What do UK universities look for in applicants?

What do UK universities look for in applicants?


Submitting an application to a university is not a simple process. There are plenty of well considered decisions you must make before getting there. Scary as it may seem, it’s worth knowing that everyone else is in the same position.

Every student in the UK must apply to their choice of universities online through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (known as ‘UCAS’). Students get to make five applications to different universities and must eventually choose one on results day.

To understand what a good application looks like, we’ve interviewed Joanne Scarr – the UFP’s Director of Studies.  She has helped thousands of students get to university and she knows a thing or two about applying to a top university.

When students apply for a place on a degree course, what do universities look for?

One of they key things universities look out for is whether they think you can cope with the workload. Your exam results will be a big indicator of this and it’s very important. However, they will also search for evidence of skills outside the classroom, such as personal interests, activities and passions. Your personal statement is a great place to demonstrate this. You will have a chance to show why your chosen subject inspires you. Lastly, strong recommendations from current teachers can provide further proof of your commitment.

Are there any issues that international students face when writing a personal statement or attending a university interview?

International students sometimes make the mistake of telling universities what they think they might want to hear. For example, in an interview a student might say he wants to go to Durham because it’s the best university for his subject. But this doesn’t really convey much about his personality or interest. Universities really want students that love their subject area.

One of the best ways to demonstrate your knowledge is to do some extra curricular reading or activity. Show that you have spent some of your spare time learning about an interesting part of your chosen subject. It will definitely make you stand out if you can explain why it’s meaningful to you.

Do you have any specific interview advice?

Yes, make sure your body language is positive and maintain eye contact when you are communicating. Try to enjoy the process and be yourself as much as possible.

What about writing personal statements? Any advice for that?

I try to encourage students to begin writing their personal statement as early as possible in the year. Then they can come to me for feedback and advice more often. Try to answer deeper questions behind your subject choice, such as: “What motivates you?” “What do you want to become in the future?” “What inspired you to pick your subject?” Try to be authentic.

Don’t focus too much on career ambitions, such as: “I want to be a wealthy businessman”. Ask yourself after reading it: “Would I like to meet this person?” It may take ten or so attempts to get it right, but it’s worthwhile. You should also aim to demonstrate what you can bring to the university whilst your there.

How does the University Foundation Programme prepare students for university?

We are the oldest foundation course in the UK and we’ve been established since 1989. Throughout that time, we’ve dealt with a lot of applications. We guide our students through the entire process. This is important, particularly with an international student that isn’t familiar with the British system.

We tend to tailor our advice and guidance based on the specific needs of the student. We offer career advice, personal tutoring, coaching and lots of UCAS guidance. We look at the student’s strengths and weaknesses and give and honest assessment about which university they are suited to. Our aim is to get students enrolled on the best possible degree course. Unlike other foundation courses, we take the time to know our students personally. This gives us much better insight when we’re helping them with their application.

How do students get to know different universities?

Whilst most research can be done online, we run a university fair each year. We will invite a long list of universities to attend and it’s an opportunity for the students to talk to representatives of each institution before applying. 

Would you offer any advice to parents and guardians?

There are over 100 universities in the UK offering thousands of courses. Getting it right first time can save lots of money and stress in the long run. At the UFP, we prepare our students very well for university so that the transition is smooth.

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