The 2021 Student Mindset: What's their Outlook? | UCAS x YouthSight

HE Thinking | 18 Mar 2021


We've been working in partnership with UCAS to provide insights around the student mindset, helping HE professionals navigate through a uniquely challenging year. In our eighth webinar YouthSight’s MD of Research, Josephine Hansom and UCAS’ Head of Sales, Rebecca Hopwood talk about applicant decision-making and the UCAS registrant database.

This webinar explored how committed applicants are to their choices, what could knock them off-course and what you can do to push them over the line.

In our blog below we outline some of the key takeaways from the research and provide links to the recordings of all the webinars in the series so far - including this latest one.  


A key message from this webinar was that there is still everything to play for. Registrants and applicants are realistic about what life at university will be like this year, but they’re also hungry for more information. Supplying them with the reassurance they need, as well as showing empathy and being transparent, will be the winning combination to helping them make their firm choices.

  • 41% of registrants are still deciding on the universities/course they want to apply to.
  • 92% of registrants want more information from universities and 90% want to know more about what life at your university will be like.
  • 50% of applicants are very committed to their decisions, despite not visiting in person. But visits will be key for others.
  • 77% will feel more confident if they know universities will accept lower grades than usual.
  • 98% think there will be social distancing measures in place in September - and two thirds are ok with this.

The Registrant Mindset

This group (made up of over 350,000 people) have registered with UCAS but haven’t met the January deadline. We explored how likely it is that they will go to university this year, what’s going through their minds and what would encourage them to apply.

Over half of registrants are still likely to apply, with the majority undecided about which course or university to apply to. The pandemic is also playing a role in their decisions and the uncertain future has put a third off going to university this year. But as this research was conducted in February (prior to the announcement around lockdown easing), we can foresee that this could change significantly over the coming months.

The main reason registrants did not meet the January deadline was that they didn’t have enough information or support on their application (66% stated this to be the case).  While 54% said they know they can apply after the deadline and are still deciding, and 51% cannot decide without visiting any universities in person. We know that from our Open Day Success tracking product that open days are the most important factor to influence choice, so this figure is not all that surprising.

There is an opportunity to reach and convert registrants and here's our top three tips on how you can do this:

  • Providing support on applications
  • Making sure your campus is accessible once lockdown eases
  • Giving registrants a flavour of what life will be like on campus 

The Applicant Mindset

For the applicants who did meet the January deadline, we asked how they're feeling about their choices, what could change their decision and what they think September 2021 will be like.

91% are confident about getting their place this year and most are committed to a preferred university, despite not visiting in person.

UCAS applicant mindset chartThe majority of applicants who haven't made a firm decision yet, are waiting to hear back from all their choices first. They want to weight up their options thoroughly before making any final decisions. But once they have heard back, only 7% will wait until the final UCAS deadline before committing, showing that they're not willing to wait around. 

The top three factors that will help this group make their final decisions include:

  • Having a better idea of their grades – 58%
  • Knowing what lockdown measure will be in place when they start – 47%
  • Having more information from the universities they are considering – 45%

Applicant confidence is still being knocked by not knowing how grades will be awarded this year. We posed a set of scenarios to see what would impact confidence and the top responses centred around grades. 

The data also showed us that resuming in person open days would significantly increase confidence. Applicants are really keen to visit campus so that they can get that sense of 'belonging'.

It’s therefore important to keep in contact and reassure applicants, show them empathy (show understanding of grade assessment worries); and make sure campus is accessible (lockdown dependent) for those who want to get a flavour of university life – e.g. run smaller campus tours, arrange coffee mornings with tutors.

Future Focus: Planning for 2021

Applicants have realistic views on starting university in September and are under no illusion that life will be back to normal by then; 98% believe that there'll still be social distancing measures and 64% feel ok about having more - or less - restrictions in place.

However, 34% do not feel prepared about starting university with lockdown restrictions and are looking for further support and encouragement around this. 

Only a quarter feel completely ready for university this year.

UCAS applicant mindset chart2

Those who are completely ready feel excited and are keen to move forward with their life. The 60% who feel somewhat ready are still excited, but there is a level of uncertainty that holds them back from feeling completely prepared. Those who are not ready at all, feel they are lacking support and guidance particularly from their school or college.

Applicants are looking for universities to provide them with more transparency; drawing upon experiences from last year and setting realistic expectations on what restrictions are likely to be in place. Universities need to stress their support offer and make applicants feel more confident about their decisions, giving them that final push they need to commit to a firm choice.

Win over this year's applicants and registrants

We offer a suite of research tools tailor-made for HE professionals that take the stress and uncertainty off your shoulders - all available instantly and on a budget that suits your institution.

Find out the answers to your specific questions and challenges and apply them to your recruitment strategy to win over next year's applicants. The suite offers: ongoing insight into the mindset of students, access to one-off reports, solutions to specific challenges or a few quick answers.

Find out more

Webinar Series: Catch up on demand

Watch the full webinar on demand:

Watch the playback 

You can also catch up on our previous webinars launched in partnership with UCAS, by clicking the link below. These webinars will guide you through how your UG, PGT and prospective students are feeling and what they are looking for from you. 

View the complete series


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