It is a well-known fact that, not only are university courses becoming more expensive, they are also becoming ever more competitive.
Applications to universities in the UK are going up each year and yet the number of university places is not increasing (if anything, it is going down slightly).
As well as restrictions in government funding for university places (especially for UK/EU students), universities are fined if they oversubscribe students.
Other factors that have increased demand are the numbers of mature students applying to university as a result of weakness in the economy and labour market. It is still uncertain as to how the impending increase in fees will affect demand for university places.
Given this combination of expense and competitiveness, it is essential that applicants are careful to choose the right course. They should be both ambitious and realistic, and must ensure that their application is as thorough and professional as possible.
Choosing your University Course
When deciding which course to study at university, it is worth bearing in mind that the course you choose should ideally be a combination of something that you are good at as well as something that you enjoy.
You can, of course, carry on studying a subject (or subjects) that you have already been doing at A Level; however, you can also use your degree course as an opportunity to begin something completely different, or to add a new subject to an existing one (so, for example, taking a joint honours course in Business Studies – a subject you have studied already – and Japanese, a new subject).
Be also aware that, as well single and joint honours degrees, there are also sandwich degrees (undergraduate courses in which students undertake a placement year in industry), as well as a variety of other four-year (as opposed to three-year) degrees. There are also courses that offer a year abroad, which are either mandatory or optional.
Do your Research
Know the content of courses…
Virtually all university prospectuses and websites now list the modules available to students in the first, second, and third years of each degree course; it is highly worthwhile to familiarise yourself with these as it will help you with your application as well as with deciding which courses to apply for.
You should also find out as much as you can about teaching and learning methods as well as the means of assessment at different universities. These can have a big impact on your educational experience, as well as on the quality of the degree that you end up with!
Make full use of prospectuses, alternative prospectuses and websites…
These are vital when you are trying to get a feel for what a particular course has to offer. University prospectuses can be ordered for free via university websites, while the websites themselves are invaluable sources of information and can be supplemented by telephoning or emailing universities with specific questions.
You should also look at the following resources:-
- www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk (linked to The Independent);
- The Independent website;
- League tables (Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Independent) – but take these with a pinch of salt since they may not reflect criteria that are relevant to you;
- The Heap University book.
Be up-to-date with the entry requirements for different courses…
Entry requirements are constantly changing, so make sure that you know the current policies on such issues as:-
- Do you need at least one A* grade in your A Levels?
- A Level subject requirements (e.g. do you need to have specific A Level subjects at certain grades in order to take your chosen course?)
- Preferred/non-preferred subjects;
- GCSE requirements (e.g. grades required for GCSE English and/or Maths; do you need a modern foreign language at GCSE?)
- Entrance tests (e.g. LNAT, BMAT, UKCAT, TSAT, ELAT, etc.): know if you need to sit any of these and when they are!
- Resitting A Levels;
- Requirements to complete A levels in one sitting (e.g. courses at Edinburgh University);
- IELTS requirements for overseas students (and the expiry dates for IELTS certificates);
- Taking A Levels in your native language.
Make sure you know the relative competitiveness of the courses and universities in which you are interested…
- LSE – on average, 15 applicants per place;
- Bristol – on average, 11 applicants per place;
- Warwick, Law – 16 applicants per place;
- Oxbridge – on average, 4-5 applicants per place (generally of exceptionally high calibre).
And this is just a sample! Generally, competition for places is dependent upon:-
- The popularity of the university (for example, such universities as Manchester, Bristol, LSE, UCL, and Edinburgh, to name a few, consistently receive a high volume of applications);
- The popularity of the course (for example, Economics at LSE is going to have more applicants than Anthropology, and courses such as Business and Finance, English, Economics, Medicine, Law, Psychology, Dentistry, and Mathematics consistently receive a high number of applications);
- The ratio of applicants to places available (a subject such as Classical Greek, for example, may actually be more competitive as there are smaller numbers of student places available).
Have an open mind…
Remember that there are approximately 325 universities in the UK. Since some universities are exceptionally competitive, it is ESSENTIAL not to limit yourself to one or two names or to a specific geographical location such as London.
If you are convinced that Bristol/LSE is the ONLY university worth going to, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Remember also that the best course for you may be one at a university that you had not even initially considered.
Above all, don’t select a university on the basis of “my boyfriend/girlfriend is going/goes there”; if the relationship does not work out, you could end up stuck at a university that you didn’t really want to go to in the first place!
The most successful candidates every year are the ones who research their university choices carefully and who neither oversell nor undersell themselves.
Universities are unlikely to offer a place to students who do not meet their minimum entry criteria (as listed in their prospectuses and websites). As a general rule, your AS grades should form the basis for your grade offers from universities, and so if your average AS grades are BBC, it is highly unlikely that you will get an offer from a university that requires AAB. If your AS grades are BBB, the five choices that you make through UCAS might include one university that is likely to make an ABB offer, two that will ask for BBB, and two that require BBC.
Other factors and Open Days…
One of the most important issues to consider is location: do you want to be in a campus university on the edge of a town, or would you prefer to be in the centre of a city?
You should also find out as much as you can about the university’s facilities and accommodation, as well as its atmosphere and student life. It is particularly useful in this context to visit universities when they hold Open Days, which we’ve listed: [follow link to Open Days 2012].
If you are interested in applying overseas (e.g. to the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, etc.), you will need to ensure that you let your personal tutor know as soon as possible, since many of these applications (particularly to the United States and Canada) will need to be completed early.
There may also be additional entrance requirements (such as SAT exams for American universities) that you will need to complete before or after you apply. It is essential that you research as precisely as possible the admission requirements of your chosen universities.
Maximising your Chances of Success
Be the best student you can be…
Perhaps the MOST IMPORTANT comment that university admissions tutors make about what they look for in an applicant is that they look for students who genuinely ENJOY learning and are PASSIONATE about their subject.
Universities want to offer places to students who will benefit from their degree programme, are committed to their course, and will be successful in their studies.
This means that successful applicants are those who:-
- Attend lessons regularly and complete all of their work punctually;
- Engage with their subject outside College;
- Can discuss aspects of their subject with others and can demonstrate that they can think critically about important issues related to their subject.
We are looking for applicants who have the intellectual ability to do well, possess intellectual flexibility, are articulate, and can explain clearly their interest in their chosen subject – Admissions Tutor, Humanities, UCL.
Understand University Admission Tutors
It is always useful to put yourself in the position of an admission tutor when you are putting together your application. Imagine that you have 1500 applications and you have to filter through half of these to interview 750 candidates.
How would you make your selection while considering a number of different criteria: previous academic record (GCSE and AS results); personal statement; reference; and extra-curricular activities?
Who would you choose out of the following four applicants for Medicine:-
- A male student, 18, A*/A GCSE grades, predicted AAA, Head Boy at school, has Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award and work experience in a local doctor’s surgery;
- A female student, 19, A* GCSE grades, predicted AAA-AAB, Young Leader with Brownies, volunteered with Operation Raleigh over the summer and has work experience in her local hospital;
- A male student, 19, A* GCSE grades, predicted A*AA, captain of local football team, coaches local youth team, volunteers at a local care facility and worked on a conservation project over the summer;
- A female student, 18, A*/A GCSE grades, predicted A*AA, spent 6 weeks shadowing a doctor in her local A&E, has RADA awards and Duke of Edinburgh Silver Award, and planned a volunteer Habitat for Humanity expedition to the Dominican Republic in her AS year?
Get Involved in Extra-Curricular Activities
Aside from academic qualifications, universities want to see evidence of outside interests. These can be activities related to your chosen subject (for example book clubs for English, business teams and projects for Management) or general extra-curricular pursuits (team sport, music, dance, drama, volunteer work, Duke of Edinburgh Award, etc.)
Please note that using Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, watching X-Factor, shopping, socializing and clubbing do not count as hobbies.
If you do not have any extra-curricular activities, get some(!) and make the most of Ashbourne’s flourishing cultural life, from Drama Club and the Revue to The Ashbourner and the Chess Club.
Your Personal Statement
What is a personal statement?
The personal statement is perhaps the most important part of your UCAS application and the part that you will devote the most time to preparing and writing.
A personal statement is a short written piece of approximately 4000 characters (about 500 words) in which you present yourself to university admissions tutors, demonstrate your interest in your subject, and generally argue your case for why you should be offered a place.
Personal statements are also increasingly becoming a means of enabling university admissions tutors to distinguish which candidates they want to invite for interview (as more universities are now interviewing students for courses across a wide range of subjects).
First and foremost, personal statements need to be just what the name says – PERSONAL. Your statement is your main (and sometimes only!) opportunity for the admissions tutors to get a flavour of who you are, so your statement, while it must obviously use correct grammar and punctuation, should enable your own “voice” to shine through.
For this reason, you should use straightforward language, rather than a vocabulary that is obviously alien to you. Avoid sentences such as: In my youth, it became apparent to me that the pursuit of economic analysis and statistical inquiry was a domain of study that I was desirous to pursue.
Above all, NEVER, under any circumstances, have someone else write your personal statement or use words or sentences in your statement which are not your own; UCAS HAS ANTI-PLAGIARISM SOFTWARE AND THEY WILL CATCH YOU OUT IF YOUR WORK IS NOT 100% YOUR OWN!
Step 1 – Discuss your subject(s) and why you want to study them…
The first section of your personal statement is, in many ways, the most important and should be about WHY you want to study your particular subject(s) and what interests you about it (them); this should form about a half to two thirds of your statement and will require you to really think carefully about why you want to pursue your chosen subject at degree level.
Explaining your interest in your subject needs to go further than I love Biology because I find it fascinating / I am a passionate reader and so I have decided to study English. You need to be as SPECIFIC as possible about which areas/aspects of your subject interest you, in order to demonstrate to the admissions tutors your engagement with your chosen subject.
Write sentences like Ever since I was 3 years old, I have wanted to be a chemical engineer/lawyer/biologist. No one, as a child, knows for sure what they want to study at university and admissions tutors will see right through such statements!
Write My parents decided that Business Studies was the right course for me, so this is what I have chosen to study or I am studying Chemistry at university as I know it will make my parents proud. It may be acceptable to say that the career of one of your parents inspired you in some way towards your chosen course; however, remember that university admissions tutors want to see the reasons why YOU have chosen your course and why YOU are interested in it, not your parents.
Write sentences like By becoming an economist, I will be able to solve all of my country’s economic problems. While this is a noble aim, bear in mind that it generally takes a team of people even to begin to try to address major issues in any country, so feel free to aim high, but be realistic about what can actually be reasonably tackled by any one person!
Write truthfully about where your initial interest in the subject came from: for example, Before I started my A Level studies, I felt that I wanted to pursue a degree in History; however, my A Level Psychology course really intrigued me and gave me a real desire and passion to explore this subject in much greater depth. This was what initially convinced me that studying Psychology at university was the right course for me.
Be specific about which aspects of your subject really interest you. Which texts/topics/paintings/people that you studied have intrigued you? What was it about them that was so interesting? You should also try to show the ways in which you have engaged with your subject OUTSIDE the A Level curriculum (so, for example, if you are applying to read History, which History books and articles have you read outside class time? Which TV programmes have you watched? Which historic sites have you visited?) THIS IS ESSENTIAL AS UNIVERSITIES ARE INTERESTED IN CANDIDATES WHO LOVE THEIR SUBJECT, not just those who enjoy it but then forget all about it as soon as they walk out of the classroom door!
Focus your discussion on precise areas that interest you rather than simply listing facts. It is far better to say One book that really intrigued me recently was James Clark’s The Cold War Re-examined because I felt he really approached certain aspects of the conflict from an interesting perspective… than to say I have read many History books, including Modern World History, American History 1945-1990, The Vietnam War, A History of Modern Britain, etc. but not to examine the ideas in these books in any way. University admissions tutors are far more interested in ANALYSIS than in name-dropping; it is better to list one or two works and provide your response to these texts as this gives the admissions tutors a feel for how you analyse and interpret information.
Indicate if there are any areas or topics that you have studied so far in your subject that you are interested in exploring further at university. EQUALLY, you should also indicate if there are any topics/time periods/texts that you have NOT studied so far (or maybe only briefly looked at) that you would like to have the opportunity to examine at university: for example, During my English course, we studied some short extracts from 20th-century British dramatists such as Pinter; this modern drama really appealed to me and this is an area that I am keen to explore further during my degree). This would show the admissions tutors that you have thought around your subject AND that you are the sort of student who knows what they want to get out of their degree course.
One of the main criteria for university admissions tutors in deciding who will get an offer is whether or not they think that the student in question will benefit from the course.
You can also mention, if you want to, any career aspirations that you might have that are connected to your chosen university course. Remember, though, that the focus of your statement should be on the course itself, what you want to gain from your degree, and how you feel that your own interests and aspirations match the course.
Step 2 – Demonstrate your extra-curricular activities…
The second component of your personal statement should demonstrate your interests outside academic work. These could include:-
- Music (singing, playing a musical instrument, participating in a band, etc.);
- Dance or drama (for example involvement in the Ashbourne Drama Club);
- Volunteer work (e.g. Habitat for Humanity, Rotary Club, etc.)
- Athletic pursuits (team sports, running, cycling, tennis, swimming, golf, etc.);
- Work experience (if you haven’t already mentioned this earlier);
- Ashbourne extra-curricular activities (the Revue, Chess Club, The Ashbourner, Book Club, Choir, etc.);
- Hobbies (reading, studying a language, collecting, writing poetry, cinema, going to the theatre, etc.);
- Duke of Edinburgh Award, etc.
Say what you LEARNED from your extra-curricular experiences: for example Acting as the captain of my local five-a-side football team taught me about the value of organisational skills and really helped me to develop management skills when it comes to working with a team. The key is to stress the SKILLS that you have gained since this is what universities are primarily interested in; skills are transferable into many other areas and disciplines, whereas individual activities are not. Have you learned teamwork/discipline/patience as a result of your chosen hobbies? Be as specific as you can!
Write sentences such as In my free time, I spend a lot of time watching videos on YouTube/updating my profile on Facebook; while these sorts of activities can (and do) interest many young people, they are NOT the kind of hobbies that universities will value.
Write long lists of all of your extra-curricular activities without stating what you have learned/gained from these experiences; for example: During my time as a sixth-form student, I have participated in Drama Club, the College Revue, book clubs, football, tennis, swimming, Rotary Club, Duke of Edinburgh Awards, choir, and Chess Club. The value of these experiences for admissions tutors lies in how these activities have shaped you as an individual, so this is what you should be discussing in your statement; avoid writing “empty” lists!.
Step 3 – Closing comments…
The last part of your statement should be a short paragraph that provides some summarising comments about why you feel you should be offered a place on your chosen course. This can include a sentence (or sentences) in which you briefly restate your commitment to the subject, but it can also include your comments on what you are looking to get out of your chosen degree course, and also why you think you would be a good student. What relevant qualities do you have? Are you independent, enthusiastic, motivated and an independent learner? Mention any qualities you have that you feel make you an ideal candidate for university study!
What if I want to apply for more than one subject? Can I submit more than one personal statement?
Unfortunately, the UCAS form only allows you to submit ONE personal statement, and, as a result, it is very difficult to apply for more than one subject. Your personal statement must, by definition, show a clear and detailed interest in ONE particular subject area.
If you are planning to apply for SIMILAR subjects (e.g. History at some universities and History and Politics at others), then it may be possible to include both in your personal statement; however, it is generally not advisable to apply for university courses that are radically different (e.g. English at some universities and Psychology at others) since it will prove very difficult to incorporate both subjects into your personal statement, and it will also be problematic if you are applying for joint courses at some universities but not at others.
Should I mention my current A Level subjects in my statement?
You should feel free to state WHY you have chosen to do your particular subjects at A Level and the relevance of these subjects to your chosen degree course. However, there is no need for you to state your subjects just for the sake of listing them; your A-Level subjects will already appear in the Educational Qualifications section of your UCAS form, and so you do not need to waste space by simply re-stating them.
Some final points…
Always be honest on your personal statement; you may be asked questions about your statement at an interview, so ensure that every thing you claim to have read or done is actually true!
Watch your word count; you have a maximum of 4000 characters. While your personal tutor can advise you on changes to your statement, they are not editors and so you will need to be ruthless in terms of editing your own statement and deciding what to keep in and what to throw out!
Consider your chosen universities when scripting your personal statement. Some universities list specific guidelines on their websites as to what they are looking for in applicants’ personal statements, and so it is worthwhile to bear these in mind.
WATCH YOUR SPELLING AND GRAMMAR! Above all, your personal statement has to send the right message, so ensure that you proof-read your work carefully in order to check that there are no errors in spelling or grammar!