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UCAS applications: tips and advice

19 July, 2019

In the third instalment of a three-part interview, two of our A-level students, Joseph Nash Price-Evans and William Tampion-Lacey, interview Alan Beer, the Kings Brighton UCAS Coordinator, to get his tips and advice on how to submit the best possible university application.

Joe: Is there something universities are generally looking for in applicants?

Alan: Absolutely. It really is about the passion that the student demonstrates in the subject. For most courses there isn't an interview, so what they are looking for is passion in the subject — and where are they going to find that? The only real place they can find that is in the student's personal statement, and obviously the Kings' reference.

So, when writing the reference, we are careful that we are also highlighting the student's commitment to that subject. We will comment on how genuine we believe the student's commitment to that subject is and give some examples, so it is a two-pronged way of going about that.

Anyone can say they love Business Studies but that is going to be insufficient, you need to give evidence. There are the obvious things, like where you have done some extra reading which is not only an A-level text book. Universities want you to have been thinking about it and exploring alternative theories, not just the established ones you have in the text book.

It is a difficult process — the personal statement is only 4,000 characters, and you have got to write about some other things as well. Somehow you have got to get across to the university that you really love the subject, and why.

The second most important thing is that you are going to be the kind of student that is going to contribute to the culture and ethos of that university — what they are looking for is that you’re going to be a student who will really get involved in that department and the kind of student who will have a positive effect.

The average size of a university is 8,000 – 10,000 people and if everyone is happy and getting involved, it will create a nice atmosphere. In the end, the universities will want you to get a good degree and be happy.

Joe: What can students do outside of the classroom to both inform their decision-making and help their applications?

Alan: I think the thing is subject understanding, the more reading they do the better. For example, the New Scientist and those kinds of popular science magazines, are going to have articles on the latest thinking in particular areas of science.

The university is going to expect you to have an A-level or Foundation Level basic understanding of theories — but when you get to university, the people that are going to teach you, in the main, are going to be the people who are writing those articles and they are at the cutting edge of science.

Clearly, if you are demonstrating that you have read certain articles, they are going to be thinking, 'I like that article too', or maybe even, 'I wrote that article, I'm glad they read it and enjoyed it'.

Students Joe and William interviewing Alan Beer.

Joe: Are there any extracurricular things you can do in Kings to support your personal statement?

Alan: There certainly is. Obviously our Enrichment Coordinator John Murphy is our main conduit for helping students gain work experience. Brighton is a good place for that, as Brighton is a city with a lot of young people because of the two universities and there is a lot happening.

For our students studying Medicine, we have helped them to try and secure work experience because that is crucial for Medicine. One of our students, Yuya, recently completed work experience in the Sussex University Hospital in the neonatal department. John helped him with his application.

John Murphy: Yes, Yuya was in the neonatal department and he was actually shadowing different doctors for three full days, which he found really interesting.

It is important for students not to mix up work experience with volunteering. Work experience is valuable as you get a glimpse of what it is to work in the job you want to do in the future. Volunteering on the other hand is helping people out, giving up your time to gain a different set of skills.

We have numerous students volunteering in charity shops nearby and they give up whatever time they can which may be just an hour a week. There are lots of events in Brighton regularly where students can volunteer, like beach cleans, park runs, festivals, etc.

Joe: That is great that Kings can help the students in that way.

John: I would always encourage the students to make the first step themselves, and if they are too shy, I will do it for them. But for any of the local charity shops, you don't need a CV — you can just stop in and ask them if they are looking for someone to help out, and they are always happy to receive help from people.

Those things are easy to do, and by taking a step out of your comfort zone and doing it, you show that you are confident and committed.

Alan: That is a great point. In terms of work experience, there is a section on your UCAS application where you can put down employment, and I tell students that if they have worked at McDonald's or a restaurant to make sure to put that in their UCAS application.

We had a student this year who put that in their application, as they worked in restaurant here in Brighton part-time. On its own that doesn't mean very much, but you can learn from that experience — even in the most basic jobs you are under quite a bit of pressure and if you manage to volunteer or have a part-time job then it shows that at the very least you can show the commitment, turn up on time, do the work, manage workloads and get on with people as well. 

John: Teamwork is essential.

Alan: You won't last two minutes at a fast food restaurant if you can't get on with others, because you are in constant communication with others.

I think it is important to stress — universities understand that students applying for their courses are only 17 or 18 and they are not expecting their students to say, 'I used to work in NASA for 2 years'! If you have had these part-time jobs that is great, they are not expecting the average student to have an extensive employment history.

Joe: Yes, it just shows that you are willing to go the extra mile.

Alan: Absolutely, and they are looking for students who will get involved at the university in extracurricular activities.

William: Are there any common misconceptions about UCAS and applications?

Alan: Yes there are some misconceptions, but the UCAS website is fantastic. It has got masses of really good clear information on it, lots of videos of students who have been through the process, university admission officers saying what their university is looking for in a personal statement, and lots of questions and answers. If a student looks at the website, possibly 90% of their misconceptions will be solved at that point.

William: Has there been an increase in unconditional offers and how does that effect students?

Alan:  There has certainly been an increase in universities giving conditional offers that are lowered. It depends on the course and depends on the university but I am seeing more and more universities now saying, 'If you put us down as your firm choice, the terms of the offer will be slightly lower'. You know, if they want you and you are going to be the right student, then it’s an incentive to choose that university.

William: Do you see the EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) playing a role in university offers?

Alan: Yes obviously all learning is good. You find that the more competitive universities are not so interested in these additional qualifications but, for a lot of other courses that are less competitive, then it is well worth doing EPQs.

Read more about the EPQ in Kings Life

Joe: Do you have any tips for us before we start our UCAS applications?

Alan: I haven't really got a tip for you two because you are very good, you take advice very well and you listen. I think you are doing everything you need to be doing at the moment, which is keeping an open mind on what courses to choose and different university options.

You have the summer break coming up, so maybe try to get some work experience. And you have a great opportunity to visit some universities, even if it is not an open day. That is probably my top tip, keep an eye out and have a look at the universities you might be interested in, as in the summer there might be open days.

Read the previous part of the interview, UCAS applications: the importance of university visits