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How to Break Into Top Universities

Published by Afterschool.my on Nov 12, 2012, 04:29 pm

To have the opportunity to study at one of the world’s top universities is a dream shared by thousands of students. With ever-increasing competition for university places, it is vital that students make themselves stand out from the crowd. But what steps can a prospective student take to ensure their application impresses the admissions team?impressive

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Over the years I have supported many students through the university application process, and have identified the key elements to ensure students make a competitive application. These elements are broken down into three essential areas: academic excellence, extra-curricular achievements, and command of the application process.

Academic ExcellencelibraryIt should go without saying that in order to ensure a place at the best universities you need to be obtaining the best grades. You should be thinking about this as early as the beginning of your GCSE/IGCSE/SPM course. You should aim to have consistently high results throughout your high school career, with nothing lower than A* and A grades/85% in all tests. Obtaining these kinds of grades is challenging, but by no means impossible, and students should always aim to be in the top 10% of their class. Many schools also offer advanced courses in high demand subjects, and it’s highly recommended that students take advantage of these courses to deepen their understanding of the topic. Remember – the more you put in, the more you get out!

Extra-curricular AchievementsswimmingDo not underestimate the importance of extra-curricular achievements, as university admissions teams regard these as almost as important as academic achievements. The reason for this is simple – they show you are a well-rounded person who has more to offer the university than just academic achievement. You should undertake extra-curricular activities that highlight your interests and strength. Activities which demonstrate teamwork or leadership skills are especially sought after and will be beneficial to developing the interpersonal skills which are necessary in the workplace. Roles such as Head Boy/Head Girl, Class President, Sports Captain, etc, develop maturity and will give you something to talk about during the interview.Perhaps the most vital aspects of extra-curricular activities are work experience and volunteering. Relevant work experience placements are essential to be able to meet a university’s entry requirements and are invaluable as they can affirm your career choice and deepen your understanding of the subject area. Your school should be able to support you in finding relevant work experience and volunteering places. However, I recommend that you also seek out your own work experience positions as this shows perseverance and develops self-reliance.Command of the 

Application Processworking on laptopIn addition to all the above, it is vital that you become familiar with your chosen university’s application process. Pay attention to the deadlines for submissions. Universities will give full consideration to forms that are submitted by the deadline. Late applications will only be considered at the university’s discretion, but for high demand and competitive courses, late applications are usually rejected. Even the best candidates can find themselves rejected because they have not adhered to the submission deadline.Arguably the most crucial aspects of the application are your personal statement and interview. The Personal Statement section is very important because it gives you the chance to show the admission’s team how good you are and why they should select you. It allows you the chance to show what you are really like as a person and to highlight your individual strengths. There are many excellent websites that give advice on how to write a personal statement, and your school should have a designated person to help you with this, but here are my top 5 Personal Statement tips:

  • Keep to the word/character limit.
  • Always be honest – do not exaggerate or invent.
  • It is a Personal Statement – i.e. about you, so do not let somebody else write it for you.
  • Always give details of your work experience placements/voluntary work – selectors are looking specifically for this information.
  • Get the balance right between academic and extra-curricular details.


Perhaps the most daunting aspect of the university application process for most students is the interview stage. Though not all universities require applicants to be interviewed, most top universities will have this as a prerequisite. Look at the interview as your chance to convince the selectors that you are the right student for their course. Remember, the interviewers are not trying to ‘trip you up’; they just want to see you and to hear you talk. They cannot tell how good your communication skills are just from your application form so this is your chance to show them! Take the opportunity to undertake as many mock interviews as possible, either within school or with university students who’ve successfully completed the process as this will help steady your nerves. My top 5 tips for navigating the interview stage are:

  • Never be late and dress smartly.
  • Try not to be too nervous – keep calm and don’t panic! Remember to speak clearly and maintain eye-contact.
  • Make sure that you know details of the specific course you are applying to.
  • Keep your answers reasonably brief and know when to stop talking. If you do not know the answer, be honest.
  • Be enthusiastic, even if the university is not your first choice.

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Success in admission to a top university will be down to the combination of all the above factors, combined with the willingness to put in 100% commitment and effort in all aspects. Whilst success can never be guaranteed, following these steps will give you the best chance of submitting an impressive application to your chosen university.

About the Author: Yasmin Sarwar is the Executive Director of Cardiff Sixth Form College, ranked the top co-educational boarding school and top sixth form college in the UK for A Levels.

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