Admissions to top universities can be a complex and highly competitive process, with elite institutions such as Cambridge and Oxford reporting acceptance rates as low as 15.7% and 13.7%, respectively.1,2 Moreover, this journey requires several challenging hurdles, including personal statements, admissions tests, and interviews. From our extensive experience at STEMaccess providing specialist admissions support, we have distilled the key components of strong applicants into three core pillars.
Knowing what you want to study, where you want to study and why
It is easy today to suffer from ‘choice overload’ given the multitude of universities and courses on offer. If unsure of what to study, the best way to avoid this overload is to continue studying subjects you have enjoyed and excelled at so far while keeping in mind any future career goals. It is important to note that courses at different universities are often not comparable, with the content varying significantly.
Employability is another key consideration, with universities often providing statistics and lists of careers undertaken by alumni of each course. Fortunately, today’s job market is very dynamic, with many employers now focusing mainly on university rather than the subject studied. Of course, studying history is a poor initial choice if you want to work in engineering. However, many top employers will employ graduates from a wide variety of academic backgrounds. For example, if you studied History at Oxford and wanted to work in aerospace, you could apply to roles within business or finance as an Oxford graduate, then pivot into an aerospace firm in a corporate position.
Understanding why you want to study a course will aid the rest of the application process, by improving work ethic and making personal statement writing much easier.
Academic performance and extracurriculars
Academic performance and extracurriculars will form the backbone of most applications to any course, as admissions tutors require assurance that a candidate has what it takes to succeed and thrive on their programme.
The number of students receiving private tuition is growing each year, with over a third of pupils in the UK now partaking, as per Independent School Parent.3 This same report stated that nearly 60% of students have utilised private tuition at some point in time. As university places become more competitive, one-to-one tuition is being used more and more throughout GCSE, A-level and IB. At STEMaccess, we believe it is the best way to both benchmark and improve a student’s performance ahead of applications, regardless of age. Having a good rapport with a specialist tutor also allows discussions to be had around admissions, career options and any anxieties regarding university, which can often not be provided to the same extent in school.
Extracurriculars are also essential for many courses to show transferable skills, such as teamwork, communication, critical thinking, and leadership. However, this doesn’t have to be captaining a sports team or being Grade 8 in violin. These achievements do look great on an application, but an extracurricular can be anything from a part-time job to volunteering, to an interesting book or hobby. The most important thing to remember is that it’s how you frame the extracurricular to show skill development that is impressive, not the extracurricular itself.
Personal statements and interviews
Personal statements are often the first hurdle for all admissions, offering the chance to present oneself as a unique, well-rounded, and passionate candidate who would thrive on the course.
The conventional written personal statements are changing for 2024/25 applications, but the principles remain the same. Rather than a long piece of prose, students will be required to answer specific questions. However, the themes of these questions will be the same as the themes sought after in a traditional personal statement, so this can be well prepared for. At STEMaccess, we have an extensive network of admissions tutors who run workshops and can provide insight into this new model to ensure success.
Interview preparation is equally vital, with the key being to practice as much as possible with someone in the field you are applying to, with answers that are somewhat prepared but not too mechanical. This is especially important for students applying to Medicine and Dentistry. The more you practice, the more fluid your responses become and the less likely you are to be rattled by a rogue question.
Parents and teachers play a crucial role in guiding students through the complex world of university admissions. By understanding these three pillars and supporting your children with them, you are giving them the best chance at success. It is a challenging journey to gain a place at a top university, but any goal can become attainable with the right support.