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November 16, 2018

The University Application Journey

Andrea Joyce our guest blogger continues her superb Education series with expert insights into the University application process. We hope you find it useful.

The University Application Journey – invaluable expert advice from Cambridge University Medical School interviewing panel and Marshall University in West Virginia on international admissions and students experiences. 

It is my opinion, having helped students apply to study at UK universities for over 10 years, that the process has never been better supported. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has been around since 1992 and is the portal through which all applications to UK universities are made. UCAS offers search tools and free advice and information for students considering higher education. The UCAS website easy to navigate and packed full of useful advice, downloadable mind maps and personal statement worksheets. It is the best source of advice for parents to enable them to offer additional advice and support to their child.

In addition UCAS has its own YouTube channel numerous helpful videos. Look out for ‘How to Apply 2019’ and ‘Filling in your qualifications’ as a good starting point for information.

How does the process work?:

Despite the abundance of information available even the brightest and most organised of students require support to navigate their way through the process. The school or college your child is attending will be offering advice and guidance but it can also be helpful for parents to do some research in order to better understand the university application journey.

Registering with UCAS via their website and entering their personal details is the first step for a student. If the student is applying through a school then they will be asked for a ‘buzzword’ which their school or college should have provided. The buzzword is required for UCAS to link the students application to their school so that their tutor, or UCAS advisor, can access their application and add in their predicted grades and reference.

Keep your options open:

The next step for a student is to add in the five university courses they are applying for. I would strongly advise students to have a range of options depending on their predicted grades. For example, if a student is studying A level Maths, Physics and Computing and they are predicted A* A A, then I would encourage them to have two choices with entry requirements the same, or similar to their predicted grades, as well as two choices with a combination of lower grades such as all B’s or two B’s and a C, then I would consider adding a final choice that has quite low entry requirements.

This strategy ensures that whatever happens for the rest of the academic year the student has a high chance of getting a place at a university to study their chosen subject. The selection of university courses should always be informed by research into the particular universities and attendance at their open days. Three years is the minimum length of time for an undergraduate degree so it is important to have visited the place before committing to study there.

See our other blog on getting the most out of open days

The personal statement:

The main aspect of the university application journey that all students struggle with, to varying degrees is writing their personal statement. Annabelle Grove, who is studying Business Management with Marketing at Goldsmiths University in London offers the following advice:

“Writing your personal statement seems like such a scary thing before you start but one of the key things that I did to help me write my personal statement was to get the input of someone else, it’s so tricky to write about yourself at the best of times let alone when it’s an important document that could determine if you go to university or not. I found that the best people to help were friends who were already at university and teachers who knew me well. If you don’t have any of these a good substitute is anyone who knows you inside out.”

It is completely normal for students to have numerous versions and drafts of their personal statement. It is important for students to remember that it is their opportunity to talk directly to a university.  Their statement should not only sound like them but also reflect their personality, achievements and ambitions.

Timescales for all of this activity is something that a lot of students and parents are curious about. Students wishing to study medicine, veterinary science and dentistry, along with those applying to Oxford or Cambridge University, need be aware that their applications must be submitted by 15th October. For all other courses and universities it is usually 15 January of the year that the student wishes to start at University. Some Art and Design courses have a later deadline, and some music, theatre and dance conservatoires have their own deadlines so refer to the institutions own website for information. The final submission deadline is a key piece of information but the reality is that the process of thinking about what to study at University usually starts about a year ahead of the final submission deadline. Spring and Summer are open day seasons for most universities with follow up events generally occurring in Autumn. Most good schools and colleges begin talking to students about UCAS and personal statements towards the end of year 12.

Advice on Oxbridge applications:

If a student is considering Oxbridge, then they should aim to have decided on their choices, visited the universities and have at least a well worked draft of their personal statement ready for their return to school or college in September of the relevant academic year.

Interview preparation:

The next phase for many students will be invitations to interview. This is common practise for Oxbridge, as well as for medical schools. First year medical student Grace Fernando remembers her preparation for medical school interviews and shares her insight here:

“Increasing your general knowledge about your chosen subject is key. Stay up to date, read articles, listen to podcasts and then practice talking about your interests with family, friends and teachers. Have conversations, discussions and get comfortable with transforming your thoughts into words, arguments, observations! That is all interview preparation is really about. Being able to express yourself, your knowledge, your own views”.

This is good advice for all university interviews whether they be science or arts based. The student’s ability to articulate an argument and justify a train of thought is something the interview panel will be very interested in.

Tips for medical school interviews:

Dr. Dominic Summers, National Institute for Health Clinical Lecturer shares his advice from his experience of being part of the interview panel for Cambridge University medical school.

“In Cambridge you are likely to be interviewed by someone who is likely to teach you, in a small group, in the future. They are likely to be an academic doctor and so do research as well as being a doctor. When I have done it I am looking for a few things.

  1. Do they have a realistic expectation of a career in medicine? Do they know how long it takes to become a consultant? Have they done some appropriate work experience – preferably doing something unglamorous like working as a healthcare assistant or in a nursing home, meeting really patients and seeing what sort of problems they have (rather than just shadowing)
  2. Are they going to be interesting to teach? Will they care about the subject, and ask intelligent questions and be enthusiastic about it.
  3. Are they prepared to work very hard (medical training is often very dull and you need a degree of robustness to get through many parts of it).
  4. Do I think they will be good with patients and good colleagues? You can learn communication skills but having them naturally is a major asset.”

International University admissions process:

The majority of my own experience is in supporting students to apply to UK universities, however in the last five years I have also helped students apply to study in Hong-Kong, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Mauritius and the USA.

The American system, similar to other countries outside of the UK, requires students to apply directly to the institution. Robyn Stafford, International Admissions Manager at Marshall University in West Virginia has this to say about applying to study in America from outside of the USA.

“First, every institution is different. US institutions are charged with setting their own admission standards and requirements. Students should look into each institution they are interested in attending and seek out via their international admissions website (provided the university has one) as to which credentials are required. Contacting the staff is also beneficial as we can outline what is needed and how it is to be provided. This allows the applicant to know if they truly are interested in the school, if the school is a good fit for them or if they meet the admission standards.”

Things to remember:

There is a huge amount of information available to help guide students through the university application journey but that doesn’t mean a student shouldn’t feel they can’t ask questions or seek extra help. This can be a daunting experience that some students don’t feel ready for or that they feel is committing them to choices they may regret. One of the key things to remember is that nothing is irreversible and even when they get to university there are opportunities to alter the focus of study. There are many people who can offer support for students and their parents through this process which is an exciting gateway to the next phase of learning and independence.