Dr Rachael Griffiths is a Researcher and Educational Consultant who has previously worked in admissions at the University of Oxford, as well as supporting sixth form students with university applications.  


The past year has seen Covid-19 alter the landscape of university admissions significantly, with the cancellation of A-level exams and universities moving open days and admissions interviews online. Likewise, reports of increased numbers of applicants, potential grade inflation, and ongoing disruption to teaching in schools have regularly made the headlines. As for future university applications, the story is set to be no different.  

The Effects of Covid-19 So Far 

2021 saw record growth in university applications, this included a 12% increase in UK-domiciled applicants and a 14% increase in non-EU applicants. With nearly half of school leavers in the UK applying for university, the pandemic appears to have encouraged more students to apply for further education. A survey of 1200 year 12 and 13 pupils by Access HE indicated that 30% thought the pandemic had made it more likely they would go to university, suggesting this trend will continue.  

Many universities cannot easily expand to accommodate this increasing demand, resulting in higher numbers of students being rejected by all or most of their choices. In 2021 a reported 32% of applicants were rejected by the UK’s top universities, up from 27% last year. According to an analysis from the former director of research at UCAS, the rejection rate at Russell Group universities (including Cambridge, Oxford, and UCL) “has soared to the highest point in almost a decade”.  

Subject choice has also been affected by the pandemic, with a substantial increase in students applying for medicine and dentistry (a rise of 21% on last year). Due to the cap on student recruitment at medical schools, an increase in applications, and A level grades reaching a record high many medical schools in England are oversubscribed. Students are being asked to move to a course at a university elsewhere or to defer the year, putting further strain on places in future years.  

Applications for vocational courses such as nursing, teaching, law, and business have also increased. The impact of Covid-19 over the last 18 months has increased the level of uncertainty in everyday life and has forced more people to think about their future options. In this context, the increasing demand for subjects that lead directly to traditional professional occupations or that develop the skills needed to be successfully self-employed is unsurprising, with people looking to subjects with an obvious career path at their end. 

These currents trends, influenced by the pandemic, are set to continue, leading to more competitive admissions rounds ahead. But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are steps students can take to give themselves the best opportunity. 

Students must think ahead and plan early. By starting their research early, they will be more aware of what is expected of their applications. This means they’ll have enough time to plan their extra-curriculars, develop their skills and prepare for any admissions tests they might face. 

Additionally, students should allow for some flexibility in their choices. Joint honours or combined courses can be less competitive and still fit within the candidate’s field of interest. This could mean studying Law and Global Development instead of Law. Moreover, students might find that choosing a more niche field will benefit them when applying for jobs once they graduate.  

Students can read more advice on exploring different subject options here. 


Eton X’s Applying for University course offers more personalised support, tapping into students’ interests, goals, and ambitions, equipping students with the knowledge and confidence to research university and course options and make choices.