How do I apply for university?

March 17, 2017 by Esme
Image Sarah C is an ex-deputy Headmistress in the independent sector and specialises in helping students apply for university. 

With a wealth of experience, Sarah shares her knowledge of university applications and how best to apply for university.

University is the final destination in the long journey which is your child’s education. Important decisions need to be made and many people feel like they don’t know where to go for the right kind of help.

Everyone is aiming high and the pressure to succeed is enormous, pressure from school, teachers, the media, prospective employers. You want your child to have the best possible opportunities available and your plan may well include an elite UK university such as one from the Russell Group. This is a group of 24 universities which are widely accepted as being amongst the best in the UK and it includes Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick, Edinburgh, UCL, Bristol and York, to name but a few.

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.

The Personal Statement:
The application can be a source of great stress for students and a real mystery for parents. The main reason for this stress is the personal statement, a brief document aiming 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 of four years. It’s challenging to get it right.

So, even before students put pen to paper, they need to research their subject in order to be certain that it really is something that they want to study. I really try to get students to appreciate the importance of this stage and of starting it early, so that if they change their mind, it’s not too late to do another round of research.

I have taken a student from Art History to Japanese Studies in a matter of days, having made her look very thoroughly at what would be taught on an Art History degree. We realised quickly that she, like many students had chosen the subject simply because it was the subject that she did best at in her A levels. But being good at something does not automatically mean your child should study it intensively for three years. Some digging around and a lot of talking can really help to find the right fit.

I often find that as students investigate their subject more and more, they realise how broad it is and many want to undertake further research. For those interested enough to do this, it can be useful to speak to a teacher at school or an external tutor who can steer your child through a supported piece of research on a topic of their choice. It is a good option for those students whose school does not offer an opportunity to study for the Extended Project Qualification. As well as extending their subject research and, therefore, their interest, it can be an excellent source of discussion for an interview if it is mentioned in the personal statement.

The personal statement which the students dread so much should not be a simple list of achievements, books and work experience placements; 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? Go to lectures on it? 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. They are asked to consider the skills required in their chosen degree subject and helped to reflect on how they can evidence these.

The Aptitude Tests
A further area of concern for students is the prospect of sitting one of the aptitude tests which more and more universities are seeking to use in order to differentiate applicants. They are required by some universities in addition to A levels and they can be complex and daunting because many students will not have had an opportunity to think in the very lateral way which these tests require. It is important that students take time to practise these tests regularly.

My experience in sixth forms has taught me that the best applicants are the most prepared. Those who leave this to the last minute just do not obtain the offers which they want, because the lack of preparation shows. I suggest that students start thinking about university soon after their mock exams and in any case, no later than the Easter holidays of the Lower Sixth. I try to give students the tools to produce something truly excellent for their application, to encourage self-reflection and careful consideration of the subject which they have chosen to study; the very best personal statements are from students who have done these things.

So, what help is available to make the best application?
Within the independent sector, schools tend to have a fairly comprehensive system of support for students, with staff holding their hands through the entire process, overseeing things such as the production of a successful personal statement and offering interview practice and preparation for tests such as LNAT and BMAT, for example.

Over and above what the school can do, many parents will also look for additional help from external sources such as tutoring agencies, such as Tutorfair  where you search to find University Advice Tutors, Oxbridge Admissions Tutors as well as BMAT tutors and LSAT tutors. Carefully chosen, some of these can be a great source of advice but often parents seek them out quite late in the process.

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

Sarah C is a an ex-Deputy Headmistress who specialises in helping students apply to university. She mentors students through their time at school, guiding them through the ups and downs, acting as an independent source of support when things are challenging, whether personally or academically.

Looking for tips on how to apply to university? Visit to find a tutor who can help. You can search for local tutors by subject, level and your postcode. Tutorfair will show you search results with the top rated tutors at the top!

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