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A little while ago, we were asked by a national newspaper to give our top tips for applications to the most competitive university courses in the country.

Whilst not intended as the only advice that should be listened to, the following is what I wrote – it is phrased as if it were written to students:

  1. Realise that, on paper, it is very difficult to identify the top applicants – there are too many people with the very best grades and with amazing work experience who have also done marvellous things as part of their school careers. Look at the application to offer ratios.
  2. Identify an area of your subject in which you have a particular interest and explore this aspect via literature, debates, the internet, lectures in order to discover whether you are truly fired up by the subject matter and to be able to prove your willingness and enthusiasm.
  3. Find out what is required for your subject and for particular universities / colleges. Many subjects now have additional entrance tests. Some colleges require work to be submitted. See what help and experience your school offers to steer your preparation. Go to a subject specific open day at a college or to a department open day if you can. Contact the university; explore their website leaving no hyperlink un-clicked. Every year a few students apply only to state months later that actually they do not like the content, style or location of a particular university course. Whilst we know that students do change their minds, these are wasted applications.
  4. Be realistic. Apply to a range of universities. With four or five choices you should make sure you include a location and course that is likely to give offers more easily.
  5. If there is an interview - expect to be academically challenged and expect to deal with questions for which you cannot, directly, prepare. Therefore, look to be academically challenged in your classes and adopt a ‘have a go’ mentality. If you are not prepared to push the boundaries of your learning, this does not bode well and the interview process will uncover your weakness.
  6. In your written application and in any interview, demonstrate that you are an independent learner. If it is common for a lesson to start with comments from student to teacher, “Did you see that science report on the news last night?” or “Last week you told us … well, I’ve been thinking about it and I think you could be wrong because….” then this is the type of conversation with which to be associated.
  7. Work hard and secure great results. There is not much more to say about this one. All the top universities require high grades. There is little point in being able to say that you have canoed the Orinoco, captained the netball team or coordinated the social whirl of your new Sixth Form if you end up compromising your academic performance.
  8. Be prepared to give it your all and still, perhaps, not get a place. However, the process will teach you a great deal and you will be a better Sixth Form student as a result.

Guide to UK University Applications