As many of you will probably know, I am soon to be heading off to University, after a gap year. The process of getting into University itself, and everything surrounding it isn’t exactly ‘easy’ or ‘stress-free’ but had I had some first-hand advice prior to applying, I think the entirety of it would be a little less stress inducing. Since I know that many of you will soon be applying, in the next year or two, I thought perhaps it might be helpful to write about my experiences, so that you can have a little more knowledge about what it involves. Obviously if you have older brothers and sisters, you will know the score a bit better, but even so – if you are applying for different courses, the process and selection can be slightly different.
Choosing your course
I had my heart set on one course from the very beginning – Multi-Media Journalism at Bournemouth, however I know for many of you, you might not know what it is you want to do yet, or what you want to focus on. Highlighting what skills you are good at (and similarly, that you enjoy) is something you can do to narrow down what options might be engaging and suitable for you. Or, you could choose to do something broader, that you are enjoy – which will leave doors open when you graduate, such as English, Maths, Biology, History or Theology. There are so many courses available, it’s very difficult to narrow it down, but as each course at each different University varies slightly, it is worth doing your research so that you are rest assured what you will be studying (and living and breathing basically) for the next 3-4 years is something you are going to enjoy.
Getting onto your course
For me, there was no other option than to get into Bournemouth, so I wanted to do everything in my power to make sure I stood out from the 300 other applicants (or perhaps more) for a chance of securing one of the places. Since the course covered a variety of media platforms, I began writing to newspapers, television companies, magazines and online platforms asking for work experience, and letting them know a little about myself.
I wrote long, detailed letters (specifically for each company), even stating that I would be happy to come in and observe, whilst making tea and coffee and fetching lunch orders and eventually managed to secure three placements, two in television and one at a newspaper. Since I knew no-one in the media industry, nor did my parents, these internships/placements were completely gained by my own dedication to emailing/phoning these companies – which in itself, shows you have innovative, but it also gave me something to put on my personal statement that set me aside from other candidates. I spent near enough my entire summer in work experience and gained a lot of knowledge and understanding (and a great skill for making tea) and was pleased to be able to put the placements in my personal statement.
Most UK students apply for their university places via the UCAS website, which although looks a little complicated to begin with, is actually rather simple. After setting up your profile, adding your GCSE’s and AS Levels (or A Levels if you have them), you then have to make 5 choices. You can of course, choose less than 5 if you so wish, but the more you choose, the more offers you will potentially have. You don’t ‘rank’ the choices like you would a normal school application, as this comes later – but once your teachers have added your reference, it is sent to UCAS and you won’t hear back until December/January (ish). Usually UCAS applications are sent in the beginning of the school year (say October), however officially you don’t have to submit your UCAS until December. The earlier you get it in, the better really.
I was advised to really work hard on my personal statement, as it’s the one thing admissions officers really look closely at, and sometimes can override grades, if you really prove how dedicated you are. I wanted to make it easy to read (and slightly chatty) so that my personality came through a little, but obviously it needed to essentially ‘sell’ myself to the courses you apply for, so combining the two can seem tricky. Focus on what makes YOU different from the other candidates. Yes, yes we can all say we’re hard working and interested in the subject, but you need to explain WHY you’re hard-working, or provide a little anecdote personal to you that proves you are hard-working. WHY do you want to do the course. WHAT initially inspired your interest in that particular subject? And finally, what can you offer the university in return. Obviously, you will be a fee-paying student, but they have lots of fee-paying students to choose from, so noting down (even if it’s just a short sentence) what you can offer them (someone will the willingness to learn, evolve and explore?) could just set you aside from the other candidates.
Many courses don’t require an interview, but if yours does (like mine did) then it can seem a little overwhelming at first. However, take it as an opportunity to explore where you could be living for 3 years, I think many interview or activity days give you the opportunity to decide whether it is right for you, just as much as it gives the university the opportunity to see if you are right for them. Many of the questions they ask you will be about the course, which is assumably something you have an interest in, so it can seem a little conversational at first.
It is natural for everyone to be nervous, and the interviewers will understand this, as long as you answer every question with confidence and conviction (as much as you can). If a difficult question crops up (and they might throw them in there to see what your reaction is) just keep your calm, have a little think and answer confidently (even if it has thrown you). I was asked in one interview for television production, ‘if you had to make a commercial advertising door handles, what would you do’. After an initial ‘AHHHH, help’ moment, I told the interviewers I’d talk them through my thought processes for that commercial, and rambled on about how I would have used something people were familiar with, something a little fun – like the Monsters Inc film perhaps, with all the doors (and door handles) flying around. Looking back, I have no idea if I made any sense whatsoever. Even the interviewers looked a little bewildered, but I think not freezing up and saying ‘I don’t know’ was worse than giving an ‘individual’ (let’s say) answer.
It can be tempting to rule out a course entirely because they have an interview selection process, especially with the stresses and strains your upcoming exams are putting on you, but if it sounds like the right course for you, don’t put it off – it is worth it and once it’s done and dusted, you’ll be pleased you went along!
You can start getting offers straight away, once you’ve sent off your application but most uni’s tend to wait until all the interviews are out of the way (so around January) before they send out offers. Usually, UCAS will email you saying ‘something has changed on your UCAS track’ and you log in, and see that you have either been offered a place, or declined a place. The offers remain open until all five universities have replied to you (either with an offer or a decline). Once you have received all of your offers, you can then choose your ‘firm’ choice and your ‘insurance’ choice. Your firm will be the one you will automatically get into should you meet the grades in August, so make sure this is one you are happy to go to and think you will get into. Your insurance, if you don’t meet the requirements for your firm, will be given to you (in most cases) automatically. If you meet neither requirement, you would have to go into what’s called ‘clearing’. But that’s not going to happen, so don’t worry! Usually, it’s best to choose an offer with lower requirements than your firm, for your insurance. Once you have chosen your firm and your insurance, the other ‘offers’ will be declined on your part.
Once you’ve chosen your firm, often you can apply for accommodation in advance or start preparing for your place – but with nothing ‘major’ to do, all your focus turns to your exams. I for one, absolutely despise, dread and hate exams, as I’m sure many of you do too. There’s something about them that turns me into a nervous wreck. And it’s not even the exam itself mostly. It’s the environment I hate. Luckily my school were very good and allowed me to sit in a smaller room for my exams, as the big school halls filled me with dread and I used to get panic attack type symptoms in the middle of exams if I had to sit them in a large hall.
However, they are there to serve a purpose and getting back good results is honestly the best feeling in the world. I’m not stereotypically clever, in fact – I’m not really ‘clever’ at all, but I did work very very hard for my A Levels, revising hours every night and basically confining myself to my bedroom (although I wasn’t as much of a recluse as I am making out) so I prepared myself as much as I could. Depending on what you need to get your place at university, I think it is very important to work hard, as it benefits you greatly later on in life – but balancing it with watching TV and seeing friends is important, as exams are all consuming and this takes its toll.
Revision mind-maps were my saviour. I made mind-maps about everything and anything. In English Literature, I wrote essay after essay after essay (probably about three a day at one point ha ha), because the old saying ‘practice makes perfect’ does apply to some things and I stuck up little post-it notes with quotes on all around my room.
The most nerve-wracking day of all (well, sort of) is of course, results day. The day you’ll find out where you’ll be living for the next few years of your life, and if all that studying paid off. Which of course, it will!
Usually the week of the 16th August (on a Thursday) results day involves you picking up your exam achievements from school, in addition to seeing that one final change on UCAS. I didn’t actually realise that you could log onto UCAS at 7.30AM before picking up your results at 10AM, and see if you’d got your much awaited ‘Unconditional’ offer yet, until someone mentioned it on Facebook, but usually, as long as the site hasn’t crashed, you can log into your tracker and (hopefully) see a big fat UNCONDITONAL staring back at you. UCAS won’t tell you your grades but it will tell you whether or not you got your place at your desired university, so if you can’t contain yourself until 10AM, it’s worth logging in. Phew!
Usually, once you have your unconditional offer, you can apply for accommodation at your chosen university and you will start to receive information about enrolling etc. Make sure you read everything very carefully, to ensure you don’t miss any vital information that may hinder your place. You should apply for accommodation as soon as you know your place is unconditional to ensure you have the highest chance of getting the halls or house you want, so it’s worth doing the research in the weeks beforehand, rather on the day itself. You should hear back within a few days asking to pay a deposit (although every Uni does this slightly differently).
University, although fantastic, isn’t the bee all and end all and isn’t for everyone. Some career paths don’t require a degree, and you may actually be able to progress further through experience than more exams and qualifications. Not going to university doesn’t make you un-intelligent or ‘lower’ than anyone else, in fact – it just means you’re heading out into the big wide world sooner than everyone else, which is admirable! I contemplated going to university and not going, which is part of the reason I took a gap year in the first place (if you’re unsure why not apply anyway and defer – at least you have both options), however I decided a year on that it was right for me and I was ready to study. I don’t know everything about the field I want to go into and I’d love to learn more. Whether you choose to go or not, everyone is different – don’t let anyone push you into something you’re not comfortable with. Do what’s right for you and what will benefit your future career path.
Oh, and good luck!
If you have any questions at all, please do let me know and I will try my best to answer them. I’m not professing to be any kind of expert in the paragraphs above, I just thought it might be relatively useful to have some kind of first-hand information about my experiences applying and so hopefully, they help (even if it’s just a tiny bit).
UNCONDITIONAL – a place that you have been given unconditionally and you no longer need anything else to secure it. You will definitely be going.
CONDITIONAL – the offer you are given by a university that ensures your place subject to you meeting the entry requirements. Your conditional offer will change to ‘Unconditional’ (see above) when you receive your exam grades.
FIRM – Your firm offer, is essentially your ‘first’ choice.
INSURANCE – your ‘second’ back-up choice should you not meet the requirements of your firm.