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How to Write the Best University Application

Whether your child is applying to Oxford, Cambridge or another university, writing an impressive personal statement is vital to success. Education Consultant and Simply Learning Tuition tutor, Sarah Charters explains the process for parents.

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It is tough to get into the best universities. With so many more people applying, competition is enormous, especially for the places at Russell Group universities. The UK’s reputation as an educational powerhouse means that your son or daughter will be competing against students from all over the world. In the last application cycle, a little under 1.3 million students were placed in higher education institutions and of those, around 400 thousand were students from outside of the UK.

Everyone is aiming high and the pressure to succeed is enormous. This pressure comes from school, teachers, the media and prospective employers. To reduce pressure and enhance the chances of success, it is important to start the application process early, even as soon as Year 10 or 11.

Think about how much research we undertake when we want to purchase a house, a car or 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 really does set us on a certain path in life and so it warrants some very careful attention and preparation.

What is the personal statement?

The UCAS application can be a source of great stress for students and a real mystery for parents. The main reason for this stress is the personal statement, a brief document that aims to convince admissions tutors that they should give a place to your child. It has to show 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 in order to be certain that it really is something that they want to study. I really 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

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 what would be taught on an Art History degree. We 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 really 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 (Year 12 and 13) is tough for those who don’t have clear ideas about what they want to do at university, so I try to keep the pressure off by having conversations around their interests both in and out of school.

The student who is now reading Japanese Studies wouldn’t be doing that if it were 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 strategy for writing an excellent personal statement which all students should undertake is to read widely and to research areas in which they have some interest. Once your teenager is settled into Year 12, try to get them reading books which are on university preparatory reading lists if they know their degree subject, and if they aren’t certain, they should read texts from outside the specification of their A levels. Ask their subject teachers for recommendations, or share with them your own favourites.

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 are the most common mistakes?

The personal statement must not be a simple list of achievements, books and work experience placements; the best ones will map out the journey that the student has undertaken in order to arrive at the decision 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 a wonderful bank of evidence from the Autumn term onwards and you will have supported them enormously.

What is my role as a parent?

When it is time for 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 you are asked to be an editor or proof reader. 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 important 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?

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 truly excellent for their application, by encouraging self-reflection and careful consideration of the subject which they have chosen to study; the very best personal statements are from students who have done these things.

If you would like to guide your son or daughter in best preparing a clear strategy for researching and writing their personal statement, please speak with one of our University Admissions Consultants to book a bespoke 1-1 session for advice on applying to universities, including UK, European and US institutions.