You’ve done all this thinking, all this introspection. You’ve figured out what you’d like to do at university and what university(ies) you’d like to go to (I say plural because life doesn’t always work out the way you want and you’ll have to learn to deal with it – harsh, I know). But what’s next?
In all honesty, the first step is the hardest part. If you’ve thought carefully about what degree subject and course you’d like to study, and where you’d like to study them at, then the process of applying is straightforward (if you are unclear as to what the difference between degree subject and degree course is, please see my first article).
In the UCAS system, there are not a lot of means of assessing your application. The universal approach is the personal statement and the secondary means are interviews. I will address them in turn.
I’m certain the first thing you worry about is the personal statement. The questions you’d probably be yearning for answers to include, “Do I need to write about readings I’ve done? Do I need to do an internship and write about it? How about extra-curriculars?”
The short answer is no, no, and no.
So what do you write about?
As the name suggests, it’s a short piece of writing detailing the most interesting bits of you. I’m sure the biggest struggle you’ll eventually find with writing the personal statement is that you’ve got too much to say (and that’s perfectly normal!). Everyone has their own approach to writing a personal statement and their own preference of what to include. Most importantly, it must fit what degree you are applying to study, what course and which universities.
Depending on which degree subject you’d like to study, different things stand out to the admissions tutors. Take the quintessential example of medicine. With applying for medicine, it is almost crucial to have done some work experience or volunteered with a charity. People get really worked up as to whether the experience is directly related to medicine. They always attempt to use their connections to get work shadowing with a doctor or volunteer for the Red Cross. In reality, you can turn (almost) any experience into something relatable to medicine or whatever degree subject you’re applying to study. Moreover, it is arguably better to undertake work experience in something less common; it allows you to get more hands-on experience so you can articulate your experience more insightfully and the enjoyment of the experience will clearly be seen on the page (plus everyone will have mentioned the Red Cross so what’s new). The personal statement is about you and you are
interesting, so show them that you are!
For other non-vocational subjects like history, English Literature, chemistry and the like, there is no set requirement to have done work experience. Nevertheless, some choose to do it. I did. But it made no difference whatsoever, was never asked about it ever, and I only did it “to put it on a page” (another one of my very bad ideas). Other than work experience, there are most valuable things to do and put on your personal statement. Readings. No matter what subject you choose to study at university, admissions tutors always appreciate readings. Be different. Don’t just read mainstream things. Everyone will have heard “how applicable freakonomics is to real life”. Read widely and don’t just write down all the books you’ve read. You’ll find that you read a number of things but some of them you find a bore halfway through. It’s alright to stop and move on to something else. There’s no requirement for you to like every history or chemistry book you’ve read or to read a certain number of them. And you’ll want to only mention the ones you’ve actually enjoyed anyway. Some people have asked if they should read texts written by professors at the university. The best advice is yes, IF you actually like the topic the book is based on and you don’t have to interview for the course at that university. And no, if you aren’t interested in the topic or you have to interview. You are more likely to be sitting in front of that professor whose book you’ve (sort of) read and (sort of) understand at an interview if you’ve mentioned that you’ve read it.
“But everyone else will have done readings and mentioned them, what can I do to really stand out?”
Indeed, everyone else will have done readings and mentioned them in their personal statement. For a start, half these people will either have sub-par grades or only read them so they could say they read them. You don’t classify under these two categories so you’re already one step ahead. Nevertheless, there are many other things you could do. You could take the initiative to organise a panel discussion or a conference. You could take a trip to a museum and talk about what you learnt there. You could help out at a soup kitchen. Now, you’re probably wondering how helping out at a soup kitchen has anything to do with German literature or computer science but if you’re interested in those subjects and chose to volunteer at a soup kitchen, you’ll probably have a good reason why (if you chose to do it not just for the sake of doing it, of course). Mention your sport, drama, art, music endeavours too. It shows you actually have a life outside academia and most importantly, shows the university what you can achieve when you work hard on something you enjoy. Fundamentally, the message is to do things you enjoy and let that passion shine on the page.
I’d just like to mention something brief about actually writing the personal statement. It is your story written in a formal eloquent manner so your style of writing does matter. It indicates to admissions tutors whether you are capable of sustaining a reader’s interest in a strong academic sense, how passionate you are about the course, how you think, how mature you are, and whether you can spell. Avoid making small spelling and grammatical errors by writing on a word document first then copy and paste it onto the box in the UCAS application. Also helps for someone else to read it to check for these minor errors. Whilst it can be beneficial to let others read your personal statement and get their opinions, don’t place too much weight on it. For starters, most of your friends and family will tell you it is amazing, and even teachers are at most going to be constructively critical. In the end, there are different admissions tutors from different universities reading your personal statement, and each one of them has their own inner bias as to what they like about a personal statement. If you really really really want to study a particular course at a particular university (other than Cambridge), it may be wise to tailor the personal statement a little more to suit that university course. So you could mention specific modules in that course that you are looking forward to (but don’t mention the name of the university) or speak to/email admissions tutors in that university department to see what they like to see in a personal statement. I placed a caveat on Cambridge because they tend to place much less weight on the personal statement than other universities.
I don’t think much needs to be said about interviews if I’m honest. They are nerve-wrecking for people of all ages and experience. It is useful to do some interview preparation. This involves finding out what sort of questions tend to come up (whether it is more qualitative or quantitative, for example), knowing your personal statement (and by extension, yourself) through and through, and maybe a little about your interviewers. Whether you should mention a topic in your interviewers’ field is debatable. However much like mentioning a book written by a professor at a particular university, the fail-safe rule is don’t because they are more likely to know more about the topic than you could in the time you had to prep. My best piece of advice is to be yourself, give natural responses rather than overly rehearsed ones, use your brain to think through problems rather than try to recall things from memory, and articulate your thoughts as you think. I wasn’t very good at any of these when I interviewed for university so it really taught me a lesson the (very) hard way. The final part is not very natural to most people; it comes with practice. But it is a skill you will find useful in interviews later in life (internships, jobs, etc) so it’s worth learning how to do it now anyway.