A total of 56,753 students applied to courses starting in 2013, which had an application deadline of 15 October, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service revealed on 24 October.
That was marginally higher than the 55,618 students who applied for the 2012 entry cycle and the 56,082 who applied in 2011.
Courses covered by the early application cycle include all undergraduate programmes at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which require earlier submissions than other universities to enable them to conduct interviews.
Students applying to medical and veterinary schools must also apply earlier, while most other students will need to apply to university by 15 January.
Applications to the early-deadline courses were relatively unaffected by the increase in student tuition fees from this autumn, falling just 0.8 per cent last year compared with 2011 figures, whereas overall applicant numbers slumped by 7.4 per cent, according to Ucas figures released in January 2012.
Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas, said the latest figures were "encouraging". "Not only are they up against last year but also on 2011," Ms Curnock Cook said.
"Although this is a subset of applicants for higher education at the highest levels of achievement, I remain optimistic about overall demand in the 2013 cycle."
Data released by Ucas also show the number of UK 18-year-olds applying to Oxbridge, medical schools and veterinary schools has remained relatively constant over the past five years.
This year, ,389 students applied to courses with a deadline of 15 October compared with ,517 last year, ,236 students for 2011 entry, ,786 for 2010 entry and 26,286 for 2009.