So, once the summer is over and your children are back at school, you can breathe a sigh of relief, right? Well, not if you have one starting Year 13 in September, as they will no doubt be reaching the height of their stress levels with their application to university. UCAS; four letters that mean so much. It represents all that your child has been working towards since you first sent them off to school and you want to see them get to a great university and from there hopefully have a great start to adult life. No pressure, then. In this article, which shouldn’t take more than three minutes out of your day, I will try to show you how best to ensure your teenager is on the right track to start a great application, with my focus being on the personal statement.
Filling in the online UCAS application form is quite simple on the whole but it is the section on the personal statement which causes the nightmares. It is a brief document which 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’s challenging to get it right. Getting started is often the most difficult part, but there is absolutely no point starting without the basics in place. So, make sure the following points have been considered.
Which subject and where?
The first point is clearly vital and needs no explanation; it’s impossible to discuss your interest in a subject if you have yet to decide what that subject is! The second may seem a little controversial to some, as many students applying to read exactly the same subject at all five universities will feel that they can get on with the statement before finalising the university choices. To some extent, this is true, but the idea of discussing one’s interest in a particular subject could be tough for those who choose to apply for courses which are not actually all alike. Let me explain.
Imagine your child wants to study Biochemical Engineering but there are only three courses at universities which s/he likes and which give offers at the appropriate level. This would then mean looking at other, similar courses for the fourth and fifth choices. Remember that students can apply for five courses, and in almost all cases, they really should do so; there are few reasons to waste the opportunity. Additionally, only one statement can be submitted and it needs to keep all the admissions tutors happy and convinced that theirs is the best subject ever. It is for this reason that the subjects being applied for need to be similar, otherwise the statement might look odd to some universities. (Imagine, if you will, that a student begins to quote political philosophy in a statement which has thus far explained a passion for Sports Psychology.)
In our Biochemical Engineering example, that student might also look at courses in Biomaterials, Tissue engineering or Biomedicine, for example. Where this is the case, we just have to be sure that the topics we discuss in the personal statement are valid for all the courses being applied for. For most students, this issue doesn’t arise as they can find five courses in the same subject, but it is worth finalising details in the case of a less common subject which may not be so widely available.
Do plenty of research into the subject
It is difficult for a student to show how fascinated they are by a subject if they have not undertaken sufficient research to allow them to discuss it. The personal statement should not be a mere list of achievements, books read and work experience placements undertaken; the best ones will map out the journey which the student has undertaken in order to arrive at the decision to study the chosen subject. Did they read about it and subsequently find something fascinating to research further? Go to lectures on it which took them to visit museums, galleries, buildings related to it? Have they genuinely made attempts to engage with it and understand it? With evidence of that journey, students are halfway to convincing admissions officers that they deserve an offer. Once a student has made a genuinely informed decision to study a subject, the entire application process becomes less challenging because there is a real engagement with the subject and a desire to study it.
These are a few of my suggestions for students researching their subject:
In addition, schools and tutors will be able to advise on specific books which students can read and a number of universities publish the first-year reading list or a list of texts which are useful to read in advance of starting the degree.
The best applications are made by those students who have thought ahead and spent a considerable length of time planning their applications. By planning, I do not only mean the structuring and drafting of the personal statement but the reading and research which can help a student to gain a better understanding of the subject which they want to read at university.
Many students are quick to make their choice of both subject and institution, whilst others have no clear idea at all of what they would like to study. 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, even 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.
Once the fundamentals above have been covered, students can then begin the first draft of the personal statement, confident that they can chart their journey with clarity. In the next article, I will explain my paragraph by paragraph breakdown of what is required from a good personal statement.