Bonas MacFarlane’s Director of University Admissions, James Higgins, offers advice to GCSE and A Level students who are looking ahead to the next stage of their education.
Choosing your degree
Choosing the right course for university can be a particularly stressful challenge for students. It is often the first time they are given control over what feels like a life-defining decision with an infinite number of choices – 37000+ to get somewhere close to the number of UK courses available. Lockdown offers a singular benefit: students now find themselves with a great deal of spare time. This time can be well spent if students make an effort to carefully consider all the possible options.
What lies at the heart of choosing the right course is finding an area of study that the student has a real interest in. As I put it, I want to find something that causes a reaction in them. Students often feel pressure to pick something related to a future career but this is only the correct way to pick a degree for a small number of professional fields. Let’s address this method first…
- Future career… if that career is Medicine, Dentistry, Veterinary Science, Engineering (and possibly Architecture).
There will be a few other instances where it is necessary to base your decision on career but the main ones are covered here. The reality is that most graduate jobs do not specify a particular degree that is required to apply to their organisations. Students need to look at The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers so that they can begin to understand this.
- A Levels
Students may have a clear favourite subject that they are already studying or have studied. What I would urge them to do is to think a little more specifically about exactly what they do and don’t enjoy in each subject area. They may want to be a little more granular in their subject choice – so rather than studying English, a student might specialise in Literature, or Creative Writing, or Linguistics or Journalism…
This refers to my earlier point. We want to encourage students to notice what causes a reaction in them. This will get them to think outside the box to reveal subjects that they might not have considered for university before.
Can they think of famous people that they admire and what that might inspire them to study? Likewise, public figures that they dislike might also give rise to a course choice. I often use the example that thinking of Donald Trump might push me to consider a degree in Politics, Climate Change, Human Rights… what we want is a feeling to be caused in the student and for them to link that to a potential study area.
- Outside Interests
This is about getting students to reflect on how they spend their time when they’re not doing obligatory tasks. When they are not completing schoolwork, communicating with friends or doing chores, what are they up to? What kinds of documentaries do they watch, what sort of books do they read, what are they drawn to watch on Youtube, what do they do outside the house?
- Read, read, read, and read some more
It is no coincidence that the lexicon permits us to say “I’m going to Oxford to read Classics”, or to read Mathematics or to read Medicine. There is a lot of reading to be done at university no matter the discipline. If a student cannot engage in reading around their subject in the few months running up to application, they might need to reconsider studying the subject for three or four years during their degree. Students should read around the subject to check for genuine interest – the added benefit is that this is the single best way to become a strong applicant for the very best courses.
A final note…
It is not easy for a student to pick their course and universities. Ultimately, they will begin to understand that they are not bound by this decision forevermore. Their life is unlikely to be linear and this should be embraced. There are many routes that they can take on this journey that may or may not lead to what they think is the destination. Students need to read and reflect on what holds their interest.
How to approach the UCAS personal statement
The personal statement is the key part of the UK university application process. I’m not suggesting that grades aren’t important – grades allow the student to be part of the conversation. But it is the personal statement that will allow them to stand out from the crowd.
It is perhaps the crucial nature of the personal statement that strikes most fear into a high number of applicants. However, if students have dedicated themselves to the process of reflecting on their interests and passions, they will find the drafting of their statement much easier.
The Four Ideas to include in the Personal Statement
I write the four ideas rather than paragraphs because I don’t want to be too prescriptive with the way in which the student expresses themselves – after all it is a personal statement. But students must understand how it is personal. It is not in the sense that the university wants to hear all about their personality but rather about the student’s personal relationship with the subject to which they are applying.
1) Where does the interest come from? What was the spark?
This is usually the idea that students find most difficult to define. The advice here is that students do not have to attempt to make this more profound than it is. It could be that they’ve determined their degree choice through reading during the past 6 months – so they should describe that process. It might simply be that it’s the subject that’s captivated them most since their GCSEs. It might have been a cool science experiment in Year 8, reading an article about Steve Jobs or seeing Dippy the Dinosaur at the Natural History museum. We need to understand what prompted the student to want to explore it further.
2) How have they demonstrated that interest?
Primarily this will be demonstrated through the student’s reading. We will want them to refer to specific texts and ideas and then to engage with those ideas critically. What do they have to say about an idea expounded by an author? What theories have they read that counter the idea? Finally, where do they come down on the issue?
3) Name a specific area of interest
Students should point to something specific (either taught in one of their current courses or discovered whilst reading) that they would like to learn more about. They can use this to grab the attention of a particular university. If, for example, Manchester focuses on a certain field that other universities are not so well renowned for and the student expresses that they have a desire to learn more about this topic, it could serve to pique the interest of Manchester.
The personal statement and the application to apply to the UK’s most elite institutions is overwhelmingly an academic endeavour – as is the experience of studying at one of these famous institutions.
If a student elects to write about an extracurricular interest, it would be advisable that this is closely related to the student’s chosen discipline or that it is, in some way, demonstrative of their academic prowess. It would have to be quite compelling if the activity or experience was not directly connected with the student’s field of study.
And a word on style:
Precise language and concise expression should be the applicant’s goal. Students should be clear that they know the meaning of each word used in their personal statement and that each sentence communicates exactly the intended message. Students should also aim to be as economical with their use of language as possible. It will lead to a clearer and more impactful personal statement.
What can GCSE and A Level students do to increase their chances of success?
- Understand cognitive bias
Cognitive bias refers to you being able, in some small way, to still have an impact on your grades. Teachers are human (even though you’ve probably questioned it at points!) and their impression of you in the final weeks as they make their decisions on what grade you will be awarded will have some influence. So keep working and sustain positive interactions with them whenever possible.
- Pick up a new habit or discipline
Once it is clear that you have done as much as you can to positively influence your grades, forget about them and focus on what’s next for you. Add a new skill, habit or discipline to your daily routine.
My key bit of advice here is to set the bar low in terms of the time you can commit to this each day. This will get you started and create momentum.
Try to carry out the new discipline at the same time each day or attach it to a pre-existing habit – e.g. straight after lunch go for a fifteen minute walk, come back in and write a reflection on how your morning went and what your focus is for the afternoon.
- Receive your final grades and then deal with that reality
Results days remain the same:
GCSE – 20th August
A Level – 13th August
IB – 6th July
In most cases, I don’t think that students should consider sitting exams in the autumn or next summer.
Your focus here is ensuring you get to your next step – for many of you that will be A Levels or IB. So long as you are accepted on to the courses you are aiming for that is probably enough. If you score less than 6/7s in English, Maths or subjects related to the degree that you want to study, then you might want to consider resits.
A Level and IB students:
If things don’t go to plan, you will enter Clearing. The key message for Clearing is don’t panic! It is a fluid situation and remember, it is not a single one-day event.
Only accept an offer that you feel is right for you. If you’re not absolutely certain, take at least four or five days to look at different options as the picture changes each day. Suitable places do not necessarily become available on the first day of Clearing as it takes time for all students to go through the process of receiving grades and accepting their places.
If you are interested in speaking with James or another member of Bonas MacFarlane’s Higher Education Team to gain further insight into university admissions, please contact us via our website: https://www.bonasmacfarlane.co.uk/en/universities