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Successful university applications: more than just good grades

18 Jul, 2021
Successful university applications: more than just good grades

Securing a university place is a landmark moment in any student's life and one which therefore requires plenty of thought and preparation.

University provides an opportunity to explore a specific field in greater depth, often providing the platform from which students launch their professional careers and marks a new stage of personal development and independence.

Given the importance of this decision it is essential to gain the right advice and guidance, not only about the most appropriate degree and university for you, but also about the application, offer and acceptance process.

The extreme competition for places at the top universities means that you need to do everything in your power to set yourself apart. Proven academic ability is one obvious criteria. Published minimum entry requirements (expressed in terms of grades for A-level or equivalent level qualifications) are just that: the minimum criteria. Getting these grades does not mean an automatic degree offer from that university.

For example, Imperial College London publish a minimum entry requirement for their BSc in Chemistry as AAA at A-level, however, based on 2017 data, 85% of offers were made to students with A*AA - A*A*A.

To have the best chance of success, you need to showcase more than just good grades.

Imperial College London also explain that applicants are selected based on academic achievement and performance in admissions tests and interview (where applicable). Departments look for students' motivation and interest in the chosen subject, with evidence of full background research. They advise that admissions tutors are "also looking at applicants' potential to benefit from — and contribute to — College life". This is not unique to Imperial; University College London (UCL) and other leading selective universities express similar criteria.

A Russell Group university, the University of Leeds, refers to using a "basket of measures in decision making" when it comes to making offers. So, what does this mean? What additional factors could help you win your ideal place?

Additional assessments, tests and exams

For certain subjects, such as Medicine and Law, students may be required to do additional tests, which are designed to assess their aptitude for the skills required to study these subjects. The UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT) is open to students considering studying medical and dental degree programmes, the BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT) is another test for potential students of medicine, dentistry and also veterinary sciences. The Law National Aptitude Test (LNAT) is for students considering a degree in Law.

For those students considering applying to Oxbridge, there is also the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA), a generic admissions test which is designed to test problem solving and critical thinking skills.

For all of the above, an interview is often required in the latter stages of an application.

An engaging personal statement

A personal statement is a short essay in which you explain why you're the perfect candidate for the undergraduate degree course you are applying to. You only write one personal statement, which is seen by all the universities you apply to.

The statement offers you a chance to distinguish yourself from other candidates, showcase your strengths (beyond the academic), as well as your interest in and knowledge of the area of study for which you are applying: you should think about the stories and practical examples you can use to evidence this.

A stand-out interview

If you are invited to an interview by your prospective university, this is the final chance for you to demonstrate why you would make an excellent candidate for your chosen course — and, what you could bring to the university.

Interviews can range from an oral 'exam', a panel interview or multiple mini interview (MMI), to an informal chat, designed to encourage you to choose that course. The format is also likely to vary according to the course — for example, if you are applying for a Maths course, you may be asked to solve an equation, however if you are applying for an English Literature course you may be asked to comment on a recent book you have read.

Interviews can also vary in length, lasting anything from ten minutes to an hour. Some universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge may require more than one interview and for students to be at the university for at least a day.

Above all, tutors want to see that you are genuinely enthusiastic about your subject. They may also ask you to expand on any claims you made in your personal statement which demonstrate a particular interest in the subject so it's wise for you to re-familiarise yourself with your statement before attending the interview.

Mock interviews are a great way to prepare, and are a regular part of the programme at Kings.

Remember: Asking good questions will impress interviewers just as much as good answers!

Relevant work or professional experience

Particularly for vocational degree programmes such as Medicine, gaining some relevant work experience during pre-university studies can help you win a place at your preferred university. Work experience will demonstrate to admissions tutors not only a genuine interest in the subject, but also that you are informed about, and committed to, the rigors of your intended course.

As Jeremy, a former Kings Oxford student who is now studying Medicine at Queen's University Belfast commented:

"After doing my AS level at Kings, I spent 2 months in a hospital doing some volunteering. During those 2 months I was able to shadow doctors, nurses, physical therapists and occupational therapists and I knew from that experience that Medicine was the right choice for me."

Other extra-curricular activities

It is important for you to demonstrate that you understand and possess the skills and attributes relevant to your chosen field of study and how you will contribute to your chosen universities' academic community.

There are many extracurricular activities which further specialist knowledge and interest in an intended field of study, but equally there are others, such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award, which are designed to enhance students' wider abilities — both academically and on a personal and social level.

Those students who actively pursue extracurricular activities and projects are often viewed as very motivated and keen to take on new challenges and experiences — both of which are attributes which tend to be looked upon favourably.

Excellent references

References are as important as any other documents in a university application, particularly as universities are generally not able to interview every applicant, although they may be compulsory for some courses. References help them to gain an impression of who you really are, which can be crucial when making a decision about whether to issue you with an offer.

References are normally written by someone who knows you at school or college, such as an A level tutor, who will – providing you have worked hard and maintained good attendance — be able to vouch for your suitability for your chosen course.

The ideal degree is within reach!

Don't be daunted by the university application process to leading universities, but it is important to make sure that you not only have outstanding academic tuition, but also that you have advice, support and guidance from experts who understand the requirements are about more than just grades.