How to write a great university application

Whether your child is applying to Oxford, Cambridge or any other UK university, writing an impressive personal statement is vital to success. Education Consultant, Sarah Alakija (Charters Education Support), explains the process for parents.

The competition

It is tough to get into the best UK universities. With so many more people applying, competition is enormous, especially for places at Russell Group universities. The UK’s reputation as an educational powerhouse means that your child will be competing against students from all over the world. In the last application cycle, over 561 000 students entered higher education institutions. Of those, around 105 000 were students from outside of the UK.

Everyone is aiming high and the pressure to succeed is enormous. This pressure comes from students themselves, as well as school, teachers, the media and prospective employers. To manage this pressure, it is essential to start thinking about the application process early.

Think about how much research we undertake when we want to purchase a house, a car or even a computer. Even a simple thing like choosing a new phone can mean hours or days of trawling the internet, visiting stores and playing with friends’ phones before you make the final decision. When it comes to choosing what to study for the next three or four years, however, some students spend less time than it would take to prepare Christmas dinner! And often this is at the last minute. University does set us on a particular path in life, and so it warrants some meticulous attention and preparation. At Charters Education Support, we like to start talking to students at the beginning of Year 12.

What is THE personal statement?

The UCAS application can be a source of stress for students and a real mystery for parents. The main reason for this stress is the personal statement. This is a brief document that aims to convince admissions tutors that they should give a place to your child. It has to show, with clear evidence, that the student is interested in the chosen subject and has the academic potential to cope with studying it for three or four years. It can be very challenging to get it right.

So, even before students put pen to paper, they need to research their subject. They need to be sure that it is something that they want to study. We try to get students to appreciate the importance of this stage and of starting it early so that if they change their mind, it’s not too late to do another round of research before writing the personal statement.

How to choose the right subject for university?

I have seen a student move from Art History to Japanese Studies in a matter of days, having helped her to look very thoroughly at the course content on an Art History degree. I realised quickly that she, like many students, had chosen the subject simply because it was the subject that she was doing best at in her A levels. But being good at something does not automatically mean your child should study it intensively for three years.

Asking lots of questions can help to find the right fit. Do start these conversations as early as possible. These exploratory chats probably work best when they’re not too direct and carry no pressure. Sixth-Form is tough for those who don’t have clear ideas about what they want to do at university. I try to keep the pressure off by having conversations around their interests both in and out of school.

The student who went on to read Japanese Studies wouldn’t be doing that now if it was not for a seemingly nonchalant conversation about her favourite film genre. Similarly, talking to an A-Level Politics student about their favourite aspect of the subject can yield thoughts about studying law or international relations, for example.

Adopt a long-term strategy

A vital part of the long-term plan for writing a great personal statement which all students should undertake is to read widely and to research areas in which they have some interest. This is where the magic starts. I love to begin to see a student’s interests develop as we discuss their research. It needs to be outside of the school curriculum, but don’t worry, it need not all books. We are very aware that not all students enjoy reading great tomes of literature. Our resource suggestions include podcasts and online lectures, to name but a few.

As students investigate their subject more and more, they often realise how broad it is and want to undertake further research. For those interested enough to do this, it can be useful to speak to a teacher at school or a private tutor who can steer your child through a supported piece of research on a topic of their choice. That can be a good option for those students whose school does not offer an opportunity to study for the Extended Project Qualification. As well as extending their subject research and, therefore, their interest, it can be an excellent source of discussion at an interview and in the personal statement.

What is the most common mistake?

The personal statement must not be a simple list of achievements, books and work experience placements; anyone can do this. The best ones will map out the journey that the student has undertaken to decide to study the chosen subject. Did they read about it? Go to lectures on it? Visit museums, galleries, buildings related to it? Have they genuinely made attempts to engage with it and understand it?

By providing evidence of that journey, students are halfway to convincing admissions officers that they deserve an offer. As a parent, you can help by suggesting exhibitions, plays, podcasts etc. Once a student has made a genuinely informed decision to study a subject, the entire university application process becomes less challenging as they can show evidence that proves their interest. Help your child to build an excellent bank of evidence from the Autumn term onwards, and you will have supported them enormously.

What is my role as a parent?

When your child starts writing the personal statement, arm yourself with an understanding of what it is, how it should be structured and how long it should be so that you can be supportive and helpful if your child asks you to be an editor or proofreader. If you are not asked, just be sure that someone else is.

When you do read it, do keep in mind that it is an academic application and that sporting and music achievements are less significant to the admissions staff than solid academic research. This means that even though you are terribly proud of all those trophies and rosettes, it may be more important that those precious two lines are taken up analysing something academic, such as the LSE lecture on Donald Trump.

How do I get extra help?

It will come as no surprise to hear that my experience has taught me that the best university applications are made by the most prepared students. Those who leave this to the last minute just do not obtain the offers which they want, because the lack of any evidence of interest shows. I suggest that students start thinking about university long before their end of year exams and in any case, no later than the Easter holidays of the Lower Sixth.

Help your child find the tools to produce something genuinely excellent for their application. We can help, by encouraging self-reflection and consideration of the subject which they have chosen to study via focused, bespoke research; the very best personal statements are from students who have done these things.

About the Author:

Sarah Alikija works as a Careers Adviser at a leading school in London. She also has her own Educational Consultancy (Charters Education) advising international and UK parents on university choices. She and Chloe Abbott (CJA Educational Consultancy) help support parents and children making school and university choices and applications. Sarah has a long-standing career in education.

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