University Ellyn Lewis

Top tips from university counsellors

November 9, 2017

Sarah Norris

Fail to plan, plan to fail.  Benjamin Franklin’s advice is not new but it is crucially important. Students rightly focus on attaining the right grades but these days that is not enough.

Students need to carve out the time to prepare their application. Leaving it to the last minute will likely diminish their chances of a successful outcome. Remember that universities are dynamic. New courses appear every year and entrance requirements can be reviewed. Recent educational reforms have also impacted admissions with an increasing number of universities are opting for entrance tests, interviewing candidates and/or including additional writing assessments. None of these benefit from last minute cramming.

Get it “Write”

The Personal Statement is a student’s most compelling chance of getting an offer at most UK universities once entry requirements have been met. Too often students misunderstand what is being asked of them. The statement has a two fold purpose – it allows students the opportunity to craft their case for joining a particular course while also demonstrating academic prowess. We recommend an average of 8 drafts.

Are you a hungry mind?

Intellectual curiosity, often referred to as “the hungry mind”, is very much valued by UK universities. Academics like to teach students who are genuinely engaged in a subject and have a strong desire to learn. Think carefully about how you might demonstrate your own intellectual curiosity outside of the classroom. Can you back your desire to study a subject with concrete evidence? 

Which course?

Spend the time to think and research what you want to study. One of the most wonderful opportunities available to students studying in the UK is the wealth of courses on offer and yet too often, students choose the most popular courses crowding themselves out of potential university offers. Think carefully about courses that will be intellectually satisfying which also speak to your strengths and interests. Stay abreast of new courses that are being designed and launched to develop skills required by an increasingly complex labour market and ever-changing, fast paced world. Design Engineering at Imperial College and Management Science at UCL are two recent favourite picks!

You are the customer:

I always encourage students to visit campuses and get a better feel for where they plan to study. Tuition fees in the UK have increased and universities are under pressure to deliver beyond academic excellence. Don’t forget you are the customer and that there are options. Make sure campuses and facilities are in line with your expectations. London universities, such as UCL, Kings and Imperial for example, are all currently pushing forward with the construction of new campuses and facilities to meet increasing demand and student expectations.

Talk to your School University/College/Guidance Counselor!

This is the person who will write your letter of recommendation and submit your documents. It is vital that you have a good working relationship with this person and that they understand your passions, your interests, your strengths and your limitations.

Visit, visit, visit!

Don’t forget you are picking a place where you will spend three or four years of your life. Visiting the campus will give you an idea of the campus culture, surroundings and, very often, a feeling of whether it is a good fit for you. Plan ahead and go during a vacation – there’s no need to need to wait for an Open Day!  When you arrive, ask if an International Admissions Officer is present.  They may just come out and speak to you!

Look beyond brand names!

Ben Colliard When choosing universities it is important to look beyond the “name”.  Look at all the factors that may matter to you such as size, location, range of possible majors, as well as extra-curricular clubs and activities, the background of other students, the expertise of the faculty etc. Look for universities that have a reputation for excellence in the majors you are considering. Just because you know the name of a specific institution does not mean that it excels in what you want to study. Remember, you are initially studying for an undergraduate degree. Many of the “big” names are known for their graduate teaching and programs, not undergraduate.

Research the course carefully!

Read through the contents of courses carefully. You may like the sound of history at such and such university, but on closer inspection you may find the module choices are limited, that they don’t offer topics which really interest you, or that you will be obliged to study subject areas that you already know you don’t like. Liking your subject is a big advantage when you need to motivate yourself to study!

Be realistic!

Where do you stand in relation to others in your class cohort?  Do you have test scores already? Do your test scores put you into the correct range for the colleges are thinking about? Remember that universities don’t often make mistakes in their admission decisions, and as interesting as students from an international school environment might be, there are over 7,000 international schools around the world educating over 3.5 million students. That means there are many other students with similar profiles applying to the same universities.

Meet as many admissions representatives as you can!

Meet the visiting admissions representatives.  Even if you have already visited the campus and met the representative from your region, always go to the visits taking place locally. There is no such thing as expressing too much interest and many universities will keep track of the interest a student expresses beyond just submitting an application. This might be the difference between being offered a place or not!

Go to admissions fairs!

If there is an admissions fair in your area, make sure you attend. Admissions Officers attend these events and are eager to meet international students.  The largest one in Switzerland is the CIS fair, hosted by the International School of Geneva La Châtaigneraie campus on Tuesday October 3rd 2017 from 18:00 – 20:30.

Be yourself – and be special!

Krista Despotovic-Jacobson Be genuine in your application and essays.  University admissions counselors can easily determine if a student is just saying what they think the university wants to hear or, in worst case scenarios, submitting an essay written by someone else! They really do want to know who you are. This does require a lot of self-reflection which is difficult for many international students, but is a good exercise to identify your personal strengths and qualities.
Reflect on what sets you apart from your peers. What qualities do you have that make you stand out from the crowd?  Write about it, make your essays reflect who you are and make them come alive with descriptive narrative so the reader can visualize the story. The average admissions counselor is reading hundreds of essays a week, make them want to read yours and find out the rest of the story! 

Don’t leave things until the last minute!

Sally Walker Plan your application process. Know your deadlines for applications, standardized testing registration and leave yourself plenty of time for application completion and essay writing. Reflect, edit and revise until you feel you have done your best work. If you are applying for the US, do take a test prep course!  Even the best student needs to prepare for the ACT or SAT.  Don’t delay this!  Ideally it should be taken early in the year before Graduation.

Don’t stop working as soon as you’ve been accepted!

US universities usually expect final grades to be sent even after you have committed yourself to a university. The expectation remains that you will end the year with grades similar to those you had at the time of the application.  The universities can withdraw their offer of a place if your final grades show a large dip. Even if you are not applying to the US, keeping up a good work ethic will stand you in good stead for University, where you will need even more discipline than when you have parents and teachers to keep you on track!

Help your teachers write good references!

Ellyn Lewis Choose teachers for your recommendation based on your relationship with them. Who really knows you well, in which classes are you an active participant, in which classes do you really shine?  In most cases, recommenders do not need to be tied into a student’s intended major.
Make sure to remind your teachers in a written note about the excellent work you have prepared in that class.

Have a Plan-B!

Do look at the statistics for the admitted population at a university.  If you do not have the grades and test scores that put you within range for admission, make sure you have other institutions on your list to which you are almost certain of being admitted.


Sarah Norris is the founder of Step Into My Shoes, a UK higher educational consultancy. She is an expert in UK Higher Education with a special interest in the Personal Statement. Improving student performance through motivation, lateral thinking and skill based training is key. She works with students across multiple secondary schools in the U.K. and abroad as a consultant and expert in British higher education. Her signature workshop is a Personal Statement retreat for small groups of students applying to the UK which she delivers several times a year. She is engaged by like-minded multinational corporations such as Allen & Overy to teach students about UK University Admissions. Sarah also runs an annual advanced enrichment scheme in collaboration with London Business School, Europe’s highest ranked Business School, to talented students in Year 12 across four London based day schools.
Sarah holds a BSc Econ from the London School of Economics & MBA from the London Business School & Stern School of Business.
For more information, please visit www.stepintomyshoes.co.uk
The International School of Geneva, also known as Ecolint, is a private international school based in Geneva, Switzerland.  It is the oldest and largest operating international school in the world.  www.Ecolint.ch

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