SEN and Extenuating Circumstances in University Applications

As more and more students will be putting together UCAS applications for university, we approached our brilliant university and school leaver consultant - Sarah McWatters - to discuss SEN and Extenuating Circumstances for university applications. Sarah is an experienced and encouraging consultant, who always looks to provide a student with a full range of options


If there’s anything 2020 has taught us, it’s that we can have all the plans we like, but life sometimes gets in the way. It’s also taught us to take care of our mental health. As a result, we think it’s really important that university applicants know all their options for getting the support they need when applying to university, whether that’s for SEN (Special Educational Needs) or Extenuating Circumstances. In this insight, we’ll look at the difference between those two areas and outline how to apply for them

SEN and how to get support

SEN - Special Educational Needs - encompasses any learning disability or mental health condition that makes it harder for someone to learn.

To have your SEN taken into account at university, pre-existing and known conditions can be included on the UCAS form. At the end of the ‘Personal Details’ tab there is a drop-down box and a free-text box; students should select the pre-written description which applies to them in the drop-down, and use the free-text box to add any other details. For example, you could write: “I have 25% extra time in exams and the use of a computer.”

The main reason to fill in this form is so universities know what support to provide for students when they arrive for their first year. This support could range from the provision of a laptop or a scribe for written exams, to special arrangements for accommodation.

Students should feel very comfortable applying for this support. There is no discrimination and the confidentiality of the student is maintained absolutely. Information is only shared with those individuals at the university who are directly responsible for student support, such as student services, or an academic tutor. If students need support beyond what has been arranged in advance, they can contact the universities individually either before arriving or on arrival.

Extenuating Circumstances

Extenuating Circumstances are any traumatic event beyond the control of the student which negatively impacts their studies or exams. Going through events like illness, bereavement or challenging family situations are tough at the best of times, but when the affected student is in the middle of public exams they pose extra challenges.

Universities treat students kindly and take extenuating circumstances into account, however they do tend to view some circumstances more seriously than others. For example, the death of a parent will obviously be taken very seriously. Other examples of circumstances a university will take seriously include: the death of a family member living in the family home, divorce, or prolonged absence from school due to illness. However, universities might not take cases such as the death of a family member living in another country quite as seriously, despite their obviously being upsetting for family members.

Accounting for an extenuating circumstance is less streamlined than for SEN, perhaps understandably due to their unpredictable nature. In the first instance, universities prefer any extenuating circumstance to be submitted to the relevant exam board (i.e. for the exams affected). When this hasn’t happened or isn’t possible, each individual university will have its own form to fill out online for extenuating circumstances, which students have to complete within a given timeframe. Some universities will take emails directly rather than having a form.

Students will need to provide all the information they can, including the exact timing (the date of the event and the length of disruption) and evidence (in the form of letters from hospitals, doctors or psychiatrists, for example). If in doubt as to what’s needed, contact the university in question to provide you with details.

Further considerations, the academic reference and conclusions

Beyond these basics, there can often be overlap between the categories, complicating the above picture. For example, a SEN can often be seen as an extenuating circumstance if the condition is only diagnosed after the exam has already been taken. In such a case, we recommend that a student both contact the university as if it's an extenuating circumstance and update the UCAS to reflect their having a SEN.

The main message to take on board, despite the complications, is that it’s advisable to be upfront with your situation to universities. Students should let their UCAS referee know sooner rather than later, and contact universities well in advance to find out how to inform them of their situation.

Once you’ve told your UCAS referee about your SEN or extenuating circumstance, they might need to update their reference accordingly. For your SEN, they will only need to do this if it has been diagnosed late, since there is space on the UCAS form for you to enter the details. For example, a referee might write: “Student X was diagnosed with dyslexia after their GCSE/A level exams, resulting in lower-than-expected grades. Documents are available upon request.” That last sentence - “Documents are available upon request” - can be added to any academic reference as appropriate. For extenuating circumstances, meanwhile, your referee should add a brief description, for example: "Student X was ill with glandular fever during the April before A-level exams, resulting in lost time for revision. Documents are available upon request.”

Overall, being candid about any SEN or extenuating circumstance is always the best approach. That way, students can give themselves a fair chance and ensure they have any necessary support ready to go.

We hope this has provided some helpful advice about SEN and extenuating circumstances in regards to university applications. To arrange a session with Sarah, get in touch with us today.