to university admissions in the UK. UCAS has played a pivotal role in democratising access to higher education, ensuring a transparent and streamlined process for all applicants regardless of their background.

However, while many are familiar with the UCAS application platform, fewer are aware of the intricacies of the UCAS points system and its significance in the admissions process. As we delve deeper into the topic, it's essential to understand that UCAS is more than just an application portal; it's a comprehensive system designed to ensure fairness and transparency in UK university admissions.

What are UCAS points?

UCAS points, often referred to as the 'UCAS Tariff', represent a scoring system used to convert academic and extracurricular achievements into a numerical value. These points are then used by universities to set entry requirements and make conditional offers to prospective students. Not all qualifications are on the UCAS Tariff, but a significant number are, giving students a range of ways to meet the entry requirements of their chosen courses.

According to UCAS's official data, in 2020, 78% of accepted applicants had qualifications that were part of the UCAS Tariff. This underscores the widespread use of the Tariff in university admissions. However, it's worth noting that while UCAS points provide a standardised measure, universities might still have specific grade requirements for particular subjects.

Professor James Turner, an expert in education policy states, "The UCAS Tariff system offers a degree of flexibility to students, allowing them to accumulate points from different sources. This recognises the diverse range of experiences and qualifications students bring to the table".

For students, understanding the value of their qualifications in terms of UCAS points can be crucial. It not only helps in gauging their current academic standing but also in identifying additional opportunities to earn points, ensuring they meet the requirements of their desired university courses.

How do UCAS points work?

The UCAS Tariff system operates by assigning a specific number of points to different qualifications, ranging from A-levels to BTECs and even some extracurricular achievements. The higher the grade or achievement, the more UCAS points it's worth. For instance, an A* at A-level is worth more points than a B or C grade in the same subject.

UCAS points to A-level & EPQ

UCAS points to A-level & EPQ

A study by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) found that 92% of universities in the UK use UCAS points as a primary or secondary criterion for admissions. This highlights the system's centrality in the admissions process. However, it's essential to understand that while the Tariff provides a standardised measure, individual universities and courses might interpret and use these points differently. While UCAS points offer a unified system of understanding student qualifications, universities often look beyond just the points. They consider the context, the subjects studied, and the individual's broader profile.

It's also worth noting that not all qualifications are included in the Tariff. UCAS has a comprehensive list detailing which qualifications count towards the Tariff and their respective point values. Students are advised to familiarise themselves with this list, especially if they have unconventional or international qualifications, to ensure they know their total UCAS point tally.

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Why are UCAS points important?

UCAS points serve as a universal currency in the UK's higher education admissions process, allowing universities to assess and compare the academic achievements of a diverse pool of applicants. Their importance is underscored by the fact that a significant number of UK universities set their entry requirements in terms of UCAS points, making them a key determinant of whether a student secures a place on their desired course.

A 2019 survey by the Sutton Trust revealed that 84% of students felt that achieving the necessary UCAS points was the most stressful part of the university application process. This sentiment underscores the weightage these points carry in the minds of applicants.

Dr. Rebecca Montacute, a research fellow notes, "UCAS points act as a leveller, offering a standardised way to evaluate the myriad of qualifications students might present. They help ensure that the admissions process is as fair and transparent as possible".

Moreover, for universities, UCAS points provide a consistent metric to sift through the vast number of applications they receive each year. They can set clear entry benchmarks, ensuring that students have the requisite academic foundation to thrive on their courses. While other factors, such as personal statements and interviews, play a role in admissions decisions, UCAS points remain a pivotal initial filter in the selection process.

The role of UCAS points in university admissions

University admissions in the UK are a multifaceted process, with UCAS points playing a central role in determining an applicant's eligibility for specific courses. These points serve as a preliminary filter, helping universities narrow down their pool of candidates based on academic merit. According to UCAS's annual report, in 2021, over 65% of course offers made by universities were conditional on students achieving a specific UCAS Tariff score. This statistic highlights the significance of these points in the initial stages of the admissions process.

However, while UCAS points are undeniably crucial, they are just one piece of the admissions puzzle. While UCAS points provide an objective measure of academic achievement, universities are increasingly adopting a holistic approach. They consider other factors like personal statements, reference letters, and in some cases, interviews to get a comprehensive understanding of the applicant.

This shift towards a more rounded view of applicants ensures that students are not solely judged on their academic credentials but also on their passion, commitment, and suitability for the course. It's a recognition that while UCAS points offer a snapshot of a student's academic prowess, they don't necessarily capture their full potential or aptitude for higher education.

Different ways to earn UCAS points

While many students primarily associate UCAS points with traditional academic qualifications like A-levels, there's a broader spectrum of activities and achievements that can contribute to one's UCAS Tariff. This diversity ensures that students have multiple avenues to showcase their talents and bolster their university applications.

A-levels and BTECs are the most common sources of UCAS points, but other qualifications like the International Baccalaureate (IB), Cambridge Pre-U, and Scottish Highers also carry significant Tariff values.

Beyond these, the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), a research-based project, can earn students up to 28 UCAS points, equivalent to an A* grade at AS level. Music grades, dance qualifications, and even certain sports awards can also contribute to a student's UCAS point tally.

The Duke of Edinburgh's Award, a popular youth achievement programme in the UK, can also be a source of UCAS points at its higher levels. Such varied opportunities ensure that students from all backgrounds and interests have a fair shot at earning points, making the university admissions process more inclusive and representative.

Common qualifications and their UCAS point values

Understanding the UCAS point values of various qualifications is pivotal for students mapping out their academic journey towards university. Different qualifications carry distinct Tariff values, and being aware of these can help students make informed decisions about their study choices.

A-levels, the most widely recognised qualification in the UK, have a clear UCAS Tariff structure. For instance, an A* grade at A-level is worth 56 points, an A is 48 points, and this scales down to an E grade being worth 16 points.

BTECs, another popular qualification, also have a structured Tariff. A Distinction* in a BTEC Level 3 Extended Diploma, for example, garners 168 UCAS points. The International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma, recognised globally, can earn students up to a maximum of 45 points, which translates to 720 UCAS Tariff points.

The diversity in the UCAS Tariff system reflects the rich tapestry of the UK's education landscape. It ensures that no matter what qualification route students opt for, their achievements are recognised and valued.

It's essential for students to consult the official UCAS Tariff tables to get a comprehensive breakdown of points for various qualifications. This knowledge can be instrumental in planning their academic pathways and setting targets for university applications.

How to calculate your total UCAS points

Accurately calculating your total UCAS points is a crucial step for students aiming to meet university entry requirements. With a myriad of qualifications contributing to the Tariff, it's essential to know how to sum up your points effectively.

Start by listing all your relevant qualifications. For each, refer to the official UCAS Tariff tables to determine the point value for your achieved or predicted grade. For instance, if you have an A in A-level Mathematics, that's 48 points. If you also have a Distinction in a BTEC Level 3 Subsidiary Diploma, that's an additional 84 points.

Next, consider any non-traditional qualifications or achievements that might carry UCAS points. Activities like the Duke of Edinburgh's Award or certain graded music exams can also contribute to your total. Students should be meticulous when calculating their UCAS points. Overlooking a qualification or miscalculating can have implications for your university offers.

There are also online UCAS Tariff calculators available, where students can input their qualifications and grades to get an instant total. While these tools are handy, it's always a good idea to double-check manually, ensuring you've captured all your qualifications and their correct point values.

UCAS points vs. A-level grades: What's the difference?

While both UCAS points and A-level grades are pivotal in the university admissions process, they serve distinct purposes and are used in different contexts. Understanding the nuances between them can provide clarity for students navigating the complexities of higher education applications.

A-level grades, awarded for specific subjects, directly reflect a student's performance in those areas. For instance, achieving an A* in Biology provides insight into a student's proficiency in that subject. Universities often have specific A-level grade requirements, especially for courses that necessitate a strong foundation in particular subjects.

On the other hand, UCAS points offer a broader, cumulative perspective. They aggregate a student's achievements across various qualifications, providing a numerical representation of their overall academic standing. This system allows for flexibility, recognising a range of qualifications beyond just A-levels.

While A-level grades offer depth, showcasing expertise in specific subjects, UCAS points provide breadth, capturing a student's holistic academic profile. Both are valuable in their own right, and universities consider them in tandem to ensure a comprehensive understanding of an applicant's capabilities.

In essence, while A-level grades spotlight expertise in individual subjects, UCAS points offer a panoramic view of a student's academic journey, encompassing all their achievements. Together, they paint a detailed picture that universities use to assess an applicant's suitability for their courses.

Tips for maximising your UCAS points

For students eager to enhance their university application, maximising UCAS points can be a strategic move. Here are some actionable tips to help you boost your UCAS Tariff score:

1. Diversify Your Qualifications: While A-levels are a primary source of UCAS points, consider other qualifications like BTECs, the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), or even the International Baccalaureate (IB) to diversify your academic portfolio.

2. Pursue Extracurricular Achievements: Some extracurricular activities, such as graded music exams or the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, can contribute to your UCAS points. Engaging in these can not only enhance your Tariff score but also enrich your personal growth.

3. Seek Additional Certifications: Courses like the Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (CoPE) can offer up to 58 UCAS points upon completion.

4. Stay Updated: UCAS occasionally revises its Tariff system. Regularly check the official UCAS Tariff tables to stay informed about any changes or new qualifications that might be added.

5. Consult with Career Advisors: Schools often have career advisors or counsellors who can provide tailored advice on how to maximise UCAS points based on your strengths and interests.

6. Consider tutoring: For those students struggling in certain areas, online tutoring is their best way forward. Achieving good grades can ultimately lead to higher UCAS points.

Emma Thompson, a university admissions consultant, notes, "While UCAS points are crucial, students should also focus on genuine learning and personal development. Universities appreciate candidates who bring a rich tapestry of experiences and skills to the table".

By adopting a multifaceted approach, students can effectively maximise their UCAS points, enhancing their chances of securing a place at their desired university.

How to use the UCAS tariff calculator

The UCAS tariff calculator is an invaluable tool for students, offering a straightforward way to determine the UCAS points they've accumulated from various qualifications. Here's a step-by-step guide on how to utilise this tool effectively:

1. Access the Tool: Navigate to the official UCAS website and locate the 'Tariff calculator' under the 'UCAS Tariff points' section.

2. Select Your Qualifications: From the dropdown menu, choose the qualifications you've undertaken. This includes A-levels, BTECs, IB, and many others.

3. Input Your Grades: For each selected qualification, input the grade you've achieved or are predicted to achieve.

4. Calculate: Once all qualifications and grades are entered, click 'Calculate'. The tool will instantly provide you with your total UCAS points.

5. Review and Adjust: If you're considering taking additional qualifications or aiming for higher grades, you can adjust the entries to see how these changes impact your total points.

The UCAS tariff calculator demystifies the process of understanding one's academic standing in the context of university admissions. It's a must-use tool for students aiming to keep track of their UCAS points and set realistic university application goals.

While the calculator is a fantastic resource, students are encouraged to cross-reference their results with the official UCAS Tariff tables to ensure accuracy and stay updated on any changes to the Tariff system.

Final Thoughts

Navigating the complexities of UCAS points can initially seem daunting, but with the right information and tools, students can confidently chart their path towards higher education in the UK. Understanding the significance of UCAS points, how they're calculated, and their role in university admissions empowers students to make informed decisions about their academic futures. Whether you're just starting your A-levels or are on the cusp of sending off your university applications, being well-versed in the intricacies of the UCAS Tariff system is invaluable. Remember, while UCAS points are a key component, universities also value passion, dedication, and a genuine love for learning. So, as you work towards accumulating those points, also focus on building a holistic profile that showcases your unique strengths and aspirations.


How much do IB and AP exams cost?

The cost of education is a significant factor for many. The IB Diploma Programme has a fee structure where each subject exam costs around $119. However, this can vary based on administrative charges that schools might add. It's essential to consult with your institution for precise figures. In contrast, AP exams have a standard fee of $98 within the U.S., U.S. territories, Canada, and DoDEA schools. Outside these regions, the fee is $128. Specialised exams, like AP Seminar and AP Research, cost $146. Financial aid is available for eligible students, which can significantly reduce these costs. It's always recommended to check with your school or the official websites for the most up-to-date information, as prices can change.

Are there scholarships available for IB or AP exams?

Ensuring education is accessible is vital. Recognising this, the College Board offers a $36 fee reduction for AP exams for students with financial need. Some states and schools also provide additional subsidies to further reduce the cost. For the IB, while there isn't a global scholarship program, many schools might offer financial aid or payment plans to assist students. It's always a good idea to have a chat with your school's AP or IB coordinator about any available financial support options. Scholarships can significantly reduce the financial burden, making these programs more accessible.

How are IB and AP graded?

The grading systems for IB and AP are distinct. The IB uses a scale from 1 to 7, with 7 being the highest. This grading considers both internal assessments, like coursework, and the final exams. The AP program grades exams on a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 indicating that the student is "extremely well qualified". Universities globally recognise these scores, often granting college credit for high achievers. It's essential to understand the grading system as it can influence university applications and future academic opportunities.

Can I switch from IB to AP mid-year?

Transitioning between IB and AP mid-year is a significant decision. Both programs have unique curricula, assessment methods, and course structures. Switching would require careful consideration of academic implications, potential credit transfers, and the challenges of adapting to a new curriculum. It's crucial to consult with academic advisors, teachers, and school counsellors before making such a decision. They can provide insights into the pros and cons and guide the transition process.

How do universities view the IB's CAS component?

The CAS (Creativity, Activity, Service) component of the IB is a unique feature that emphasises holistic education. Universities, especially those with a global perspective, view CAS positively. It showcases a student's commitment to community engagement, leadership roles, and personal growth outside the traditional classroom setting. The experiences and skills gained through CAS activities can be a differentiator in competitive university application processes, highlighting a student's well-roundedness.

What's the difference between AP classes and AP exams?

AP classes and exams serve different purposes but are interconnected. AP classes are the coursework, the day-to-day learning experiences that equip students with knowledge and skills in a subject. These classes prepare students for the culminating AP exams, which assess their mastery of the subject. While it's common for students to take the exam after completing the class, it's not mandatory. Some students, with prior expertise or self-study, opt to take the exam without the class, showcasing the program's flexibility.

Are there online resources for IB and AP revision?

The digital age offers a plethora of online resources tailored for IB and AP revision. Official websites for both programs provide essential materials, including guidelines, past papers, and sample responses. Beyond this, platforms like Khan Academy, Quizlet, and various educational forums offer tailored study aids, mock tests, and community discussions. Leveraging these resources can significantly enhance a student's preparation, boosting confidence and readiness for exams.

How do IB and AP compare to A-levels?

A-levels, a staple of the British education system, are subject-specific qualifications. Unlike the comprehensive nature of the IB, A-levels allow students to delve deeply into a select number of subjects. AP, with its flexibility, sits somewhere in between, allowing students to choose subjects of interest without the broader core requirements of the IB. All three are rigorous and respected, but the choice often hinges on a student's academic preferences, future university plans, and the offerings of their school.

Can I take AP exams without the course?

The AP program offers flexibility. While most students take AP exams after completing the corresponding course, it's not mandatory. Some students, driven by passion or prior knowledge in a subject, choose to self-study and then sit for the exam. This approach, while commendable, requires a high degree of self-discipline, resourcefulness, and commitment. It's essential to have access to the right resources and maintain a structured study plan.

What's the pass rate for IB compared to AP?

Pass rates offer insights into the difficulty and success rates of academic programs. For the IB, the global pass rate is around 80%. AP exam pass rates can vary significantly based on the specific subject. Some exams have pass rates above 60%, while others might be lower. It's crucial to consult the latest statistics from official sources to get an accurate picture. These rates can influence a student's decision on which program to pursue.

Are there any prerequisites for IB or AP courses?

Some IB and AP courses have prerequisites to ensure students are adequately prepared. These can be in the form of prior coursework, specific grade achievements, or teacher recommendations. Schools typically provide this information during the course selection process, ensuring students are well-informed and set up for success.

How do colleges view the IB Extended Essay?

The Extended Essay, a cornerstone of the IB program, is a 4,000-word independent research project. It offers students a unique opportunity to delve deep into a subject of their choice, honing their research, analytical, and writing skills. Universities, especially those with rigorous academic programs, view the Extended Essay in a positive light. It's indicative of a student's ability to undertake independent research, akin to the kind of work expected at the undergraduate level.

Can I retake an IB or AP exam?

Both the IB and AP programs understand the importance of giving students a second chance. For the IB, students can opt to retake exams to improve their scores. These retakes can be done immediately in the subsequent session or even later, depending on the student's needs. The AP program also allows for exam retakes, but these typically occur in the following academic year. It's essential to weigh the benefits of a retake against other academic commitments and to consider the implications, especially in terms of college applications and associated deadlines.

How do TOK grades affect my overall IB score?

Theory of Knowledge (TOK) is an integral component of the IB program, focusing on the nature of knowledge and the process of knowing. Alongside the Extended Essay, TOK can contribute up to three bonus points to a student's overall IB score. These points are determined by a matrix that considers the student's performance in both TOK and the Extended Essay. Achieving high scores in both can significantly boost a student's final score, potentially making the difference in meeting university entry requirements or achieving an IB diploma. The TOK grade showcases not just academic prowess but also a student's ability to critically evaluate and reflect on the nature of knowledge in various disciplines.

Are there study abroad opportunities with IB or AP?

While the IB and AP programs themselves don't directly offer study abroad schemes, their global recognition can be a significant asset for students eyeing international education opportunities. Many universities worldwide recognise and value IB and AP credentials, often granting course credits for high scores. This recognition can ease the application process for international programs or universities. Additionally, some schools and external organisations offer study abroad or exchange programs specifically tailored for IB or AP students. These programs can provide enriching experiences, exposing students to different cultures, teaching methods, and academic environments, further enhancing their global learning experience.

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Professional tutor and Cambridge University researcher

Thomas Babb

Written by: Thomas Babb

Oxford University - PhD Mathematics

Thomas is a PhD candidate at Oxford University. He served as an interviewer and the lead admissions test marker at Oxford, and teaches undergraduate students at Mansfield College and St Hilda’s College. He has ten years’ experience tutoring A-Level and GCSE students across a range of subjects.

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