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  • Sofia Qvarfort

Sofia: My UCAS application

To apply to university in the UK, you have to submit an application to UCAS, which stands for Universities and College Admissions Service. In this post, I'll tell you about my experiences of applying to university through UCAS.

First a short recap. I'm a visually impaired student who is currently doing a PhD at University College London. I applied to study physics in 2010 with start in 2011 and thought I'd tell you a bit about the application process. I am diagnosed with albinism and see about 15%, which means I'm basically very short-sighted. For reference, you can read more about how much I see here.

My hope is that my experiences will help other visually impaired A-level students who want to apply to university. I had a very positive experience, but that might also be due to the strategies I employed, so let me tell you about them as well.

An image showing the UCAS logo.

My Application

I submitted my application in October 2011 for an undergraduate degree in physics or natural sciences at Trinity College at Cambridge, Imperial College London, King's College London, Durham University and Lancaster University. I received offers for interviews at Cambridge and Imperial, and later received offers from the other universities. Spoiler warning: I didn't get into Cambridge, but was offered a place at Imperial, which I accepted. I spent four amazing years there learning about physics and enjoying the many things London has to offer.

When I filled in my UCAS application, I disclosed that I had a visual impairment, which proved to be very useful as most of the universities contacted me about it. While my parents were always there to support me, I did all the communications myself. I'll tell you about each of them below, and also briefly about what I did before the start of term.

Trinity College, Cambridge

My first interview was with Cambridge. I received an initial email saying they had acknowledged my disability on the UCAS application form. They also invited me to contact them with any queries. I would have expected them to contact me about adjustments for the interview, but this didn't happen. Instead, I contacted the Cambridge Disability Resource Centre, which put me in touch with one of their advisors. She sent me a form and asked my permission to contact the Trinity College Admissions Office with information about my disability. While I think these things should happen automatically, the response I had once I had written to them was quick and helpful.

The form was really, really thorough. I actually dug it up before writing this. It asked me to write about my disability and how it affects my studies, what kind of support I needed, how their library services could help me (including scanning text for me), and how they could help me with accommodation. In my answers, I asked for extra time in exams, scanned books from the library, accommodation with windows facing north (the albinism makes me very sensitive to sunlight), and permission to record lectures. I thought this was a really good way to approach visually impaired students, but I was also slightly overwhelmed by all the various options. It asked me questions about disability allowance, (which coming from Sweden) was a new thing I had to figure out.

After I'd contacted them, I received an invitation for an interview. There would be a 1 hour written test before the interview, and for this I was given 25% extra time, which I appreciated. The questions from the test were then used as a basis for further interview questions. At the time, I thought the test and the interview had gone quite well, but obviously not quite well enough for my application to be successful. In all, it was a very good experience. At no point did I feel patronised or treated differently due to my visual impairment. And once I got hold of people, they were very accommodating. I didn't meet with any disability advisers while I was at Cambridge, but I'd recommend other students do so, to get a feel for how the university operates.

Imperial College, London

Imperial contacted me in advance and offered for me to meet with their disability officers on the day of my interview. I didn't arrange anything special for the interview as it didn't come with a written test. I was however asked to do some maths during the interview, but the interviewer was aware of my condition, and it went quite well. I don't remember much from the meeting with the disability adviser, but I recall coming away with a really good feeling. Unlike with Cambridge, I only discussed my needs in length after I'd accepted the place.

Since I don't remember much about that meeting, let me instead talk about what happened once I accepted a place at Imperial. Their disability officer contacted me with a long bunch of questions asking how they could help me, on everything from lectures to accommodation. I answered to the best of my ability, and found that the staff were extremely helpful. Even when one of them left Imperial, he sent me an entire list of contact details of people who would be involved in my education. On my behalf, they had spoken to the Head of Undergraduate studies, the administrator of the Physics Department, my personal tutor and many others. That provided a good basis from which I could investigate things further on my own.

One of the most fortunate things about Imperial was that another visually impaired student had just completed his undergraduate studies in physics there. That made both the university and I confident that I'd be able to do well in the course. I was put in touch with the student who offered a lot of suggestions, including what kind of assistive technology he used to follow along in lectures. You can read more about this here.

The arrangements offered by Imperial included extra time in exams, a good spot reserved for me in the lecture theatre, suitable accommodation (close to the university and with a north-facing window for the sun), increased library loan times and PDF documents of scanned physics books. The physics department administrator stayed with me throughout my degree and was extremely helpful.

In summary

In all, I thought that the application process was very structured and accommodating with regard to my visual impairment in each of the universities I applied to. While it sometimes required me to reach out to the university, which of course is an extra time-investment on top of everything else, they always got back to me quickly and were very helpful. I'd recommend any visually impaired person who wants to study at university to give it a go - it will sometimes be challenging but the experience is worth it!

While the form I filled out for Cambridge was very helpful, I want to stress that the most important thing here is to know what support you need in advance. No-one knows your disability as well as you do, and the university will rely on you to find out how they can help you. You should not expect the university disability officers to be experts on how to support your specific disability. They will usually have general knowledge, but you need to supply the very practical ways in which they can support you. Almost all visually impaired students I know who have done well for themselves at university had a plan for their needs before they applied. Knowing what you need in order to do well can be really difficult, as you've probably never been to university before and might not know what kind of support suits you best. It's therefore very important to keep talking to the disability officers and be creative about solutions.

Finally, applying to university is an exciting experience, and I hope you meet lots of great people during the admissions process! Good luck!

So in short, here are a few key points to help you with your university admissions process:

  • Disclose your disability as early as possible

  • Communicate with the university disability services as early as possible

  • Try and figure out in which way the university can best help you

  • Ask other visually impaired people for advice

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