Successful university applications: more than just grades – Nigel Addison, Principal, Kings Brighton

15 Aug 2018

Kings Brighton, East Sussex

Kings Brighton, East Sussex

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 for students to ensure that they gain the right advice and guidance, not only about the most appropriate degree and university for them, but also about the application, offer and acceptance process.

The extreme competition for places at the top universities means that applicants need to do everything in their power to set themselves 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, the applicant needs 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, UCL and other leading selective universities express similar criteria.

The 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 students win their 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 UKCAT (UK Clinical Aptitude Test) is open to students considering studying medical and dental degree programmes, the BMAT (BioMedical Admissions Test) is another test for potential students of medicine, dentistry and also veterinary sciences. The 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 students explain why they’re the perfect candidate for the undergraduate degree course they are applying to. Students only write one personal statement, which is seen by all the universities they apply to.

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

A stand-out interview

If a student is invited to an interview by their prospective university, this is the final chance for them to demonstrate why they would make an excellent candidate for their chosen course — and, what they 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 the applicant to choose that course. The format is also likely to vary according to the course – for example, whilst a Maths candidate may be asked to solve an equation, a student applying for an English Literature course may be asked to comment on a recent book they 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 students genuinely enthusiastic about their subject. They may also ask them to expand on any claims they made in their personal statement which demonstrate their particular interest in the subject so it’s wise for students to re-familiarise themselves with their 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 their pre-university studies can help students win a place at their preferred university. Work experience will demonstrate to admissions tutors not only a genuine interest in the subject, but also that the applicant is informed about, and committed to, the rigors of their intended course.

As Jeremy, a former Kings 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 students to demonstrate that they understand and possess the skills and attributes relevant to their chosen field of study and how they will contribute to their 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 a student really is, which can be crucial when making a decision about whether to issue an offer.

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

The ideal degree is within reach!

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

Nigel Addison
Principal, Kings Brighton

BSc Chemistry and Physics (London); PGCE (Cambridge)

Nigel has over 20 years’ experience as a Principal of independent sixth-form colleges, having held the position at leading colleges in Cambridge and Brighton.

Kings Brighton, East Sussex