Writing a single personal statement for up to five courses, possibly each at different institutions, is by no means easy. But don’t worry! An admissions tutor, further education lecturer and UCAS advisor share their tips for ensuring your application is the best it can be…
Picking where to apply is a daunting task, but don’t scrimp on your research. After all, wherever you end up going, you’ll be stuck there for the next three or four years of your life. “Go to open days and make use of all the resources on universities’ websites to get a good idea,” urges UCAS Social Media Advisor John Madden. “It’s not just about the uni, it’s about where you’re going to be living. Experience it for yourself, see the shops, pubs, bars and ask: would you be happy there?”
On a standard UCAS application you have five choices but, John stresses, you don’t actually need to fill in all five straight away, or at all. “The deadline for most applications is 15 January. Many schools encourage you to get it in earlier in October or November. You can apply with two or three and then, if you want to, as long as you add other choices by the deadline, you can do that online.”
“In theory it’s a good idea to have an insurance choice,” says John. “But a lot of people make one for the sake of it, without thinking about whether they would actually like to study there.” If you miss the grades for your first choice university and decide against your insurance place, you then have the stress of calling up a busy uni admissions department to request they withdraw your offer so you can go through clearing. Although it’s rare, technically they can refuse, leaving you with two options: accept the place or cancel your application and go through the whole thing again the following year.
Points vs grades
Take the time to get your head round how the UCAS Tariff or “UCAS points” work. Essentially, points are a tool for universities to compare grades across different qualifications. “Some people look at the tariff table and almost think it’s like collecting coupons; they don’t realise it’s not as simple as that,” says John. Universities don’t just total the number of points you have – they look at the points you achieve in qualifications that are relevant to the course. Some don’t even use points, preferring to stick with grades.
“We use all the information on the UCAS form but we have to prioritise it in a certain order, so grades or predicted grades are the first thing we look at,” says Rachael Gilmour, Head of Admissions for English at Queen Mary, University of London. “But we have some flexibility within that.” Have a look at the entry requirements for courses on the university websites and in prospectuses but bear in mind that even if your predicted grades are slightly below the standard offer, you could still get a place. “They’re telling you what the entry conditions will typically be – it’s not set in stone,” John points out. Universities take your wider experience and background into consideration too and, as Rachael says, “A certain amount of ambition is a good thing.”
Let’s get personal
The personal statement is your big chance to wow admissions tutors and show why you of all people would make an excellent addition to their class. “Be specific,” says Claire Askew, Lecturer in Literature and Communication at Telford College, Edinburgh. Rachael agrees: “Sit down and think, ‘Why do I want to do this course?’ Try to start from that premise,” she advises. If you’re applying for English for example, “It might be there’s a particular body of work you love – contemporary American fiction or Romantic poetry – or maybe you’re interested in the historical context or maybe there’s a political motivation to your engagement with literature.” Then find “two or three examples that showcase that the best.” This tailored approach can be used for pretty much any arts or humanities subject, from History to Fine Art.
“Talk about your goals, even if they seem huge or scary or you're worried they sound silly,” recommends Claire. “If you eventually want to be the head of a company or a top journalist, say so. But explain how studying the subject you're applying for will help you on your way to getting there.”
Some useful resources
Microsite with all of UCAS’s social media feeds in one page. UCAS TV has lots of how to guides.
The Student Room
Student forum website
Profiles of all UK universities.
UCAS points – what you need to know!
John Madden’s useful blogpost on points.
Read more How to articles.
Have you been through the UCAS application process recently? Share your experience by leaving a comment below.
Image: Writing by Rubin 110 on a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.
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