Applying to university is definitely one of the most challenging yet exciting events in the life of a high school student. This is because the process doesn’t simply consist of putting together a few documents that are going to take you to university, but rather of presenting yourself the best way you possibly can through these documents — also known as showing off to universities. Still, it can be quite exciting to plan what you’ll do, where you’ll be and imagine how your university days are going to be like.
Personally, I felt like applying to university was one of the first times I was actually in charge of my future, and making decisions that would have a direct impact on my career. And while having this freedom did feel good, it was undeniably stressful at times.
So to try to make things easier for you all, I am here to share everything I learned about UK applications these past few months – from a student perspective. Although these 9 steps will not necessarily take you to the university of your dreams (your academic performance is still the most important factor to get there) they will surely make your application considerably stronger!
- Research, research and more research
I can’t stress enough how important it is to make sure that you apply to courses and universities that you truly like. You should start doing research around one year before actually having to apply.
You can use the UCAS search tool to find universities that offer the course you wish to apply to and to read detailed descriptions about the programs — UCAS is the online application system which you must use to apply for UK universities, and you are allowed up to five choices. It is also important to visit the website of every university you are looking into and to read all the information there. University rankings such as the QS and the Times Higher Education rankings might help you evaluate the reputation of the course/university you are considering applying to, but keep in mind that these rankings are subjective and don’t tell you the full story when it comes to the quality of the programs.
Also, don’t forget to check whether you are entitled to pay home or international fees (UK/EU students, and students from some other countries in the EEA, are allowed to pay “home fees” which are generally half the price of the tuition international students have to pay).
- Ask yourself questions
This is somewhat linked to the previous step: after you have found some universities you could possibly apply to, make sure that they match your expectations and that they are realistic choices in relation to your academic performance.
Some questions you might want to ask yourself during this stage are:
- How important do you consider the university’s reputation to be?
- Do your grades match the requirements that your university/course choices ask for? You can find that out in the “entry requirements” section of the university’s website.
- Do you like the modules/courses offered? You can find that out in the “course structure” section of the university’s website.
- Would you prefer to attend a campus university (one in which all the buildings are in the same place) or a city university (one that has buildings spread across the city)?
- Do you like the city/town where the university is located?
- What are the costs of living in these cities/towns that you’re considering?
- Be prepared!
This doesn’t apply to every course or university, but if you are applying for medicine, veterinary science, dentistry or to Oxford/Cambridge you should be prepared in case you get invited for an interview. From what I have heard from some friends who had to go through the interview process is that it is vital that you are able to answer the questions in details and show that you actually have a passion for the subject. In order for that to happen, start reading books and/or academic journals about the subject you want to study at university well in advance. It’s also a good idea to listen to podcasts, watch videos and interviews with experts on the area (like on YouTube) and read up on the current news/events in regards to that subject.
- Get experience in the field you want to study
It is highly recommended that you have some experience in the area you want to study, as this will give you more to talk about on your personal statement and show the admissions staff how enthusiastic about the course you are. Lab work and research papers do count for that, but aim for at least two weeks of practical experience, such as internships, summer courses or volunteering. Keep in mind that this must to be related to the course you want to study.
- Visit universities
Once you have a list of a few universities you would like to apply to, it is essential that you visit at least some of them so that you can make sure that you would like to study there (don’t forget that you’ll spend at least three years there). Ideally, you should attend an Open Day before applying because this is the perfect opportunity to get to know the campus and to talk to students and members of the faculty. But you can also sign up for a campus tour, go for an independent visit or attend an applicant day once you receive an offer.
- Write an interesting personal statement
Universities receive thousands of applications each year, so it’s important to write an original personal statement in order to stand out. Avoid clichés such as “ever since I was a child” or “I have always loved.”
Another tip is to make sure that you don’t have any “empty sentences.” Rather than listing what you’ve done, go into details about a project, work experience or any other activity you have done, by stating what your responsibilities were and what you learned from them. Statements such as “I am an extremely hard-working person” don’t work very well either — give concrete evidence about your work ethnic and let that do the talking instead for your personality traits rather than complimenting yourself.
Some other more obvious tips are: be aware of your grammar, avoid lies and plagiarism at all costs, and only talk about things that are related to the course you want to study.
- Get some feedback
While you are in the process of writing your personal statement, make sure to ask your university guidance counselor and/or some of your teachers to read your personal statement so that they can give you suggestions and spot any mistakes you might have made.
It is important that you don’t wait until you have a completed draft to show it to someone, but rather get feedback at every stage of your draft so you know you’re on the right path. This will eliminate the possibility of having to re-write the entire personal statement after you completed it.
Also, make sure to show it to more than one person so that you can get different opinions and to make sure that there really is no mistake or typo left. But don’t get feedback from too many people, as this will end up making you feel very confused on how to improve your personal statement. Just get feedback from 2-4 people max.
- Get someone to write you a reference
Every applicant needs a reference letter, which is typically written by a tutor, guidance counselor, teacher or headmaster. Your referee has to be someone who knows you well. At EF Academy Oxford, every student is allocated a teacher or a university guidance counselor to be your referee and it is really important that you meet with them regularly and tell them about any interests or activities that you think could be included in your reference. They will also talk to your teachers and ask them about your academic strengths so that they can include that in their reference letter.
Although your referees will probably do their best to write an outstanding reference, don’t forget to ask to read it before it gets sent because they will probably have many references to write and can also make mistakes.
After you know the universities you want to apply to, you have your predicted grades, a good personal statement and a reference letter – you are ready to send your application!
Don’t forget to get your university guidance counselor to have a look at your UCAS form before you send it so that they can spot any mistakes you might have made without realizing. Bear in mind that the application deadline is the 15th of October for medicine, veterinary medicine, dentistry and Oxbridge applicants, and the 15th of January for everyone else.
Good luck, everyone!