How to get to where you want to be

We know it can be daunting to think about the return to study, particularly if it’s been a long time since you were last in education. We’ve broken down the steps you need to take into a simple guide, with plenty of links to other information and resources.

This guide presents an overview of the return to study process for mature learners, regardless of where you choose to study or what qualification you’re pursuing.

Browse our FAQs for answers to your burning questions

The decision to return to study is complex, and mature students may have different motivations and considerations than younger people when considering going to university or college.

We’ve collated answers to some of the most common questions you might have when beginning to think about the return to study.


Decide what, where and how you’d like to study

Read the Which course is right for you? section for information about choosing the right subject, qualification type and picking a provider.

The University of Leeds’ Lifelong Learning Centre provides impartial, free advice about returning to study, and can help answer questions and direct you to the best course and provider for you. Anyone aged 19 or over who does not already hold a UK degree or equivalent can contact them to arrange one-to-one appointment for advice and guidance, regardless of whether you’re hoping to study at the University of Leeds or another institution.

You can also check when your chosen provider offers open days and subject events to help you decide your pathway into higher education.

Contact your chosen provider’s admissions team

Once you’ve found a course (or courses) you’re interested in, it’s time to check whether you meet the requirements to study.

Most providers put entry requirements for courses on their website, but mature students might have different qualifications, or might have industry experience which can be just as valuable as academic accomplishments.

Some courses or institutions will have different requirements for mature students in recognition of the life and work experience you’ve already attained– it’s always worth checking. Here’s the contact details for the admissions teams of each Go Higher West Yorkshire member institution:

Here’s some questions that admissions teams can help you with:

  1. Do I have the right qualifications?
  2. Can I apply directly to this course?
  3. Is it possible to study part-time?
  4. How do I provide a reference?
  5. What should I do if my qualifications are lost or missing?

If you don’t yet have the necessary experiences needed for your chosen course, the admissions team can help suggest which routes might be suitable for you, such as an Access to Higher Education course or a Foundation Year.

UCAS has more information on qualifications for mature students.

“The application process for university was in fact quite simple but I did encounter a few challenges. I felt overwhelmed by the initial steps but once it got going, everything felt cool. I think it’s the anxiety of not knowing, especially if you’ve not done the application process or seen it before.”

Student stories: Hina’s blog on applying to Leeds Beckett University as a mature student

Look into funding options and financial support

Before making your application, you will need to consider your finances. While affordability will depend on your personal circumstances, you may be eligible for student finance, especially if you’ve not enrolled on a higher education course before.

We’ve gathered information about the most common sources of funding for mature students, including tuition fee loans, maintenance loans, grants, bursaries and scholarships. This will help your decision about whether you can afford to study – take a look at the question about affordability in our FAQs section.

Decide whether you’re applying directly to a provider or through UCAS

Direct application

Some higher education providers allow applicants to apply directly to them, either through Clearing in mid-August, or throughout the year. This is more common with Continuing Professional Development (CPD) courses; trade and professional qualifications; other higher education courses such as Higher Technical Qualifications (‘HTQs’; this includes HNCs, HNDs and foundation degrees), part-time and top-up degrees; and postgraduate study. Direct application to an undergraduate degree may also be possible.

The direct entry route might be suitable if you are applying to a specific provider and know which course you wish to study. If you’ve already spoken to a provider’s admissions teams they will advise you whether direct application is available.

There is usually no application fee and you can make as many applications as you like. Direct applications for undergraduate degrees are usually open from January onwards to course enrolment in September, and you can apply for programmes other than undergraduate degree programmes throughout the year. However, note that some highly competitive or over-subscribed courses do not accept direct applications as all places are taken by UCAS applicants – see below.


Almost all UK applicants to undergraduate courses at universities and colleges apply through UCAS (the University and College Admissions Service). The UCAS system allows you to apply to up to five institutions using a single application form, for a fee which is £27 for 2023 entry. UCAS can be a good option if you’re applying to competitive courses as it means your application will be considered at the same time as all other applicants.

Applying through UCAS is straightforward but needs to be done well in advance of your course start date and much of the content requires considerable preparation before submission, so you should factor in time to make sure your application is the best it can be. UCAS has a step-by-step guide to completing a UCAS application, including advice for mature students to write a personal statement and provide a reference. Many GHWY member institutions also offer support with personal statements

For most undergraduate courses beginning in a September, the deadline for submitting your UCAS application is 25 January, that is, nine months in advance. This is the ‘equal consideration’ deadline, which means course providers must consider all applications received by this time equally. However, lots of providers in West Yorkshire will consider applications received after this deadline, if they have spaces available once the January deadline applications have been considered.

Note that applications to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, or for most courses in medicine, veterinary studies and dentistry need to be submitted by 15 October 2022 for 2023 courses.

You can only submit your UCAS application once per annual cycle (September to September).

See UCAS’s: five things for mature students to include in their personal statement.

Apply for student finance

Once you’ve submitted your application, it’s time to apply for student finance if you’re eligible.

The window for applications usually opens around the end of February. Keep an eye out for when applications are open and try to make your as soon as possible, as this will decrease the possibility of a late payment.  There’s no need to wait for an offer or for you to have accepted a place.

Most full-time and part-time students apply online to Student Finance England. You will need to complete the following steps:

  • Set up a student finance online account.
  • Log in and complete the online application.
  • Include your household income if needed. If relevant, your parent or partner will be asked to confirm these details.
  • Send in proof of identity, if needed.

It can take up to 6 weeks to process your application, and you might have to provide extra evidence. After you register at your university or college, the tuition fee loan is paid directly to your education provider. The maintenance loan is paid in three instalments at the start of each term (usually September, January and April) directly in your bank account.

Receive and reply to responses from your course providers

Once your application is submitted and your course provider has considered it, you will receive their decision. If you applied to them directly, they will usually communicate with you via email or phone call.

If you applied via UCAS, you will receive one of the following decisions via the online system:

  • An unconditional offer means that you already have all the qualifications needed to progress to study
  • A conditional offer is an offer of a place if you meet certain conditions – usually exam results
  • Unsuccessful – if the provider chooses not to offer you a place, you can apply elsewhere directly or add more choices through UCAS Extra within the same annual cycle

Each university and college will make their decisions at different times but there are deadlines that they need to respond to you by, and that you need to reply to their decision. See the UCAS website for deadlines for application to begin your course in 2023.

If you receive an unconditional offer

An unconditional offer means you’ve got in and the place is yours!

Check the offer carefully. You might still need to get a DBS check, provide proof of your qualifications, or meet some financial/medical requirements. If it’s not clear, contact your provider.

If you accept an unconditional offer via UCAS, you are committed to your choice. If you change your mind after accepting, you must decline your place and apply using Clearing, or apply directly to providers.

If you receive a conditional offer

Conditional offers mean the place is reserved for you, if you meet certain conditions. These might be specific exam results, a minimum number of UCAS tariff points or other factors such as medical requirements.

If you applied through UCAS, you will be able to accept two conditional offers, one as your firm choice and one as an insurance. It’s a good idea for your insurance choice to have lower entry conditions that your firm choice. You will have to decline any other conditional offers.

See UCAS website for guidance on making the right decision and replying to your UCAS offers.

If your application is unsuccessful

If a course provider decides not to offer you a place, your application will be unsuccessful. If you didn’t complete an element of the application process such as not responding to emails or not attending an interview, it might be classed as ‘withdrawn’.

Some providers will give a reason for their decision through UCAS or to you if you applied directly. If not, you can contact them to ask if they’ll discuss the reason with you.

If you’re applying directly, you can apply to different providers or to a different course. If applying through UCAS and you didn’t receive any offers, you might be able to add extra choices through UCAS Extra.

Prepare to study

If you’ve been out of education for a while, you might consider what preparation you can do to ease your transition to university or college. We’ve offered some guidance in our preparing to study section.

Access support while studying

Once you begin studying, it’s important to make sure you’re aware of all the support that’s available to you. From travel and accommodation to tips for parents, carers and disabled students, we’ve collated information about how to get support while studying as a mature student.

Useful resources

UCAS have a section for mature students, including guides on choosing where to study, making your application, and preparing for study.

The University of Leeds has written some tips for mature students when applying to university.