For well-prepared applicants, the school examination results will come at least eight months after they first filled in a UCAS application form, writes Olga Wojtas.
Forms for higher education entry this autumn should have been submitted between September 1 and December 15 last year. Applications received before the end of June this year are considered at institutions' discretion, and any after July 1 go into clearing.
Prospective students can list up to six course choices, backed by a personal statement, a school or college reference, and a Pounds 14 fee, reduced to Pounds 5 if they choose only one course.
Each institution considers the application independently, and replies to the applicant via UCAS.
Offers of a place can be unconditional or conditional, and the applicant must then decide whether to make a firm acceptance, an insurance acceptance, or to decline.
Firm acceptance of an unconditional offer means the applicant need do nothing more than turn up on the first day of term.
Applicants with two or more offers who firmly accept a conditional offer must also say whether or not they wish to hold a second offer as an insurance.
If they make a firm acceptance and an insurance acceptance, they must decline all other offers through UCAS.
Once the exam results are out, institutions make final decisions on applicants holding conditional offers, with UCAS sending confirmation of offers to successful candidates.
Applicants who have firmly accepted a conditional offer, and then meet the conditions, will have their insurance offers cancelled. They can decide not to take up the firm acceptance, but are barred from dealings with other institutions in the UCAS scheme and from clearing for the coming academic year.
The same conditions apply to an insurance offer, if applicants fail to win a firmly accepted conditional offer, but meet the insurance criteria.
Applicants who decline all offers, those who have failed to win offers, and those applying after June 30 are all eligible to enter clearing. The object of clearing is to fill any remaining vacancies in institutions. Prospective students contact institutions directly and can apply for any course with vacancies.
Institutions ask the applicant for a clearing entry form if they are interested and notify both the applicant and UCAS if the application is successful.
Unsuccessful applicants have their clearing entrance form returned and can then contact another institution.