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How to prepare for application by creating a short list of subjects and unis. [Steps 25-55]

Fruit Stand

Preparing to apply is a crucial part of the process. There are key questions to ask in decision making and important activities that can be undertaken to enhance your application.

Stage 2 : Choices: About

[STEP 25] 

There can often be a feeling that this decision-making process is becoming too scary. It might feel as if it’s the biggest decision you’ve ever taken. Some might therefore wish to ignore it or postpone it. A “gap year” might therefore start to become a more attractive option: “I’ll think about applying to uni. after my year off.” The phrase “year off” is ominous. I’ve nothing against “gap years” (I took several after my first degree), but a drifting “gap year” is dangerous: drifting from job to job, perhaps to fund drifting across distant beaches, is then more likely to be followed by drifting back into full time education, which at uni. is necessarily less structured than that in a Sixth Form curriculum. The result can be drifting out of uni. after failing exams.. This is not inevitable, but my major advice for any “gap year” is that it be structured: chunks of time should be allocated to specific activities well in advance. Moreover, the statement that uni. application can be postponed until after the “gap year” is flawed: as applications are made in the Autumn Term, a “gap year” applicant needs to apply just a few months after leaving the Sixth Form; referring to application after a “gap year” implies a double “gap year”.

My advice is that, even if you’re strongly committed to a “gap year”, apply in Year 13. It is far easier to learn the system of UCAS application while at school/college, where you might have daily access to advice about the process. If you’re applying after you leave the Sixth Form, you might find it more difficult to get such advice, as you might, for instance, be in a full-time job. Moreover, if most of your friends are getting uni. offers, you can feel left out in the cold on those dark winter nights, when they have specific offer grades to aim for, and you don’t. In any given year, I can virtually guarantee that the worst Personal Statement I read will come from someone who has pushed away involvement in UCAS application until after leaving school. Those who re-apply in a “gap year” already know the system and are far more likely to know what is needed in a Personal Statement, even if they have had a complete change of mind about the subject they are applying for.

Remember that you are NOT committing yourself to anything by applying. If you are holding uni. offers and a uni. accepts you with the grades you get at the end of your Sixth Form, you are not obliged to take that offer up. You have a couple of weeks after getting your results to decide what to do. You can change your mind and re-apply or abandon uni. completely, if you wish. You are NOT signing your future away by applying in Year 13.

Although the UCAS application season begins at the start of the Autumn Term (1 September), it is possible – and convenient – to set up the form and enter basic personal details from May in Year 12. If you do this, you’re not obliged to complete the application.

Remember that UCAS (the Universities’ and Colleges’ Admissions’ Service) is the messenger between the applicant and the universities applied to. The online application via the “Apply” section of the UCAS website for a maximum of 5 degree programmes (usually at different universities) gets rid of the need to apply separately to each.

If you are at a school/college, it is probably easier for you to apply through them. When you have completed your part of the form, they will add your reference and send it all to UCAS. However, it is also possible to apply independently and get an appropriate person to send a reference to UCAS.

There are several sections of a UCAS form to be filled in by the applicant:

(1)  Personal details

(2)  Student finance

(3)  Choices

(4)  Education

(5)  Employment

(6)  Personal statement

The final section, to be filled in by the reference compiler, has the Reference and Predicted Grades for examinations to be taken in year 13.

To ease the workload in Year 13, I suggest that you register and enter most of sections (1), (2), (4) and (5) in the Summer Term of Year 12. Sections (3) and (6) are for the Autumn Term of Year 13.

Guidelines on starting your UCAS form are available on the UCAS website:
There are video guides on separate sections and a step-by-step guide to download.

Stage 2 : Choices: About

[STEP 26] 

I considered this at length in an article that I wrote in 2014: How useful to prospective undergraduate applicants are references to league table rankings and surveys in university prospectuses? This was based on an examination of hard-copy undergraduate prospectuses for 2015 entry of the most selective UK universities. I defined these as the 24 members of the Russell Group and the 14 remaining members of the 1994 Group in 2012 that admitted undergraduate students. I looked at 400 references in these prospectuses to the results of surveys, rankings and national data submission and references to awards (e.g., Nobel Prizes) gained.

I concluded that prospective undergraduate applicants need to be aware of important issues in dealing with the statistical information put before them. Here are my main points.

Different global and UK rankings are not independent of each other; and global rankings are constructed very differently from UK rankings. The criteria used in constructing global rankings are largely focused on uni. research (not the undergraduate learning experience), and overall figures are skewed by the predominance of science and engineering research.

The use of the different data sets from which UK rankings are constructed needs to be hedged with so many caveats that the rankings ultimately produced have little value. For example, the Complete University Guide is particularly good at giving potential applicants caveats in using its tables: e.g., a low student-staff ratio guarantees neither good quality of teaching nor good access to staff; some universities have major national computing facilities and copyright libraries, which skews the ranking of expenditure on these, as it is hard to separate local and national expenditure;  degree classifications are not a very objective measure of quality, as they are controlled by each university itself ( ).

On this last point I fear that there might often be a less than robust system at work, with an external examiner rubber-stamping an institutional decision made with one eye on rising up the rankings. However, university prospectuses present the rankings without mentioning the caveats.

Global and UK rankings do not address some aspects of individual programmes that are particularly relevant to potential undergraduate applicants: e.g., the size and frequency of tutorial groups; graduate destinations.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency’s annual  Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey on employment is of limited value, as it is based on data submitted only 6 months after graduation. Data from within the first year after graduation might not be very revealing, as immediately after graduating many new graduates decide to travel, take a post-graduate degree or do temporary jobs in the university area, while waiting for a partner to graduate. I have encouraged representatives from universities and the Department for Education to institute a full survey 5 years after graduation, when the “value added” of a university degree would be more apparent. Although DLHE is to be replaced by a new Graduate Outcomes survey 15 months after graduation (with first data publicly available in 2020), this is still, in my opinion, too close to the date of graduation to give a comprehensive view of employment outcomes.

High scores achieved in student satisfaction surveys, such as the National Student Survey (NSS), are not necessarily a reflection of the quality of the provision. They might simply indicate how easily those students are satisfied; or the extent of their loyalty to an institution after several years; or their feeling after their final rather than their earlier years; or the lack of seriousness with which the survey has been answered. A recent report has shown that 1% of National Student Survey respondents in 2005 gave the same answer to every question (a phenomenon termed “acquiescence bias” or “yea-saying”), but by 2013 this had increased to 5.4%; and that in the vast majority these cases the most positive (“definitely agree”) column was chosen.
(UK review of the provision of information about Higher Education: National Student Survey results and trends analysis 2005-2013 (July 2014)

The statistics in “Unistats” results, which are often given by unis. in prospectuses and on websites, are based on data from the DLHE and NSS surveys ( ).

There is no satisfactory measure of teaching provision, a key issue for prospective applicants. The new Teaching Excellence Framework has given Gold, Silver and Bronze by institution rather than by department ( ). As if this were not unduly simplistic, as far as I know the judgment on teaching was not made on the basis of observing teaching sessions!

In short, reliance on league table rankings is likely to be as perilous a route to achieving a satisfactory application as blind reliance on brand-name prejudice.

However, the picture is not entirely bleak. Prospective applicants can find more useful information beyond what is presented in the prospectuses.

The scores in student satisfaction surveys might be of some value in giving a sense of relative strengths and weaknesses at a particular university, especially in non-academic areas. Statistics used in specialist areas, such as accommodation, students’ union and sport, highlight areas of top quality. The website of BUCS (British Universities’ and Colleges’ Sport) gives very useful information on the strengths of individual sports at particular institutions ( ). Indeed, league tables are, in my opinion, best confined to the area of sport, where home and away matches against all competing teams in a division is the fairest way of ranking the relative strength of a team across one season. It is a wholly different ball game to use tables constructed using more questionable data, whose different categories are then subjectively weighted against each other, in ranking universities.

The most reliable evidence for the student academic experience is likely to be conversation, preferably with several current students of the programme under consideration, on an Open Day. I urge great caution about using websites where students are invited to post comments as a source of reliable insights from students. We cannot be sure who is composing these judgments. My confidence was shaken when I saw someone claiming to be an Oxford undergraduate at All Souls, which definitely does not admit undergraduates.

There is, however, one league table that is of some value, which I consider in Step 27.

Stage 2 : Choices: About

[STEP 27] 

In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) the research of 52,061 academic staff from 154 UK HE institutions was peer-reviewed by 36 subject panels comprising UK and international academics, and external users of research. The results were published in December 2014 and have been used by the four UK HE funding bodies to allocate c£2 billion of research funds annually from 2015-16. Details are available at ; rankings based on these are most conveniently found in the “Times Higher Education” tables: .

The REF gives no indication about the quality of teaching and some uni. departments keep their major research players away from undergraduate teaching. Most universities, however, do not, and the REF gives a good indication of the strength, in a crucial area, of a department, for those applicants who wish to apply to research-intensive universities, in which, to a large extent, students are expected to teach themselves by using research-based methods.

This is the seventh such research assessment: the others, called Research Assessment Exercises (RAE), were in 1986, 1989, 1992, 1996, 2001 and 2008. For the first time in 2014 the overall quality profile awarded to each submission was derived from three elements that were assessed:
1.            The quality of research outputs. As in 2008. (65% of the overall quality profile).
2.            The social, economic and cultural impact of research. A new feature. (20%).
3.            The research environment. Assessed differently in 2008. (15%).

The results for 2014 were produced as “overall quality profiles”, which show the percentage of research activity in each submission judged to have met each of the 4 quality levels 4* to 1* or to have been below 1*:

quality in terms of originality, significance & rigour                            UK overall % at this level
4*                           world-leading                                                                          30          
3*                           internationally excellent but not world-leading                   46          
2*                           internationally recognised                                                      20          
1*                           nationally recognised                                                              3             
Unclassified           not nationally recognised                                                       1             

It should be noted that universities were not required to submit the work of all research-active staff, but the number of FTE (full-time equivalent) research-active staff submitted is shown against each subject and institution profile.

In order to make comparisons, “Times Higher Education” (THE) produced a “grade-point average” score: a subject score of 4.0 would indicate that 100% of that institution’s work is judged to be 4*.

I am to an extent sceptical about such statistical results, and this scepticism has been reflected regularly in the THE and shared by REF and RAE participants whom I have met across the UK in recent years: for instance, the rush to get prominent researchers transferred from one uni. to another before the deadline made the January “transfer window” in football look like a kick-about in the park. However, I do believe that the 2014 REF has value for prospective university applicants. The fact that the THE league tables constructed from the results are based on peer review rather than suspect criteria and weightings attributed by non-specialists makes them more significant.

I think that a major benefit of the 2014 REF is that its results should warn us against stereotyping.

1.            Cambridge, Oxford, LSE and Imperial remain the leading research institutions in the UK, but they are far from dominant in all subjects.

As in 1996, 2001 and 2008 RAEs, the “Big Four” still head the THE “Table of Excellence”, which brings together the results of the individual subject tables.

Of universities offering a large range of subjects Cambridge and Oxford submitted respectively to 32 and 31 out of the 36 subject panels). Cambridge was ranked 1st or 2nd in 31% of its subject submissions, Oxford in 39%; Cambridge was ranked 3rd to 10th in 50% of its subject submissions, Oxford in 45%.

However, Cambridge was ranked outside the top 10 in 6 subjects (19%) and Oxford in 5 subjects (16%): 
Cambridge: Archaeology (19th=); Politics and International Sts. (14th); Sociology (12th); English Language and Literature (25th=); Philosophy (14th); Music (30th=)
Oxford: Anthropology (14th); Modern Languages and Linguistics (32nd); English Language and Literature (13th); Theology and Religious Sts. (12th); Art and Design: History, Practice and Theory (36th=).

Of more specialist institutions Imperial and LSE (14 subject submissions each) are dominant:
Imperial was ranked 1st or 2nd in 21% of its subject submissions, but was ranked 3rd to 10th in the remaining 79% of its submissions;
LSE was ranked 1st or 2nd in 50% of its subject submissions, and 3rd to 10th in 29%. In 3 subjects (21%) LSE was ranked outside the top 10: Mathematical Scis. (27th); Anthropology (15th); History (21st=).
It is notable that the profile of Essex, which also made 14 submissions (also mostly in Arts & Social Scis.), rivals LSE in areas where the latter has been traditionally dominant:

                              LSE                         Essex
Economics           2nd                          7th          
Philosophy           5th=                        9th=
Politics                  2nd                          1st
Sociology             8th                           7th          

2.            The term “Russell Group” is not synonymous with “the élite research universities”. Many, but by no means all 24 Russell Group universities fill the top 24 places in the THE “Table of Excellence”.

The Russell Group consists of the following 24 universities/colleges: Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Durham, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Imperial, KCL, Leeds, Liverpool, LSE, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Queen Mary, Queen’s Belfast, Oxford, Sheffield, Southampton, UCL, Warwick, York. The group was founded in 1994 to represent their common interests through “an association of leading UK research-intensive universities”, although some of their publicity suggests that they are “the leading UK research-intensive universities”.

If one discounts two small specialist institutions (Institute of Cancer Research and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine) which only made a combined total of 4 subject submissions, only 18 members of the Russell Group have got into the top 23 in the THE table.
Universities not in the Russell Group feature prominently: Bath (12th=), Lancaster (16th=), St Andrews (19th=), East Anglia (21st). 24th place is shared by 2 non-Russell Group (Royal Holloway and Swansea) and 2 Russell Group (Newcastle and Nottingham), while the following Russell Group universities are further down the order: Exeter (28th), Birmingham (29th=), Liverpool (31st=), Queen’s Belfast (40th=).

About a quarter of the top 10 entries in the 36 subject tables are non-Russell Group universities: East Anglia, Essex and St Andrews are in the top 10 in 6 tables, Bath and Royal Holloway in 5. 1st place is claimed in 5 of the tables by Aberdeen, Bath, Essex, Reading and Strathclyde.

3.            The overall quantity and standard of research submitted by “post-1992” universities varies greatly. Some are matching the standard of older universities.

Positions 54th-87th= in the THE table show an overlap between “old” and “new” universities which submitted to 10 or more panels. The overlap is greater than in 2008. In descending order (pre-1992 unis. underlined): Ulster (54th=) and Open, Goldsmiths, Keele, Aberystwyth, Brighton, Roehampton, SOAS, Liverpool John Moores, Sheffield Hallam, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Manchester Met., Westminster, Northumbria, East London, Hull, West of England, Brunel, De Montfort, Oxford Brookes, Huddersfield, Birmingham City, Hertfordshire, Nottingham Trent, Middlesex, Salford & Lincoln (87th=).

4.            Although there is remarkably little difference in the rank order of universities in the THE tables for the 2001 and 2008 RAEs and for the 2014 REF, especially in the top half of the tables, several universities have shifted position dramatically.

As fewer subject submissions are, in general, made by universities in the bottom half of the table, fluctuations there might be considered less significant.

Although prospective undergraduate applicants and their advisers should in many cases benefit from careful consideration of the REF 2014 results and the websites of individual university departments, which give the detail of the research interests of academic staff, it is, of course, more important that they focus on teaching rather than research quality: e.g., how the curriculum is delivered, the nature and amount of contact time, the size of classes, the availability of academic staff for individual discussion. My research among current students suggests that there are often very great differences between departments in the same university, in teaching as in research. Rely on “blind brand-name loyalty” at your peril!

Stage 2 : Choices: About

[STEP 28] 

Even if you have decided on subject(s) to be studied at university, narrowing the field to a final five choices can cause a great deal of anguish. It is clearly easier for some: there is simply less choice for the applicant for Korean than for the one who opts for Business Management; and some wish to study within an hour’s commute from their home, while others will consider anywhere else apart from institutions close to home.

Don’t assume that the universities requiring the highest grades are simply the “best” universities. It is worth repeating the point that there is no absolute good in university choice, any more than there is in choosing a house or a car: you need to focus on what is good for your needs.

Consider also what the two main factors are in determining the popularity, and therefore price in grades, of a particular degree programme: popular prejudice about big-name unis. and geographical location. Big-name unis. have largely gained their high profile with the general public as a result of their research rather than their teaching, and the subject rankings from the recent Research Excellence Framework (discussed in Step 27) show disparities between the popular view and the view of subject specialists about universities’ research profile in a particular subject. For example, Aberystwyth, whose Politics department is prominent in the research rankings (and where International Relations was invented as a subject discipline in 1919), might require only BBB, a generous offer, which is largely due to the university’s location.

I think that drawing up a short list of universities for a particular subject area is done most effectively by asking yourself a series of questions. Most of these questions are relevant to all subject areas, but inevitably some are particular to a specific subject area.

Let’s take Geography as an example.

(1) What type of degree programme do you want?

● Geography by itself or combined with something else?
                ▪ Single Honours               (Geography by itself, but a few other options might be taken)
                ▪ Joint Honours                 (50% in 2 subjects: one of which is Geography)
                ▪ Major/Minor                    (split as much as 75% in Major, 25% in Minor)
                ▪ Combined                       (Geography + 2 other subjects: e.g., Combined Social Sciences)

● General programme or specialised programme?
                ▪ most Geography programmes are general:                        human + physical geography
                ▪ some Geography programmes are specialised:                 physical geography
                                                                                                                   geographical information systems

● Arts (human geog. - BA) or Science (physical geog. - BSc) bias?
                ▪ Is there a common Year 1 & opportunity to specialise in one side later?
                ▪ Or do you take an arts- or science-biased programme from the start?

● How much fieldwork is there? When and where does it occur?

● How much choice is there within a programme?
                ▪ which topics are compulsory?
                ▪ what is the choice of specialist subject options?
                ▪ can modules be taken from subjects outside your main subject(s)?

● How many years do you want to study?
                ▪ most programmes are 3 years
                (but 4 years in Scotland + on “sandwich” courses with a work placement)
               ▪ some programmes are 4 year undergraduate Master’s courses (MArts/MSci/MGeog)
                (particularly relevant to those who wish to continue working in this area beyond a first degree)
                ▪ many unis. offer the chance to study at a uni. abroad
                (Does this involve an extra year or is it a yr./semester from what usually taken at the UK uni.?)

● What kind of assessment do you prefer?
                ▪ what proportion of marks counting towards your degree comes from:
                                - examinations (end of semester? end of year? in which years of the programme?)
                                - coursework (how often?)
                                - research project / dissertation (final year only?)

(2) What type of department do you want?

● What size of department do you prefer?
                ▪ how many students are there in each year group?
                ▪ how many teaching academic staff are there?

A smaller dept. is likely to be more personal, a larger dept. is likely to have more course options.

● What is the teaching provision offered within the department?
                ▪ what do current / recent students (or the academic staff) say about:
                                - size of teaching groups (number of students in tutorials/classes/seminars)
                                - number of classes and lectures per week
                                - feedback on written work:
                                                how often is written work marked?
                                                are there practice pieces on each topic before assessed coursework/exams. that
                                                count towards your final degree?
                                - support offered to those finding aspects of the course difficult
                ▪ what are the latest results from the National Student Survey (of student satisfaction)?

                (Do they reveal the quality of what is provided or how easily the students are satisfied?)

It is very important to ask students about teaching provision: there are often great differences between departments in the same university.

● What is the research quality within the department?
                ▪ what is the 2014 Research Excellence Framework rating?
                (i.e., % of research from 4* down to 1*)
                ▪ how good are research facilities, especially library & laboratory facilities?
                ▪ do the full time academic research staff do the teaching? Or do PhD students teach?
                ▪ do some of the research interests of the teaching staff match your (likely) areas of interest?
                (specialist course options are likely to reflect the teachers’ research interests)

If a department has a high rating for research:
                ▪ you will have the privilege of being taught by world experts (who might/might not be good teachers)
                ▪ you will be expected to do much of the teaching of yourself, by adopting research methods

(3) What are the entry requirements?

● Are particular subjects needed at GCSE or AS/A Level (or equivalent)?
● What grades/points are likely to be needed at A Level (or equivalent)?
● If a points’ offer is given, do points from AS grades/EPQ form part of the offer or only points from full A Levels?

The grades required for a course largely reflect the fact that some subjects and places attract more applicants than others. A course which requires AAA need not be superior to a course which requires CCC, but the academic achievement of the students on entry is likely to be greater on the former.

(4) What does the programme lead to?

● What information is there on employment of Geography graduates from a particular uni.?

While most of these questions are relevant to all potential subject areas, there are some that are relevant to specific disciplines.

Look at the individual subject Choosing Your Course sheets in that section of this website. As there is a vast number of subjects on offer as degree programmes and the extent of the choice can seem overwhelming, I give a list of related subjects on each sheet.

Here are some further notes on a few specific subjects.

Accounting + Finance    
There are 3 basic types of programme under this heading:           
- Accounting + Finance (with or without a “sandwich” placement year)
- Accounting + Finance sponsored by big financial services companies (e.g., PwC at Newcastle, Nottingham + Reading; EY at Lancaster). This is a fast-track graduate recruitment route, with guaranteed work experience, although there is no obligation on either side beyond the undergraduate degree. Selection includes an assessment centre with group tasks as well as perhaps the longest one-to-one interview in the country. (see Step 49)
- Money, Banking + Finance. Particularly appropriate for those considering entering banking-related areas in The City of London.

Art and Design
In order to explore a wider range of artistic media than is available in a Sixth Form course, most students take a 1 year Foundation Diploma in Art and Design, which is still Further Education rather than Higher Education. This means that you do not pay tuition fees, if you are under 19 years old when you start. During the Foundation Diploma year you decide on and apply for a more specialised degree programme. It is possible to apply directly for some undergraduate degree programmes without having taken the Foundation Diploma.

For both Foundation Diploma and degree programmes, portfolio and interview are very important.

Defining “philosophy” is itself a philosophical issue, but the subject focuses on a careful and critical reflection on the words and ideas which we ordinarily use.

Most Philosophy programmes are general: e.g., theory of knowledge + ethics + logic + ancient/modern philosophy. Some Philosophy programmes are specialised: e.g., ethics.

Check course content very carefully, as there is a large range of topics that can fall under this heading, including mathematical logic. Do not assume that it will just be a continuation of A Level Philosophy and Ethics.

In order to answer many of these questions and to make an informed choice overall, it is vital that you keep researching university websites at module level, as there is a great risk of getting an unpleasant surprise, if you end up on a university degree programme that you haven’t looked at in detail. Remember that most undergraduate programmes are structured like a pyramid, with a broad base in Year 1 (often with little or no choice), on which rests a narrower focus in Year 2 (with more options), above which the apex in Year 3 is more specialized (with few, if any, compulsory modules and perhaps a dissertation). It is important to look at all years of each programme.

However, web-based research can only take the applicant so far. I would like to see universities offering more information to applicants about the number of academic staff in a department: as with university size, one person’s “small and friendly” is another’s “small and claustrophobic”.  You might expect to be better known as an individual in a smaller department, but, if there are only three academic staff in your subject, what happens if one of them is granted a sabbatical year for research or is on maternity leave? The larger the department, the more options are likely to be offered beyond Year 1, as options usually reflect the academics’ research interests.

It is important to reiterate that the teaching provision offered within the department is likely to be very important. The size of teaching groups (i.e., not so much lectures as the number of students in tutorials/classes/seminars, when topics are discussed) is a key issue. The number of classes and lectures per week is also important, but students should not assume that more is necessarily better. Structure is a matter of individual choice: some thrive in a highly structured 9am-5pm Monday to Friday setting (with Wednesday afternoon free for sport); while others find the requirement to attend a couple of tutorials a week (with lectures optional) ideal for research-focused study in libraries.

It is important for some to consider the support offered to those finding aspects of the programme difficult (e.g., Maths., in Engineering) or with special needs (e.g., dyslexia) (see Step 21). A former colleague once encountered Year 2 Engineering students at a very well known university who did not understand an important aspect of their programme and who did not feel there was anyone to turn to for help.

Stage 2 : Choices: About

[STEP 29] 

Current undergraduate students are the best source of information, if you want to know what it is like to study on a particular degree programme or at a particular university. That is why I have encouraged you to speak with them on your visits to universities, whether those visits have been informally arranged by you (Step 8 , Step 18) or are formally structured by a university, as on an Open Day (Step 20). If your school or college brings back current or recent undergraduates for you to meet or you have friends or relatives who are students, you have a great opportunity to get an insider’s view.

You should, however, be a little cautious. Remember that what you are getting is always a personal view, which might not be a view shared by other students on the same programme or at the same university. If you already know the student, you might be able to put their comments in an academic and pastoral context. Moreover, if you are speaking with a recent rather than a current student, you should bear in mind that circumstances within the programme or university might have changed since they left.

As head of a school Careers Department, I have found a questionnaire sent to current students a very valuable source of information; indeed, this feedback is as valuable as any resource in the department. We sent it annually at Easter to the Year 13 cohort that left 3 years previously: some of the respondents were therefore approaching the end of their degree programme, while even those who took a “gap year” had completed most of it and so also have a broad perspective.

I encourage all schools and colleges to conduct a questionnaire like this, for the benefit of current potential applicants. If yours doesn’t yet do this, I encourage you as potential applicants to conduct your own private questionnaire among any current students that you know. You could use or adapt this one, which is designed to be quick to answer but to provide key information. Some respondents add extra comments, which are always welcome.

Name of university  -  programme title & subject(s) studied
Is your degree programme, in general, what you expected?    If not, how is it different?
What are the best features?
What are the worst features? 
What have been the greatest problems you have had in changing from school/Gap Year to university?
How much contact time have you had this year:
                (a) in lectures (per week)?          (b) in tutorials/classes?
                (c) one to one?                           (d) how many students are there in your tutorials/classes?
What do you feel about the teaching quality? 

How accessible are the tutors, if you have an academic problem?
If you have had a placement, where was it and was it useful? 
How much support did the university give you before and during the placement?
Have you any other comments (positive or negative) to make about your university that you think applicants might find useful? (e.g., about accommodation, costs, students’ union, sport) 

Stage 2 : Choices: About

[STEP 30] 

The Personal Statement probably causes more worry than any other part of the application process.

It’s not surprising that applicants are daunted by the Personal Statement: they’ve never written anything like it before and they feel that there’s a lot at stake. As a result, they often feel that it has to be grand in style and content, and they can thus easily miss what might be useful evidence.

Please note this advice at the start, so that you are less likely to fall into common Personal Statement traps:
- Focus on EVIDENCE of your interest in your chosen subject(s). Unsupported general statements are NOT a substitute for hard evidence.
- Do NOT write a potted autobiography.
- Do NOT write about why the subject is important for the world but why it is important for you.
- Do NOT write your reference. (e.g., Avoid “I am well known for my enthusiasm” or “This shows my enthusiasm.”)

The following tips might help.

1. The admissions’ staff want to see evidence of recent enthusiasm for the subject, especially of any research beyond an examination syllabus 

Enthusiasm can be shown in a variety of ways, depending on the subject, including books or articles read and work experience.

At university students are expected to develop more self-directed learning, so mentioning a research project can send the message “I’m ready to take part in university study”. An Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is a good way of doing this, especially if the topic is relevant to the proposed university subject. However, a certificated qualification such as an EPQ is not necessary, and I suggest that referring to any research in the first sentence of a Personal Statement can get the reader’s attention from the outset. An example might be: “I have recently been considering how radical Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was.” The applicant could then give a brief analysis of a couple of works read (one on either side of the debate): personal analysis followed by a personal conclusion gets far more credit than mere summary of books or articles read, which might easily have been culled from an Amazon or other website.

There is no credit for just listing books read (almost certainly the applicant who does this has read none of them!) or referring vaguely to “I regularly read ‘New Scientist’”, but a discussion of specific articles about, e.g., “super materials” that have followed in the wake of graphene is much more convincing.

Inspiration for a topic can be found by dipping into free online podcasts produced by some universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, and “The Guardian” or by taking part in a free online course (MOOC – Massive Open Online Course). Look at the many MOOCs produced by universities on the Futurelearn platform ( ).

Notice that what is needed is evidence of recent enthusiasm. Exclude the word “always”, other hyperbolic words, such as “fascinated” or “captivated”, and any reference to primary school projects!

2. If you’re applying for a subject not currently studied, reassure the admissions’ staff (and yourself) that you’ve done relevant research

An applicant for Engineering might consider undertaking a course (London universities offer many free one-day courses under London Tasters: see Step 17 above) or trying to undertake work experience. If the latter is impossible, someone who works in engineering might be prepared to give a brief interview. Similarly, someone applying for Real Estate might try to have a chat with an estate agent, but the chat would be more meaningful, if some preliminary research had been done on the national property market in the Property section of “The Daily Telegraph” or the local market by looking at the Rightmove website. Effort taken over this could impress enough to open a door to some work experience or work shadowing.

Medicine students tend to assume that shadowing a GP or consultant is vital. It isn’t. I have heard Medicine admissions’ staff on several occasions state that communication skills are best developed at a supermarket checkout or working in a café. Don’t consider these as too low status! It is what is learned in these jobs or in voluntary work with children or the elderly that it is crucial to express. Moreover, Medicine applicants would do well to remember that patients usually go to a doctor to have a problem solved, so any evidence of an interest in scientific problem solving (even if not strictly medical) is helpful.

For some subjects there are excellent paperback books available to test an interest in a subject not currently studied. I give some ideas on some of the Choosing Your Course sheets in that section.

3. Make full use of what is local

Don’t assume that local evidence is too parochial to make an impact. On the contrary, evidence of engaging with or observing one’s local community can make an application stand out.

Applicants for History, Sociology and Geography (physical and human) should consider what local issues might be incorporated. Business and Economics applicants might interview local businesses, including perhaps one in which they are currently a part-time employee, to discuss marketing strategies or the impact of financial decisions made by the government. See Step 16 for more ideas.

4. Consider how extra-curricular activities might be relevant

If someone is a keen supporter of a professional sport team and is applying for Business, why not look at the business strategy of that team? If the applicant has engaged in running a business, no matter on how small a scale, they might discuss how they dealt with problems encountered.

Admissions’ staff want to see evidence of resilience and perseverance (i.e., students who will not leave as soon as they face a difficulty), so any evidence of “adhesive qualities”, sticking with an interest over a period of time, is reassuring. Playing an instrument for several years (whether or not grade exams. have been taken), will get credit, as will taking on responsibilities, like looking after younger siblings. The latter could also lead into a discussion about child development by a Psychology applicant.

It is good for an applicant to show awareness in extra-curricular activities of issues that might relate to the subject applied for: for instance, a geographer looking at landscape features on a DofE expedition and relating this to what had been learnt at school. Applicants tend to underestimate the evidence they have in this area.

5. Use your Unique Selling Point

Curiosity is a key attribute for a potential university applicant. One way to stand out from the crowd is to go beyond the modular thinking that has dominated A Level specifications in recent years and to make interesting links: for instance, comparing Stalin’s methods of controlling a population with those of the Roman emperor Nero. 

I encourage applicants to consider their Unique Selling Point, which they can highlight in a Personal Statement. In my experience they rarely recognize it themselves, but a few minutes’ discussion with an adviser can usually elicit something in their background and interests (subject-related or not) that can feature prominently in their application as relevant evidence.

In short, the way to avoid Personal Statement Stress is to:
(i) see the process of writing the Personal Statement primarily as a means of convincing yourself that you are applying for the right degree programmes (and only secondarily as a document to convince admissions’ staff);

(ii) focus on providing personal evidence rather than writing bland generalization that anyone could compose;

(iii) draw up a list in the Summer Term of the evidence that you have and try to fill any gaps during the summer vacation.

By collecting material at this stage:
(1) those who are certain about which uni. subject(s) they want to apply for should feel more confident about their decision;
(2) those who want to apply for uni. but are torn between two or more subject options should, by collecting material for each of those options, gain a clearer idea of the option which appeals the most;
(3) those who want to apply for uni. but are not sure at all about subject choice should test any possible area by seeing how much relevant material they have;

(4) those who don’t know whether they want to apply to uni. should also test this possibility by seeing how much relevant material they have.

Whichever category you are in, I suggest that you draw up a table like the one below, so that you can list under several categories the evidence that you already have and the evidence that you might get before you submit your application in Year 13. This gives you, in effect, an action plan for the summer vacation.

You should not expect to include something under all the sections below.

                                                                                               already done                                                                           still to be done


research topic + reading done


special areas of interest in your

chosen subject


interesting articles


talk to class/school society


relevant lectures attended/
podcasts heard


courses/workshops/MOOCs attended


relevant documentaries seen/heard


relevant clubs attended


work shadowing/experience


examples of innovation/entrepreneurship


other activities relevant to subject(s)


extra-curricular activities: sport, music, drama, hobbies


other relevant life experiences

Stage 2 : Choices: About

[STEP 31]             

It is useful at this stage to be aware of what constitutes bad and better practice in writing a Personal Statement. You should consider both content and style. From the thousands of examples that I have seen, I think that most first drafts include too many general statements and not enough specific evidence. Keep in focus the aim of this: it is to show the admissions’ staff the evidence for your current interest in the subjects applied for. It should not therefore be an autobiography or an attempt to show the importance of the subject for the world at large.

In order to highlight bad and better practice, I have written fictional “bad and better” Personal Statement sections for five subjects. I have found it useful to show these to potential applicants in the Summer Term, so that, if they have a good idea at this stage of the sort of content and style that might ultimately be appropriate for them, they might be more likely to focus more successfully on collecting further relevant evidence in the summer vacation and be less daunted about writing their final version in the Autumn Term.

(1) What is a good UCAS Personal Statement for French?

Here is a couple of fictional extracts, to illustrate unsatisfactory and better practice relevant to students applying for Modern Languages.

Part of a bad Personal Statement for French

Since I was a young child I have visited France many times, firstly with my family and more recently on an exchange programme. I have travelled to most areas, but I especially like the Alps and the French Riviera. I have always been fascinated by the differences between French and British culture; I have enjoyed soaking up the French culture; and my appetite has been whetted to learn more.

French has always been my favourite subject, and I am keen to become fluent in the language and immerse myself further in French culture. I am attracted by the different pace of life in the south of France, and I enjoy nothing more than browsing in a market in Provence and practising my French.

First drafts of Modern Language Personal Statements often fall into the trap of “I like the country, so give me a ticket to your course (and a year abroad there)”. This is not a convincing appeal. Visiting the country is relevant, but only in the context of what was observed and learned (in addition to any language skills developed). Give evidence for why the Alps and French Riviera are favourite areas – or the admissions’ tutor might assume that it is because of skiing and sunbathing!

Beware of sweeping statements about French or British culture. “Soaking up” conjures up the image of a lazy time spent in a bar, and “appetite has been whetted” (and “immerse” in the next paragraph) does nothing to counteract this.

It is not sufficient evidence to state that “French has always been my favourite subject” and it is unlikely to be true: most students studied other subjects before they started French.

The statement about the pace of life in the south of France is a dangerous generalisation, which only serves to reaffirm the lazy year abroad image. At least “practising my French” is mentioned, but anyone can write this stuff.

I am captivated by the articles which I read in “Chez Nous”, such as ones on the environment and whether video games make people violent. I have read Maupassant’s short stories and am eager to delve further into French literature. I find French films particularly stimulating: “Au Revoir Les Enfants” is a firm favourite, but I have also watched “Jules et Jim” and “Amélie”.

Avoid such hyperbolic phrases as “I am captivated”: these tend to be the refuge of those who mistakenly believe that a lack of evidence can be disguised by strong expression of enthusiasm.

The mention of environment and video games needs to be developed. What was interesting about these articles? What did you learn? The same applies to the mention of Maupassant and the films. The superficial references suggest that these were compulsory parts of a French course, which have had little impact on the writer.

I am honoured to be Secretary of the school Modern Languages Society and have been fortunate to win a school travel grant to explore the Motorbike Sub-Culture of Southern France. This will also be a chance for me and my friends to hone our language skillset.

My advice to this applicant is to forget the honour and good fortune, and focus on what you have learnt from the experiences. The Motorbike Sub-Culture looks like a specious excuse to get funding for a trip to favoured resorts. Do not let your silence lure an admissions’ tutor into cynicism.

As for the phrase “hone our language skillset”, it looks as if it has come from a theoretical management (or Personal Statement) manual. The phrase does not look authentic. “Who has written this?” the admission tutor is asking, and is therefore wondering about the authenticity of the rest of the piece. Be genuine! Avoid pomposity.

Part of a better Personal Statement for French

In my EPQ, “Can the spread of Anglicisms in French be halted?”, I concluded that the efforts of Giscard d’Estaing and others during the last fifty years represent ultimately a futile effort by those who adopt an extreme normative position. Language is constantly developing in all registers, oral and written, and I wish to explore this fluidity in more detail. The EPQ research arose from my reading Kate Fox’s “Watching the English” in the context of my frequent visits to France. I wondered what an anthropological study of “Watching the French” in different communities might contain. Reading Ball’s “The French Speaking World” led me to conduct a questionnaire during a recent study visit to Nice: I concluded that most of the respondents were at ease with Anglicisms in speech, but recognised that the written language often requires a more formal register.

The EPQ title is eye-catching from the outset. No other applicant is likely to have chosen this title, and the research and presentation skills required for an EPQ are those required in undergraduate study. The conclusion shows an awareness of the normative/descriptive debate in linguistics and (probably) shows that the applicant is an independent thinker. This is confirmed by the reflection on reading (“Watching the English”) in a French cultural context. Similarly, the initiative in undertaking the survey in Nice and the nuanced conclusion suggest that this is a curious and committed student who is prepared to get outside his/her “intellectual comfort zone”.

A student wishing to “read” a subject at university should strongly consider highlighting individual research at the beginning of the Personal Statement, including personal reflection on two or three books or articles read in connection with this research, which need not be formally assessed as an EPQ.

The depiction of the harsh life of mining families in Zola’s “Germinal” moved me, and I decided to explore the very different ambiences of “Nana” and “Thérèse Raquin”. I have given a presentation to my Art class on “Who was the more revolutionary artist: Zola or Cézanne?” I concluded in favour of Cézanne, as his impact has been more lasting.

The development of an interest in Zola is justified well, but a sentence comparing and contrasting the three novels would have driven this point home. It is, however, good to see that this student is not constrained by modular study at A Level but thinks across categories, by making links across subjects, and takes the trouble to present a paper to a group.

My favourite film director is Louis Malle, as, unlike Truffaut and others of the Nouvelle Vague, he had the courage to explore with sensitivity topics such as incest and wartime collaboration: while “Souffle au Coeur” is a tragi-comic and disturbingly convincing adolescent’s journey, “Lacombe Lucien” exposes how tempting it can be to sacrifice moral standards for someone craving social acceptance.

The interest in Malle is justified well (he did, after all, retreat from France to USA for several years). The conclusions about the two films mentioned are perspicacious.

Overall, the impression is that this is a student whose enthusiasm for French language and culture is genuine and wide ranging. Although many students might not match this level of engagement, it is the approach to the material that is the salient characteristic: the evidence presented is cogent and the analytical style is clear and concise. These passages stand in sharp contrast to the superficiality of the examples and the rather desperate style in the “bad” Personal Statement.

(2) What is a good UCAS Personal Statement for History?

There are particular pitfalls that the unwary History applicant might fall into in writing a Personal Statement, as illustrated in the fictional example below. I have also devised some extracts to illustrated what admissions’ staff might find more convincing.

Part of a bad Personal Statement for History

I’ve always loved History. When I was young I liked nothing more than exploring medieval castles. More
recently I’ve been captivated by WW2: Hitler’s dramatic rise to power, the strategies of both sides, and why was Germany defeated? I’ve been particularly fascinated by technical progress in military aircraft: for instance, the development of the Heinkel He 162 lightweight interceptor and the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter, 1433 of them were built. Making models of these increases my knowledge. My favourite book is “Jane’s Fighting Aircraft of World War II”. I’ve visited the Imperial War Museum 3 times. History is a vital subject. Only by studying the past can we learn lessons for the future. We’ve been studying the French Revolution and Napoleon at school. I’m intrigued by how a little man from Corsica, who notoriously was afraid of cats, could dominate the world. Of course, he bit off more than he could chew when it came to invading Russia. So did Hitler, however if he had read more history he would of learnt from Napoleon’s cock up and not got chucked out of Russia. So obviously this proves that studying History is vital. I want to be the new Dan Snow and tell people about famous battles on TV.

There are problems with the layout and the English. Paragraphs are needed, for, if the Personal Statement is written in one paragraph, the admissions’ tutor is likely to feel that the applicant cannot structure written work or be sufficiently concise. Moreover, this is a formal document, so contracted forms ("I’ve"), colloquial expressions ("bit off more than he could chew"; "cock up"; "chucked out") and abbreviations ("WW2", "TV") should be avoided. There are also errors of punctuation ("however" needs to be preceded by a full stop rather than a comma), grammar ("of them" should be "of which"; "would of" should be "would have") and syntax ("why was Germany defeated?" should be turned into an Indirect Question: "why Germany was defeated"). Applicants need to be aware of the correct stylistic register as well as the need for accurate English.

There are also many problems with the content. The start is weak and irrelevant: a biographical summary is unnecessary; it is the applicant’s position now which is important. On the Second World War, quite apart from the hyperbole ("captivated"), the three topics listed do nothing to show how the applicant’s interest has developed: what has been learned, what independent conclusions have been drawn. The section on aircraft is descriptive rather than analytical, and there is a suggestion that the applicant’s interests are narrowly confined to military machines, which the mention of modeling and the reference to Jane’s does nothing to dispel. Similarly, there is no credit gained for having visited a museum (even several times), if there is no suggestion of what was learned there.

The general statement about History in the middle comes as a shock, and it is a naïve historian who assumes that lessons are learned from the past.

As for Napoleon, there is very little insight shown. The language suggests that the writer is likely to stereotype ("little man from Corsica"); Napoleon’s fear of cats is, I believe, undocumented; and he did not dominate the entire world. It is therefore not surprising that this applicant uses "of course", "obviously" and "proves", all of which I tell my students to avoid in their essays.

At the end there is a clumsy return to the “learning from history” theme, followed by a clumsy statement about career aim, which by this stage seems to be totally unrealistic.

Part of a better Personal Statement for History

Most recently my historical interests have focused on ancient and modern political propaganda, French social history, and the current relevance of genocide denial.

In my EPQ, “Was the Augustan régime’s propaganda more effect than that of the Nazi régime?”, I concluded that, while the Nazis had more resources, such as Riefenstahl’s films, to reach a mass audience, Augustus use of physical image and inscriptional biography (“Res Gestae”) was an effective means of binding together a huge and disparate empire. Burleigh’s concept of “political religion” as applied to the Nazis has resonances in this much earlier period; and it is no coincidence that Syme’s “Roman Revolution”, charting Octavian’s transformation into Augustus, was written during the expansion of fascism in the 1930s.

Tindall’s “Célestine” shows how isolated a rural area like the Berry was until the First World War. This was complemented by Le Roy Ladurie’s evocation of 14th century village life in “Montaillou”: his microscopic analysis of a community reveals that social distinctions were not as marked here as in more prosperous areas.

Studying the Lipstadt/Irving holocaust denial trial of 2000 made me realize the importance of objective historical study in the face of politically motivated threats. In this context, I researched and presented a paper to the Sixth Form Seminar Group on whether the mass killing of Armenians in 1915 should be described as “genocide”. I concluded that, although the application of the term is more complicated than is generally realized, the Turkish government’s denial of genocide is unjustifiable.

The first sentence whets the appetite for what is to follow, though some would advocate dispensing with it, as the detailed evidence about the EPQ could have greater impact as an opening sentence. It is unlikely that any other applicant has taken this title for research. It is particularly eye-catching because the applicant has chosen to examine a theme across two greatly contrasting cultures. This breadth is also indicated by the range of sources consulted: film, art and inscription. The applicant not only has consulted modern scholars, but also sees the importance of the context in which one of them was writing.

The analytical approach is developed in the next paragraph across a different topic, which again is unusual and has required the applicant to compare and contrast very different historical periods.

The third paragraph offers a justification for the importance of objective historical study by quoting pertinent evidence. Moreover, this appears to have been a springboard for research on another historical topic with profound resonances in politics today. The conclusion suggests a balanced approach: even if some might dispute the conclusion reached, the important point is that this applicant has realized that this is a more complex issue than many people believe.

If we look at the “bad” and “better” segments above, I think it is clear that the second example is far more convincing than the first, because the evidence is more compelling and it is expressed in a more literate and sophisticated style.

(3) What is a good UCAS Personal Statement for Medicine?

Medicine is a highly competitive subject and Personal Statements are closely scrutinised. Here is a couple of fictional extracts, to illustrate unsatisfactory and better practice.

Part of a bad Personal Statement for Medicine

I have always wanted to be a doctor. Ever since I cut my head as a small child and experienced the drama and professionalism of an A and E department, this has been my aim. I can think of no more satisfying career than helping people in life-changing or even life-threatening situations. I hope to specialise in cardiology.

UCAS has revealed that the most popular opening for a Personal Statement in one application cycle was “From a young age I have (always) been…”. Not only is the opening sentence above therefore dull, it is also, if taken literally, untrue and irrelevant. The admissions’ tutor needs evidence of current interest, not a potted biography. The next two sentences create the suspicion that drama rather than scientific problem solving are at the heart of this applicant’s interests. And on the subject of heart, the absurdly early decision on specialisation suggests narrow-mindedness.

Science has always been my strongest area at school. I am proud to have achieved 10 straight A* grades at GCSE, and I chose to support my fascination for Biology and Chemistry by studying Mathematics. English has helped to develop my communication and analytical skills.

Although scientific ability is necessary, the way this is expressed suggests that the motivation to study Medicine comes from what comes most easily academically rather than a commitment to the career area. There is no need to blow one’s trumpet by being proud, as Medics. need to have confidence but also humility, if they are to be teachable, empathetic and communicative. Let the referee judge your achievement. In any case, the grades are already mentioned elsewhere on the form. As for “fascination”, what is needed is evidence of that interest rather than a hyperbolic noun.

The bland comment about English is one that anyone studying the subject at any level might justifiably write. Give evidence!

I am fortunate to have relatives who are GPs, and I have spent several days at their surgeries. My godfather, who is a consultant cardiologist, arranged for me to see different departments during one week in a large local hospital.

Let others judge your good fortune; just give the evidence. In this context, parading the family network might easily be read as sneering contempt for those “less fortunate”. It is not clear what this person learned in the GP surgeries; from this they might have just sat in the waiting room! As for the hospital placement, we again need to know what was learned, and we now wonder whether godfather hero-worship is responsible for the wish stated earlier to specialise in cardiology . An opportunity to compare and contrast (different departments; GP and consultant) has been missed.

I have read many books about medicine. These include “Call the Midwife”, “An Insider’s Guide to Medicine”, “Saturday” and “Grey’s Anatomy”. I read “New Scientist” regularly and have been intrigued to develop my scientific knowledge from many articles. I attend our school Science Society. I also went to a captivating lecture on surgery.

Quantity of reading does not impress, nor does a reading list. In reading Personal Statements, I soon realised that, if books were listed, the more likely it was that the applicant had read none of them! Moreover, this list is an odd mixture: memoir; student applicant guide; a novel; a “classic” of anatomy – but the spelling should be “Gray”. Similarly, mentioning articles in general is unconvincing, unless it is supported by reference to a specific article or articles and how that developed the applicant’s knowledge or awareness. Merely claiming attendance at a school society raises questions: How often? What topics have been presented and in what format? In the absence of extra detail, there is the suspicion that the applicant was simply sitting there passively rather than actively participating. The word “captivating” is hyperbolic. What was particularly interesting?

I have a variety of extra-curricular interests. I play most sports and represent the school for first team hockey and athletics. My main event in the latter is javelin. I have completed the Silver Duke of Edinburgh Award. In Year 9 I won a Community Service award.

The first sentence is too bland and nobody plays “most” sports. Will this person be busier playing sport than studying? What skills are involved: e.g., persistence, time management? As for the two awards mentioned, what was learned in the process?

Part of a better Personal Statement for Medicine

I am interested in scientific problem-solving. A recent article in “New Scientist” on the development of personalised gene therapy treatment led me to give a talk to my class on “Glybera”, the first treatment approved by the European Commission: I focused on both the scientific and the ethical issues. I learned that articles in the popular press often skate over complex issues in both areas.

If I go to a doctor, I often want her/him to solve a problem and have the knowledge to do so. Communication skills might be important but are secondary. This applicant specifies a particular article (on an area of rapid development in medicine) and shows that the initial interest led to a presentation being researched and given. The applicant sensibly limited the scope of this presentation to a manageable amount. Moreover, the student has realised, from the scientific article, that non-scientific articles can over-simplify and cause serious distortion. This is a thinking student, who can compare and contrast and, it seems, reach an independent conclusion.

I have worked for several months on a supermarket check-out, where, like a doctor, I have had to deal with a wide range of people, some of whom are clearly under stress. I have become more confident in trying to communicate in a clear and friendly way, while maintaining an efficient service. Weekly voluntary work for the last year at an old people’s home has taught me the value of regular contact: what is at first shown on the surface is not always the main concern.

I have heard several Medicine admissions’ tutors say that working on a supermarket checkout or in a café is better preparation than shadowing a GP or consultant. The skills developed by dealing with a wide cross-section of people, some of whom might not be at their best (as the student acutely observes), are valuable in the NHS. The student draws the analogy and gives evidence of perseverance (an important quality for all students), flexibility, empathy and a wish to develop communication skills. The voluntary work again is used as evidence of someone who sticks at something. Many patients will be old. The student has insight, being aware of the distinction between superficial statements or evidence and underlying issues.

I recognise, as Gabriel Weston shows in “Direct Red”, that Medicine is a demanding profession, which requires great collaboration among colleagues as well as physical and mental stamina. I have five young cousins, whom I regularly supervise during the school holidays with a couple of older cousins: this has helped me to devise strategies for coping with stress, including diversion, variety of activities and humour. I regularly exercise for recreation by running in the local park.

The student dismisses any notion of Medicine as a romantic profession, but puts this in a positive way, while quoting a good memoir as evidence. The supervision of the younger cousins is again evidence of regular commitment, here to working with children. The student works in a team and shows awareness of problems and possible solutions in exercising a responsibility. The regular physical exercise, although it is not high status or team-based, offers reassurance that this student tries to keep body as well as mind in a healthy state. Stressed Medicine students need a contrasting activity as a release.

I hope that the two extracts above offer an indication of both the dangers of unsupported generalisation and the kind of evidence that can be effective. Note the contrast between the unimpressive listing of names and experiences assumed to be “high status” in the first example and the cogent use of examples from everyday life in the second example. Applicants often ignore such potentially important evidence as being too mundane. It is not!

(4) What is a good UCAS Personal Statement for Real Estate Management?

Here is a couple of fictional extracts, to illustrate unsatisfactory and better practice.

Part of a bad Personal Statement for Real Estate Management

We have moved house many times and, as a result, I have seen and lived in different types of property. I have been fascinated to be involved in the often complex negotiations that take place. Also my father and uncle are both estate agents with Swank and Nailer, and I have been fortunate to visit different types of property with them, and have details explained to me.

The first two sentences are bland. There is no evidence that the writer has learnt from these experiences. The same applies with the opportunities provided by relatives. What did this person learn? In view of the lack of evidence, there is a suspicion that this is someone trying to join a family bandwagon. I advise not mentioning relatives providing opportunities. And don’t celebrate your good fortune.

Avoid "Also" at the beginning of a sentence. Use “Moreover” or “In addition” or postpone “also”.

I now regularly read the property pages of “The Daily Telegraph” and see week by week developments in the residential sector.

Anybody could have written this. Give specific examples. Show that you can think about what you have learnt.

My A Level subjects support my choice. Business Studies makes me aware of issues such as marketing and Geography has developed my knowledge of population and environment. I am determined to learn more about environmental issues relevant to housing. Classical Civilisation has made me see that issues connected with housing have a historical dimension, as well as developing my essay writing skills.

Don’t try desperately to link all your A Level subjects with your choice of HE course.  The points about Business Studies and Geography might have been made relevant, if more specific detail had been given. The first Classical Civilisation point looks desperate, the second is too obvious to need stating.

I am determined to study a subject which is relevant to everyday life and I am confident that I have the talent to succeed.

I don’t like this kind of bland conclusion, which some people feel obliged to write. If the main body of the Personal Statement has been effectively based on evidence, there is no need to spoil it by adding a tailpiece that does not advance the argument further. Let the reference writer(s) judge your talent.

Part of a better Personal Statement for Real Estate Management

I first became interested in property two years ago, when my parents bought our current house and then applied for planning permission to construct an extension. I was interested to observe the marketing tactics of the different estate agents who showed us properties: one tried to overwhelm us with detail; another tried to gloss over defects and emphasise, in exaggerated terms, the positive aspects; the best gave clear information, was ready to listen and gave informed replies. This led me to scrutinise carefully the written information that the companies provided, and my regular reading of “The Daily Telegraph”’s property pages taught me that this is both a challenging and exciting time in the property industry, as the country moves out of recession (at different rates in different areas) and new building regulations are having a great impact.

This introduction is based on personal experience. Moreover, it convincingly sets out, with evidence, the stages by which this applicant’s interest grew. There is evidence of the ability to analyse different marketing techniques and to reach an independent judgement. The reading also seems to have been conducted in a reflective way, and the reader seems to have become aware that there is considerable variety in the buoyancy of the property market across the country.

During a week’s work shadowing  with Chalmer Sell I learned more about the legal aspect of buying and selling property and visited eight residential properties to value them. I was able to shadow a commercial agent, who explained the importance of the mixture of residential and commercial property both to companies and communities.

The Chalmer Sell work shadowing is described in sufficient detail to highlight the variety and extent of what was seen. Most importantly, there is a sense that this student was learning.

In contrast, a further week with Day Wiley, an agency specialising in agricultural property and land, gave me an insight into the role of property managers in an agricultural property auction.

The Day Wiley work shadowing is an effective contrast with the Chalmer Sell placement, and again there is a sense that the applicant was learning more by broadening her/his experience.

My interest in sustainability and conservation, sparked by a presentation given by me to my Geography set on BedZED development in London, led me to read both the “Housebuilder’s Bible” by Brinkley and “Building Construction Handbook” by Chudley and Greeno.  The former gives a meticulous point-by-point guide to building a house, and I was particularly interested in the section on “managing builders”; the latter gives more detail on materials and methods of construction.

The applicant’s study of Geography is effectively linked in: the talk shows a readiness to research and present, skills increasingly valued in HE courses.

The reading is likely to set this applicant apart from others. These are detailed books, but it is clear that s/he has a working knowledge of them and is committed to learning about this subject from the foundations upwards!

(5) What is a good UCAS Personal Statement for Social Anthropology?

Here is a couple of fictional extracts, to illustrate unsatisfactory and better practice.

Part of a bad Personal Statement for Social Anthropology

“The purpose of Anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.” Ruth Benedict’s statement encapsulates the relevance of anthropology for today’s war-torn world: if we can understand the differences between people, we can help to create peace. Studying anthropology will provide a framework to help me see what is universal to all human societies and what is variable.

“Quotation is the refuge of unoriginal thinkers” (Roger Philipson) Never start with a quotation. It suggests that you do not have any ideas of your own for this Personal Statement.

Do not fall into the trap of justifying the importance of anthropology as an area of study. The admissions’ tutor wants to see its importance for you as an individual.

The last sentence has been lifted straight from the LSE website. PLAGIARISM IS THE SUREST WAY TO GET YOUR APPLICATION PUT IN THE BIN!

I relish the prospect of analysing many forms of information - from texts to films - in ways that will enable me to question received versions of the world. As a student I will increase my factual understanding of the world, and of the interdependence of different parts of it.

There is more plagiarism here (from the same source as before). In any case, what the applicant has already read and thought is far more relevant than “relishing” (hyperbole!) the programme on offer, which is summarized in too general terms to make an impact on an admissions’ tutor.

At the same time, the skills I will develop in reading critically, writing coherently, reasoning effectively and public expression will help my employment prospects.

The plagiarism continues (from the same source again). Moreover, such a generalization could be applied to most university degree programmes, especially in Social Sciences and Humanities. This adds no evidence about why the applicant wants to study Anthropology in particular

My interest in anthropology started when I went on holiday to Spain. I was struck by the different lifestyle, and thought that the “mañana” attitude I saw among people was not unconnected to the tendency to take a siesta.

The analysis is superficial, the conclusion unjustified (and bizarre) and the stereotyping borders on racism. This looks like someone who has attempted to connect two features of “quaint foreigners”.

Enthused by my observations, I have read: R Astuti, J Parry and C Stafford (eds) Questions of Anthropology; T H Eriksen Small Places, Large Issues: an introduction to social and cultural anthropology; K Gardner Songs at the River's Edge: stories from a Bangladeshi village. I am now convinced that anthropology is for me.

The books listed are from the LSE suggested reading list! As a rule of thumb: the more books an applicant lists, the more s/he is unlikely to have read any of them. The clumsy language of the conclusion reinforces the impression of someone who has little awareness about the subject, has done minimal research and is probably looking for a new subject to study at university, because s/he has not particularly enjoyed those currently being studied. There is no evidence of the curiosity or initiative needed in an independent learner.

Part of a better Personal Statement for Social Anthropology

In order to test my interest in studying Law at university, I read “Eve Was Framed”. I was so deeply affected by Helena Kennedy’s demonstration of gender and other bias in the operation of the legal process that I felt that I had to examine this further in an EPQ entitled “How far can anthropology help us to understand miscarriages of justice?” I focused on the role of status in the flawed convictions of Sally Clark and Barry George for murder: in the former, an “expert witness” misused statistics; in the latter, the pressure for conviction led to an excessive concentration on flimsy evidence against someone characterized as a “misfit”. The most interesting of several books that I consulted was Elizabeth Loftus’s “Eyewitness Testimony”: her evidence of the extent to which our memories of incidents are affected by our shared cultural and individual prejudices makes this book, in my opinion, required reading for all lawyers and jurors.

There is nothing wrong in claiming that you considered applying for Subject A but are now applying for Subject B, as long as you can show that you have (as here) conducted proper research into Subject A before deciding on Subject B. Those applying for subjects not currently studied have to convince admissions’ tutors that they have conducted proper research: they are not expected to have read as much as those applying for subjects currently being studied, but they do need to reassure admissions’ staff that they have some idea of what they are applying for, and are not merely looking for an “escape” from current subjects. The journey presented here is convincing and interesting.

An EPQ (or similar research project) is an eye-catching way to start. It is evidence of the sort of research skills needed in uni. study; it is an individual title, which sets an applicant apart from the mass; even if the subject is not relevant to the course applied for, the skills are. This applicant comes across as curious and an independent thinker. Note that there is no hyperbole (e.g., “I was intrigued, fascinated, beguiled…”), as there is no desperate clutching at straws.

I am now convinced that I wish to study Anthropology. Kate Fox’s “Watching the English” is written in a lighter vein, but exposes distinctive practices within British society, from vocabulary as an indication of class to the intricate behaviours seen in gaining attention at a bar. As a result of my study of French and visits to France, I have been considering what an equivalent “Watching the French” might contain.

The applicant is able to discuss (rather than just summarise) reading as a basis for further reflection.

Nigel Barley’s “The Innocent Anthropologist” taught me how much patience a field anthropologist needs, not least in learning a new language, and made me consider how distorting the “observer effect” can be. 

Only now is a work introduced that deals with a subject most commonly associated with anthropologists: studying a tribe in Africa. Convincing new points are being made. In connection with all the reading, the applicant is providing evidence of what s/he has learnt.

I have given a talk to our Sixth Form Seminar Group on “Witness: how far did the film distort the Amish society for dramatic effect?” The crux is the danger that those of us outside a community tend to use limited evidence to reach untenable conclusions about how a whole society operates. I used the analogy of school: informal and formal hierarchies operate, and a highly edited film such as “Educating Yorkshire” can only give a superficial awareness of their complex relationship.

The applicant has taken the trouble to research and present a talk to a general audience. The use of analogy and the awareness of the danger of superficiality in treating complex communities in films and television show the development of higher level skills. This applicant, from a university tutor’s point of view, looks to be eminently “teachable”: the sort of person you would want in a seminar group.

Stage 2 : Choices: About

[STEP 32] 

The number of degree programmes requiring entry tests has risen in the last few years. It is important that you check whether any is needed well in advance of submitting your UCAS application form. UKCAT, for instance, is usually sat in the summer vacation between Year 12 and Year 13, while your performance in any of these tests is likely to be improved by a period of preparation in which you familiarise yourself thoroughly with past paper examples and embark on related study, whether it be using similar aptitude tests or instruction manuals for more general reasoning tests or undertaking relevant further study (perhaps with help from your teachers) for subject-specific tests. If you come across a statement that “extra preparation is not necessary for this test”, I encourage you to distinguish between what is necessary and what is desirable. If you have ever done an IQ test, you probably know the benefit of familiarity with the format that comes from preparation. On the other hand, I urge you to beware of companies offering expensive preparation courses. They might add confidence and competence to some, but I think that individual preparation is as likely to be effective.

Note that these tests may only be taken once in an application year and that, if you re-apply in a different year for programmes that require them, you will have to re-take the test.

(i) Dentistry, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine

Most universities require Dentistry, Medicine and Veterinary applicants to sit either the UKCAT test (usually in the summer vacation) or the BMAT test (usually in early November).

UKCAT (UK Clinical Aptitude Test)

UKCAT is required by most UK Medical and Dental Schools.

UKCAT is a two-hour computer-based test run by an organisation set up by the universities that require the test.  It consists of 5 separately timed sub-tests which assess a range of mental abilities identified by university medical and dental schools as important.  Each subtest contains multiple-choice questions.
- verbal reasoning                (assesses the ability to critically evaluate information presented in a written form)
- decision making                 (assesses the ability to make sound decisions and judgements using complex information)
- quantitative reasoning       (assesses the ability to critically evaluate information presented in a numerical form)
- abstract reasoning              (assesses the use of convergent and divergent thinking to infer relationships from information)
- situational judgement        (measures the capacity to understand real world situations and to identify critical factors and
                                                appropriate behaviour in dealing with them)

Tests are taken online through the Pearson Test Centre network.

UKCAT registration opens at the beginning of May and closes in mid September. 

UKCAT testing takes place between the beginning of July and the beginning of October.
I therefore recommend registering and booking online in May and taking the test during the summer vacation.

When candidates leave the test centre, they are given a copy of their UKCAT Score Report.  

After the UCAS application deadline has passed (15 October), Pearson is told by UCAS which uni. programmes requiring UKCAT a particular candidate has applied to and communicates the test result directly to those universities (usually during the first week of November). You do not need to pass your test result to your universities yourself. 

As you will have your test result before the UCAS deadline, please ensure you use this to help inform your UCAS choices; otherwise, you might be wasting an application.  

The UKCAT website has information on how universities use the UKCAT results, including how particular scores from the previous application cycle were used in determining whether to give an interview or offer:

BMAT (BioMedical Admissions Test)

BMAT is currently required for the following UK university programmes:
Medicine: Brighton + Sussex, Cambridge, Imperial, Keele (only "overseas for fees applicants"), Lancaster, Leeds, Oxford, UCL
Dentistry: Leeds
Biomedical Scis.: Oxford

BMAT is a 2-hour, pen-and-paper test from Cambridge Assessment divided into three sections. The first 2 are multiple-choice format; for the last you answer on 1 title out of the 3 given.
- Aptitude and Skills: generic skills in problem-solving, understanding arguments, data analysis + inference     (60 mins.)
- Scientific Knowledge + Applications: applying GCSE-level scientific knowledge in science + Maths.               (30 mins.)
- Writing Task:  ability to select, develop + organize ideas; to communicate them concisely + effectively           (30 mins.)

Tests are taken at your school/college or other recognised examination centre.

You need to register to take the test in the same way that you would register for any other public examination. Do not assume that, if you are applying to a degree programme that needs it, you will be automatically registered.

The test takes place at the beginning of November. You should register between early September and mid-October.

There is now also an opportunity to take it at the beginning of September, but not all universities accept this sitting and it has to be sat in a limited number of places. You should register between early July and mid-August.
The September sitting might be convenient for some applicants, but I would recommend going for the later option, to give yourself more preparation time, including the Half Term break for those in Year 13.

Results for the November test are sent to both applicants and the institutions which require them towards the end of November. Applicants sitting the test in September need to send their results to the relevant universities.

Cambridge Assessment produces an annual explanation of results, which includes the distribution of all applicants’ marks. You will find this and other helpful material on their website:

(ii) University of Oxford Admissions Tests

At Oxford, test requirements are determined by department. The vast majority of subjects now requires an entry test to be taken at the beginning of November.

BMAT (see section (i) above) and ELAT tests are identical for Oxford and Cambridge. The other tests are different.

As the requirements change from year to year, please check the current position well in advance of applying, so that you can give yourself the best chance to prepare.

The November tests are a very important part of the selection process at Oxford. Even if you have a string of top grades at GCSE or beyond, you are unlikely to get an interview, if your scores put you in the bottom half of the applicants.

In the 2018-9 application cycle:

November test required
BMAT    (BioMedical Admissions Test):                  Biomedical Sciences, Medicine
CAT        (Classics Admissions Test):                       Classics (+ English/ Mod.Langs./Oriental Sts.)
ELAT      (English Literature Admissions Test):       English (+ Classics/ Mod.Langs.)
HAT        (History Aptitude Test):                             History (+ Economics/English/ Mod.Langs./Politics),
                                                                                   History (Ancient + Modern)
LNAT     (Law National Aptitude Test):                   Law (Jurisprudence)
MAT      (Mathematics Admissions Test):                Computer Sci. (+ Philosophy)
                                                                                   Mathematics (+ Computer Sci./Philosophy/Statistics)
MLAT    (Modern Languages Admissions Test):    Modern Languages (+ Classics/Linguistics/English/Philosophy)
                                                                                   European + Middle Eastern Languages, PPL (if Linguistics)
OLAT     (Oriental Languages Aptitude Test):        Oriental Studies (some) (+ Classics/Religion)
                                                                                  European + Middle Eastern Languages
PAT        (Physics Aptitude Test):                             Engineering Sci., Materials Science, Physics (+ Philosophy)
Philosophy Test:                                                       Philosophy + Theology
TSA Oxford (Thinking Skills Assessment):              Chemistry, Economics + Management, History + Economics,
                                                                                   Human Sciences, PPE, Psychology (Experimental),
                                                                                   PPL (Psychology, Philosophy + Linguistics)

No November test but test at interview
Fine Art

No November test or test at interview
Archaeology + Anthropology
Biological Sciences
Classical Archaeology + Ancient History
Earth Sciences
History of Art
Oriental Studies (some)
Theology + Religion

Almost all the tests are from Cambridge Assessment. It is ironical that this is part of the University of Cambridge! LNAT for Law (see section (iv) below) is administered by Pearson.

Tests are taken at your school/college or other recognised examination centre, apart from LNAT, which is taken online through the Pearson Test Centre network.

You need to register to take the test in the same way that you would register for any other public examination. Do not assume that, if you are applying to a degree programme that needs it, you will be automatically registered. For the November tests you should register between early September and mid-October. Oxford does NOT allow applicants to sit the September BMAT test.

BMAT, ELAT and TSA results are available from Cambridge Assessment’s Results Online website. Other test results are not published but may be requested by an applicant as part of the feedback process. I advise you to request them, whatever the outcome of your application.

Oxford admissions website:
Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing website:

(iii) University of Cambridge Admissions Tests

At Cambridge, with the demise of AS taken at the end of Year 12 in many schools/colleges, there has been a move back to pre-interview November assessments across particular departments, as at Oxford. These are administered by Cambridge Assessment. However, whereas at Oxford there is consistency of requirements across particular departments, at Cambridge colleges sometimes differ in what they require. It is therefore important to check for up to date information on the website.

BMAT (see section (i) above) and ELAT tests are identical for Oxford and Cambridge. The other tests are different.

As the requirements change from year to year, please check the current position well in advance of applying, so that you can give yourself the best chance to prepare.

The November tests are a very important part of the selection process at Cambridge. Even if you have a string of top grades at GCSE or beyond, you are unlikely to get an interview, if your scores put you in the bottom half of the applicants.

In the 2018-9 application cycle:

November test required
ASNCAA               (Anglo-Saxon, Norse + Celtic Admissions Assessment)                        ASNAC
AMESAA              (Asian + Middle Eastern Studies Admissions Assessment)                     Asian + ME Sts.
BMAT                    (BioMedical Admissions Test)                                                                   Medicine
CSAT                      (Computer Science Admissions Test)                                                      Computer Science
ECAA                     (Economics Admissions Assessment)                                                       Economics
ELAT                      (English Literature Admissions Test)                                                         English
ENGAA                 (Engineering Admissions Assessment)                                                     Engineering
GAA                       (Geography Admissions Assessment)                                                      Geography
HAA                       (History Admissions Assessment)                                                              History (+ Politics, Mod. Langs.)
HSPSAA                (Human, Social + Political Sciences Admissions Assessment)                HSPS
NSAA                    (Natural Sciences Admissions Assessment)                                              Natural Scis., Vet. Med.
PBSAA                  (Psychological + Behavioural Sciences Admissions Assessment)           PBS
TSA                        (Thinking Skills Assessment)                                                                      Land Economy

No November test but test at interview
History + Modern Languages (for Mod. Langs. – History needs HAA in November)
History of Art
Mathematics (some colleges)
Modern + Medieval Languages
Music (some colleges)
Theology, Religion + Philosophy of Religion

Test in June
STEP                      (Sixth Term Examination Paper)                                                 Mathematics

Tests are taken at your school/college or other recognised examination centre.

You need to register to take the test in the same way that you would register for any other public examination. Do not assume that, if you are applying to a degree programme that needs it, you will be automatically registered. For the November tests you should register between early September and mid-October. Cambridge (unlike Oxford) allows Medicine applicants to sit BMAT in September instead of November, if they wish.

BMAT and ELAT results are available from Cambridge Assessment’s Results Online website. Other test results are not published but may be requested by an applicant as part of the feedback process. I advise you to request them, whatever the outcome of your application.

Cambridge admissions website:
Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing website:

(iv) LNAT (Law National Aptitude Test)

LNAT is currently required for the following UK university programmes in Law:
Bristol, Durham, Glasgow, KCL, LSE, Nottingham, Oxford, SOAS and UCL.

LNAT is a 2hour 15 minute test produced by a consortium of universities that require the test.
- multiple choice questions on 12 argumentative passages (95 minutes)
- choice of 1 out of 3 essays to test ability to argue economically and come to a conclusion (40 minutes)

Tests are taken online through the Pearson Test Centre network.

LNAT registration and testing opens at the beginning of September, and the test must be sat before 20 October by Oxford applicants and by 20 January by applicants for other universities (i.e., the deadline is 5 days after the respective UCAS deadlines). 

The results for the multiple choice section are made available to universities and applicants on 21 October for those who have taken the test before that date; and thereafter within 24 hours of an applicant taking the test.

The LNAT website contains practice papers and advice, including sample answers, for the essay:

(v) Mathematics

There are three Mathematics admissions tests: MAT, STEP and Test of Mathematics for University Admission. They are all produced by Cambridge Assessment:

MAT is compulsory for Imperial and Oxford; STEP is compulsory for most Cambridge applicants who receive offers; taking one of the three tests is “encouraged” for Mathematics applicants to Warwick; taking the Test of Mathematics for University Admission is “encouraged” for Mathematics applicants to Durham, Lancaster, Sheffield and Southampton, and "you will also be able to share your results with" LSE. Where the taking of the tests is “encouraged”, a good result may lead to a reduced offer.

The tests are taken at your school/college or other recognised examination centre.

You need to register to take the test in the same way that you would register for any other public examination. Do not assume that, if you are applying to a degree programme that needs it, you will be automatically registered.

MAT (Mathematics Admissions Test)

MAT is required by:         Imperial               Mathematics
                                         Oxford                  Computer Sci. (+ Philosophy),
                                                                      Mathematics (+ Computer Sci./Philosophy/Statistics)

See (ii) above for more details.

Test of Mathematics for University Admission

The test is sat at the beginning of November, a week after MAT and other entry tests.

You should register in September.

The test is 2hours 30 minutes long: 2 multiple-choice papers of 75 minutes each.

STEP (Sixth Term Examination Paper)    

The test is sat in June. There are 3 papers, of which applicants are asked to sit one or two, as specified by the university. 6 out of 13 questions should be answered in each paper.

Results are given to candidates on the same day as A Level results and are passed to universities by UCAS.

(vi) TSA (Thinking Skills Assessment) UCL

The test is only required by UCL for its European Social + Political Studies (ESPS) programme. You do not need to register separately for it.

The test is sat at University College London on ESPS assessment days. Applicants will be notified by the university. The test is multiple-choice format and lasts 90 minutes. It tests numerical and spatial reasoning as well as critical thinking.

Stage 2 : Choices: About

[STEP 33]

As indicated in Step 30, this is a valuable time for collecting relevant evidence for the Personal Statement: primarily, to convince yourself that you have decided to apply for the right subject(s), or to test your interest in what you are still considering applying for; only secondarily, to convince admissions’ staff that you are “the real deal” and deserve an offer.

Much depends on your attitude here. If it is a chore to do the reading, work experience or other research, are you really cut out for three or more years of “reading” more of this subject at uni. or taking a more vocationally orientated degree programme for which the summer work experience might be relevant? On the other hand, these activities might make you more enthusiastic about your application.

There is particular advice for those considering application to very competitive areas that have an early deadline: Oxford, Cambridge, Dentistry, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine. It is not enough simply to have done well in previous exams.. There has to be a passion, too, to go beyond what is required to get top grades in examinations. A test of this passion is the commitment you give to the suggested activities this vacation, especially further reading, as you will be completing your application in the first month of the new school year.

Stage 2 : Choices: About


A separate section is devoted to these unis. because the system of application and selection is different from what is found elsewhere. Steps 34-37 focus on this.

Stage 2 : Choices: About


[STEP 34] 

These universities are looking for students who are academically very able, enjoy challenging academic work and have a very real enthusiasm for their chosen course. All three characteristics are required. In 2018 26% of all A Level results were graded at A or A*. Oxford and Cambridge can only take a small percentage of these high-achieving students.

In the 2016-7 application cycle, 3,497 students were accepted by Cambridge from 17,189 applicants. Of those offering A Level, 96.7% achieved at least A*AA at A Level.  GCSE results are looked at as a performance indicator; most applicants have at least 4 or 5 As or A*s (grades 7-9) at GCSE. (source: Cambridge Admissions’ Website)

In the 2016-7 application cycle, 3,270 students were accepted by Oxford from 19,938 applicants. Applications to Oxford have risen 15.8% from 2013-4 to 2016-7. Applicants typically have a high proportion of A* and A grades (grades 7-9) at GCSE. (source: Oxford Admissions’ Website)

It is important that applicants focus on the high grades needed at A Level, and are not lulled into a false sense of their national standing by good or even outstanding results at GCSE.

Both Cambridge and Oxford use “contextual data” (see Step 6), but this does not necessarily mean that they will give a lower grade offer:
- for Cambridge:
- for Oxford:

The serious applicants from the start of the Sixth Form have demonstrated commitment to their subjects by thoughtful reading and other research into their chosen subjects. Applicants’ commitment to independent reading during the summer vacation before application is a very significant test of their enthusiasm. Advice on appropriate reading should be sought from your subject teachers.

As small tutorials/supervisions are a key part of the teaching at Oxford and Cambridge, an applicant should be keen on defending a point of view orally, listening to other points of view and collating in discussion a number of conflicting threads. An applicant should relish the possibility of being taught by professional academics with international reputations in their field. Students should expect to work hard and independently, including during the vacations, which are longer than at other unis.. Remember that Oxford and Cambridge compress their teaching into 3 terms of 8 weeks each: i.e., they teach only 24 out of 52 weeks per year. 

Cambridge stresses that “excellence in an extra curricular activity will not compensate for lower academic potential”, and I have heard similar statements from Oxford.

Stage 2 : Choices: About


[STEP 35] 

As the college system at these universities is very different from what you’ll find in other UK unis., I encourage you to visit, if possible, before applying. Some people feel daunted by the age and grandeur of some of the buildings, probably because it is easy to link grand buildings with the grand and therefore élite reputation that these unis. have in popular culture: an intellectual élite of geniuses and a social élite of punting, Pimm’s and public school. Beware of stereotyping! The media are not always helpful: I remember a television documentary entitled “Oxford, city in a dream”. I encourage you to visit, look beyond buildings, meet undergraduates and academic staff, and then address any prejudices you might have arrived with.

The universities have open days for departments and colleges. There are also “taster days”, summer courses and other activities run for students from maintained sector schools that do not have a tradition of sending students to these unis..

Colleges are also happy to arrange group and individual visits. Oxford and Cambridge have “link areas” for each of their colleges, so that each part of the UK has a college to contact.

Stage 2 : Choices: About


[STEP 36] 

College choice creates a lot of worry among applicants. In my opinion much of the anxiety is misplaced and some of it is due to stereotypes fed by others to potential applicants.

It is worth bearing in mind that there are far more similarities than differences between colleges (and between Oxford and Cambridge universities), and the social atmosphere across the colleges is unlikely to be significantly different.

Moreover, if you are passionate about studying at Oxford or Cambridge, which college you end up in is surely far less important than securing a place at the uni.. Although the college is responsible for organizing your small group supervisions/tutorials/classes, you might be sent for some of these to specialist academic staff in other colleges, and you will study alongside students from other colleges in lectures and laboratories and will have the same access to university facilities like libraries.

High level sport and music and most societies are organized at the university level, but colleges will field teams in inter-collegiate competitions and colleges will have their own societies (e.g., for music and drama).

It is worth noting that in 2017 35% of successful Oxford applicants got an offer from a college that they didn’t specify on their application: i.e., they either specified another college or submitted an “Open” application (18% of all applications in 2017), in which they left it to a computer program in the university’s admissions’ department to allocate a preference of college based on evening out the distribution of applications across colleges. Cambridge also has this system of Open application and “pooling” applicants among colleges: about 20-25% of offers are made to students by a college that was not originally chosen by the student or allocated under the Open application system.

The websites of both Cambridge and Oxford offer advice on choosing a college:

At Oxford there are also 5 Permanent Private Halls (Blackfriars, Regent’s Park College, St Benet’s Hall, St Stephen’s House, Wycliffe Hall) that offer undergraduate places. These were founded by particular Christian denominations (which applicants don’t have to be members of), are smaller than the other colleges and don’t offer as large a range of subjects as the colleges (e.g., there is no science or engineering). Blackfriars, St Stephen’s House and Wycliffe Hall only admit students aged 21 years or older.

I think the most important things to check are:

Which colleges admit people of your age?
At Cambridge 4 colleges are exclusively for students aged 21 or older (Hughes Hall, Lucy Cavendish, St Edmunds, Wolfson). At Oxford there is only one (Harris Manchester).

Which colleges admit people of your gender?
At Cambridge 3 colleges are exclusively for female students (Lucy Cavendish, Murray Edwards, Newnham). All Oxford colleges admit both male and female students.

Which colleges offer places in your subject?
Places in some subjects are not offered at some colleges. Check the university websites.

Are the entry requirements different at different colleges for my subject?
This is particularly a Cambridge issue, as individual colleges still have some independence in what they require for certain subjects, despite the introduction of November tests across many subjects. If you make an Open application, you might be depriving yourself of the chance to choose whether, for example, you do or do not submit examples of your written work.

There are significant differences in cost across Oxford and Cambridge colleges. The Cambridge website quotes (for 2017-8) a range of £2250 to £5850 (£3300-£6000 en suite) for a 30 week year. This is partly because of the difference in quality of what is offered but also because of the different financial resources of the colleges, with less well resourced colleges tending to charge higher rent. You might consider it important to know whether college-owned accommodation might be available for all years of your undergraduate study. Overall there is certainly a lot more opportunity for this (and a lot more of it en suite!) than a few decades ago, when many more students lived in private rented accommodation after their first year.

Cost of food
Quite apart from the cost of accommodation, it might be worth investigating the fees payable for eating in college. The Cambridge website quotes (for 2017-8) £3 to £6 per meal.

Library and other facilities
Some colleges might have special facilities for sports or arts that might be important for you. For some subjects a particular college library might be well stocked, which might make life easier, if you might otherwise be competing for books and articles with students from other colleges at the departmental or university libraries.

Less important criteria, in my opinion:

With the exception of Girton at Cambridge, all colleges at Oxford and Cambridge are near the centre of the city. However, those with particular access needs should discuss these with individual colleges.

Permanent Private Halls at Oxford are significantly smaller than the colleges. With the exception of those colleges exclusively for older students, the range in size in terms of undergraduate numbers is: at Cambridge from about 250 (Corpus Christi) to 675 (Trinity); at Oxford from about 220 (Mansfield) to 475 (St Catherine’s). Trinity Cambridge has by some way the most undergraduates of any Oxbridge college, but several other Cambridge colleges have more than the largest Oxford college.

Academic reputation
In case you think that academic league tables are a product of this computer age’s obsession with measurable data, a correspondent of “The Times” invented one for ranking Oxford colleges by degree results in the early 1960s, and the Norrington Table for Oxford and the Tompkins Table for Cambridge now appear annually. Don’t waste any time on these: the range between top and bottom is small, although the keenness with which they are regarded by academic staff in the colleges is likely to be understated by many of them! However, it is worth asking for the degree results in your proposed subject for last 5 years at a college that you are considering, in case that college hasn’t had a student get First Class Honours in a particular subject for many years. I have known an instance of this.

Some colleges are bigger or older than others. Many older colleges have newer buildings on their main site.

Grants or other funding
The main bursary schemes are university-wide, but individual colleges might make smaller grants: e.g., travel grants for specific projects. For bursaries see:
- Cambridge:
- Oxford:

Application statistics
The Cambridge website urges applicants not to consider these statistics and stresses the fairness of the application system. My experience is that Cambridge and Oxford virtually without exception choose the students within a particular school who are most likely to benefit from studying there: i.e., they get the rank order right. However, I do think it useful to look at the statistics. For instance, in a subject with a low number of entrants sometimes one college takes a disproportionately large number of students. A good place to start is the interactive sections of the Cambridge admissions’ website, which show the number of applications and acceptances for each college in each subject for the last few years:

Oxford seems recently to have restricted access to its equivalent site:

Stage 2 : Choices: About


[STEP 37] 

“As for the application process, the best advice remains READ. A great deal of thought, money and effort is expended on discovering the “secret” of a successful Oxbridge application, when, in actual fact, the process is very simple: tutors want to see someone passionate about the subject. They care for little above and beyond this. The best way of demonstrating that passion is to have read widely and in depth. Equally, a number of applicants ask “What should I be reading?” That is the wrong question – read purely what is of interest to you, even if it is off-syllabus. There is no greater value in reading about revolutionary France, say, than late medieval England.”
                                                                                                                                                                                    (a recent History student at Oxford)

Those applying for Choral and Organ Awards at Oxford must apply by 1 September, as auditions are held soon afterwards. This is likely to be before the end of the summer vacation, so you need to send the form and arrange for a reference to be sent before the end of August. These applicants have the same deadline as others for submitting a UCAS form.

Although the deadline for applications to be received by UCAS is 15 October, many schools and colleges impose an internal deadline of 30 September. It is very much in an applicant’s interests to allow as much leeway as this, to give enough time for thorough checking of the applicant’s part of the form and the reference, before the completed form is submitted to UCAS.

It is not permitted to apply to both Oxford and Cambridge (except Organ Scholarship applicants).

The summer vacation is the time to check carefully what is required for a particular subject (and, at Cambridge, by a particular college for that subject).

Some subjects require written work to be submitted. If so, look at the subject-specific guidance on the website and prepare this work in good time, as it should be marked by your teacher. Sometimes work that has been submitted as part of your regular Sixth Form study is acceptable; but sometimes such work is not required in an A Level (or other) specification, and the written work has to be prepared for this application. Regurgitated coursework is unlikely to be satisfactory. To judge from feedback received from admissions’ tutors, it can sometimes feel as if the quality of the marking (i.e., the support given by a teacher to the student) is of greater interest than the quality of the essay!

Cambridge has now joined Oxford in requiring applicants for many subjects to sit an entrance test. Performance in the November tests (for those subjects that have them) is a very important criterion in selection for interview. Some subjects have tests at the time of interview. Some of the summer vacation should be used devoted to familiarizing yourself with the format and standard of these tests by studying the examples posted on the websites. (See Step 32)

The interview is a crucial part of the selection process. Make sure that you are available to attend interviews on the dates specified on the website.

It is worth thinking of what the interviewers are likely to be looking for. Cambridge has stated that at interview tutors are looking for:

  • genuine passion for the subject(s) chosen;

  • appropriateness of the course chosen;

  • motivation, commitment and organisation;

  • enthusiasm for complex and challenging ideas;

  • clarity of thought and analytical ability;

  • intellectual flexibility;

  • (where appropriate)       vocational/professional commitment

                                                budding interpersonal skills

Consult both Oxford and Cambridge websites for advice on what to expect in interviews.

I have found the films of “mock” interviews on the Emmanuel College Cambridge website particularly useful:  These are not the actual interviews! Undergraduate students replace the applicants.

Decisions are communicated to applicants early in January. Some Cambridge applicants are placed in the “Pool”, from which candidates might be fished out for further interview in January. Some of these will receive offers.

Further details:
Cambridge admissions:
Oxford admissions:
On November admissions tests:

Feedback from former applicants:
(N.B. most profiles seem genuine, but some look bogus: e.g., it is not possible to apply to All Souls Oxford as an undergraduate!)

Stage 2 : Choices: About


A separate section is devoted to these subjects because the system of application and selection is different from what is found elsewhere. Steps 38-46 focus on this.

For me the test of an applicant’s commitment is her/his readiness during the summer vacation to:
(i) decide which unis. to apply for (Step 39)
(ii) prepare for and take the UKCAT test (if needed) and prepare for the BMAT test (if needed) (Step 40)
(iii) complete any work experience (Step 41)
(iv) conduct relevant scientific research (Step 42)
(v) conduct research in areas likely to be encountered in an interview (Step 43)

Stage 2 : Choices: About


[STEP 38] 

The summer vacation between Year 12 and Year 13 is an important period for those who are considering applying to these three highly competitive subjects. Like applicants for Oxford and Cambridge, there is a very early deadline.

The Medic Portal website is an excellent guide for applicants to Medicine and Dentistry:
I suggest that you make thorough use of it during this summer vacation.

Now is the time to decide whether you are committed to pursuing an application in this area. A half-hearted approach will not be sufficient. On the other hand, don’t assume that all successful applicants are dazzlingly well-qualified in academic and personal terms. You might find this checklist of desirable qualities helpful:
                Academic qualities
                - A history of consistently strong academic performance is important, and A Level predictions of
                AAA will be required as a starting point. A*AA will be required by some unis..
                - Look at the statements of minimum GCSE entry requirements. Be aware that many applicants
                will have 8 or more A* grades.
                - Consider whether your home or school background might entitle you to a “contextual offer” 
                and how particular unis. handle this (see Step 6)
                Personal qualities
                Those sought include:
                - vocation/commitment
                - empathy
                - resilience (to withstand the long and emotionally challenging training programme)
                - personal management skills (to cope with the volume of work)
                - good stress control
                - willingness to take responsibility
                - good problem-solving abilities
                - IT skills
                - broad interests, with pro-social attitudes
                - enthusiasm for independent learning.
                Good health
                Applicants must be healthy and physically capable of fulfilling the professional role.  Disability of
                any sort is a challenging issue and, if there is any doubt, advice should be sought now.  Poor
                hearing and poor vision are problems which would prevent a person becoming a doctor. 
                Disclosure on the UCAS application is important: to withhold information (e.g., dyslexia) would
                be regarded as deception. Applicants with a dyslexia diagnosis should make direct contact with
                the relevant unis. to enquire what support is available. Dyslexic applicants do get offers.
                Integrity and criminal record
                Integrity is essential, and, after a formal offer has been made by a uni., enhanced clearance
                through the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) will be required. This will reveal cautions,
                warnings and offences.  Any offence involving assault, or a record of drug-related incidents,
                would be likely to prejudice an application.

Stage 2 : Choices: About


[STEP 39] 

The MedicPortal website should be consulted by Medicine and Dentistry applicants:

The website also contains details of unis. that offer a Foundation Year (sometimes called “Gateway” or “pre-Medical/Dental/Veterinary”) for applicants who either don’t have the right A Level subjects or whose grades are not high enough (but might be high in the context of overall results in their school/college):

The Student Room website has further information:

Check with individual uni. websites that the information is up to date.

There are several criteria that you should consider in drawing up your short-list.

(i)            Teaching/learning methods

As Dentistry, Medicine and Veterinary Medicine degrees qualify the graduates to practise as professionals in their respective fields, the content of the degree programmes is approved by the relevant professional body, the General Dental Council, the General Medical Council and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. As the country wants all practitioners to be equally well qualified, the core content of every degree programme for each discipline has to be identical. I was told by a Medicine admissions’ tutor that there are about 180 different medical conditions that form the basis for all medical curricula. However, as highlighted earlier, when you were doing your initial research (Step 12), the method of delivery varies greatly, so you should now decide which is likely to suit you best, as you draw up your final short-list of unis. to apply to.

There are three distinct types of programme:

(1) Traditional

Before the 1970s all Medical Schools taught in this way: the first three pre-clinical years were devoted to learning science; in the final half of the programme this knowledge was then applied in a clinical setting. The science teaching is structured by discipline: e.g., biochemistry, anatomy, physiology.

Oxford and Cambridge are the unis. that still maintain this approach for Medicine and Cambridge for Veterinary Medicine, partly because a higher than average proportion of their students will go into the field of medical research. A Cambridge student told me that his Director of Studies told him in his first supervision: “You will be a sponge for the next three years, absorbing scientific knowledge.” Newcastle seems to have the most traditional Dentistry programme structure.

(2) Integrated

Leicester’s new medical school in the 1970s was so successful in pioneering a new way of teaching that, one by one, virtually all the existing medical, dentistry and veterinary schools went over to it. In the Integrated approach there is early patient contact: in the first instance this involves tracking rather than treating patients through GP surgeries and hospitals. The teaching is structured according to body systems rather than scientific discipline: e.g., nervous, respiratory, digestive systems.

(3) Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

PBL was introduced by Manchester in the 1980s, but it is particularly associated with those medical schools set up since 2000. The focus is on small-group learning (with academic staff as facilitators), where a case study is presented, “learning objectives” are decided, research on them is shared among the students, and findings are pooled. One major aim is to reflect the cooperative working practices of qualified professionals.

In one example of PBL that I have encountered:
- a group of 10 students has a meeting at the beginning of the week, with an academic staff facilitator present.
- the group is presented with a case (with or without the title of the disease).
- the group draws up a list of questions: 10-12 learning outcomes.
- the week’s work (in seminars, with a GP, etc.) is focused on this case or condition.
- there is a plenary session at the end of the week.

It is often referred to now as Enquiry-Based Learning.

Although PBL is the main teaching method of some medical schools, the extent to which it predominates over more traditional lecture-based teaching varies. Some of the Medical Schools with Integrated programmes incorporate PBL sessions. Cardiff uses a “Case-Based Learning” method of teaching, which is a more structured version of PBL.

Medical schools with a strong PBL focus: East Anglia, Exeter, Hull and York, Keele, Lancaster, Manchester, Plymouth, Queen Mary.
Dentistry schools with a strong PBL focus: Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Plymouth.
Veterinary schools with a strong PBL focus: Liverpool, Surrey

As PBL is very different from the teaching/learning environment in Sixth Forms, it would be helpful, if unis. provided a short video of a PBL session.

In most Veterinary schools there are 3 phases:

1. preclinical phase:
basic science, mostly taught as cell and “systems” biology (rather than separate anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry), and often shared with Medicine students.

2. paraclinical phase:
concentrating on pathology and microbiology.

3. clinical phase:
practical work

Sometimes there is ‘vertical integration’ of the 3 phases, with the science being taught in a clinical context.  The amount of ‘self-directed’ education varies.

(ii)           Number of students in the school

Medical schools vary greatly in size, in terms of the number of students admitted each year.

100-199: Aberdeen, Lancaster, Oxford, Plymouth, Southampton
200-299: Brighton/Sussex, Cambridge, Exeter, Glasgow, Keele, Leeds, St Andrews, Sheffield
300-399: Birmingham, Cardiff, Dundee, East Anglia, Edinburgh, Hull/York, KCL, Queen’s Belfast, St George’s
400-499: Bristol, Leicester, Newcastle, Nottingham, UCL
500-599: Imperial, Liverpool, Manchester, Queen Mary

The newest medical schools are Aston (60 p.a), Buckingham (147) and Central Lancashire (141). Buckingham, as a private university, has very high fees for UK as well as international students.

(iii)          Types of assessment

There will be different types of assessment used within each medical school as a measure of academic and clinical proficiency, but it is worth checking how far medical schools differ in the methods and frequency of assessment.

Academic assessment ranges from end of year or end of module written examinations to Single Best Answer format. The latter is like a Multiple Choice test in which the student is required to choose the best decision of the several possible decisions offered in a particular clinical scenario.

Objective Structured Clinical Examinations (OSCE) are widely used for assessing clinical skills: as with MMI interviews for applicants, there is a series of short stations (maybe 5 minutes at each of 20 stations) passed through in rotation, at each of which a different clinical skill is assessed. At some schools the learning of clinical skills is assessed only at the end of the module in which they have been introduced; in other schools clinical skills learned in previous years are re-tested.

(iv)         Anatomical dissection

This used to be a compulsory part of the degree programme. There has, however, been a shift away from cadaveric dissection at some schools towards prosection and the use of models or software packages. Where dissection is practised, is this done by the students themselves or by laboratory demonstrators?

(v)          Intercalated degree: optional or compulsory 6th year?

Most medical schools offer students the opportunity to take a BSc degree in a related subject in the second half of a Medicine degree: e.g., Biochemistry, Genetics, Pharmacology, Psychology. Nottingham, Aston and Buckingham do not offer this, whereas at Cambridge, Edinburgh, Imperial, Oxford, St Andrews and UCL the extra year is compulsory.

In Veterinary Medicine you can take a BSc in subjects such as Comparative Pathology, Animal Behaviour or Neuroscience. At Cambridge the intercalated degree is compulsory, so the full degree programme lasts 6 years. Nottingham is the only school to offer a BVMedSci integrated within the 5 year degree programme. Surrey does not offer an intercalated degree option.

(vi)         Location of clinical placements

It is worth trying to find out how far from the university base students are sent on clinical placement. As some of these can very distant, it is worth investigating transport issues, especially if you’re unlikely to have a car by that stage.

(vii)        Entry tests

With the exception of applicants to two very new medical schools (Buckingham and Central Lancashire), all Medicine applicants have to sit a UKCAT or BMAT test (see Step 32 above). The vast majority of medical schools requires UKCAT and only 8 require BMAT (Brighton/Sussex, Cambridge, Imperial, Lancaster, Leeds, Oxford, UCL; Keele for some students).

It is worth looking closely at how individual schools use the results of these tests in the application process, as this does vary.

(viii)       Interview type

No interview is offered by Edinburgh for Medicine or by Bristol for Veterinary Science.

At Oxford and Cambridge individuals or small panels from the academic staff conduct interviews focusing on science.

A few other universities still conduct panel interviews:
Dentistry:                            Newcastle, Plymouth, Queen Mary, Queen’s Belfast, Sheffield (which also has an MMI-style “Communication                                                        Station”)
Medicine:                           Glasgow, Imperial, Plymouth, Queen Mary, Southampton, UCL
Veterinary Medicine:         Glasgow, Nottingham

For interview advice on panel interviews, I think that the website entry by Plymouth for Dentistry is particularly useful. It is noteworthy that 20 hours of preparation for the interview is recommended there.

Most interviews are now in the format of MMI (Multiple Mini Interviews). This is a series of short interviews. Not all unis. give precise information, but, where they do, there are often 7 or 8 interviews of 5-7 minutes each spread over an hour. Applicants pass from one station to another when a bell is sounded.

The best way of getting an idea of what is involved is by looking at the videos on three Medicine websites: Keele gives a general survey; Brighton/Sussex gives an example of an individual interview that covers empathy and NHS core values (at 10 minutes, it is longer than most unis. offer in MMI); Queen’s Belfast gives an introductory film and films of 2 stations (a role play on empathy and an individual interview on problem solving).

On the uni. websites there are useful written introductions to MMI for Dentistry by Manchester; for Medicine by Birmingham, Hull/York, Manchester and St George’s; for Veterinary Medicine by Edinburgh.

One or two schools give group tasks. A few also require an online numeracy test or questionnaire to be completed.

Although you might think that you are suited more to one style of interview than another, I think that preparation and practice are the key. If you know the kind of interview that you are heading towards, and prepare accordingly, I think the format isn’t likely to be a discriminator for most people.

Stage 2 : Choices: About


[STEP 40] 

For advice on UKCAT preparation, look at the UKCAT Consortium website:
Plymouth’s guide “Applying to Dental School” contains useful advice for UKCAT preparation ( ). It recommends 21-30 hours of preparation.

For advice on BMAT preparation, look at the Cambridge Assessment website:

Both UKCAT Consortium and Cambridge Assessment website warn against taking expensive courses in preparation for these exams.. The problem with such coaching is that their efficacy can’t be measured but they are likely to appeal to students or parents worried that not using such coaching might disadvantage an applicant’s chances against competitors who have used it. I have yet to be convinced that these courses are worth the money.

Stage 2 : Choices: About


[STEP 41] 

Vet. applicants should check that the minimum requirements for each school to be applied to have now been met, as details have to be offered at the time of application.

If you feel that you have done sufficient community service or work experience in a dental/medical/ veterinary practice, I advise you to reflect on what you have done and write down your key examples of what you have learnt, as they are useful material for both a Personal Statement and interview.

Consider asking to interview a wider spectrum of healthcare workers: e.g., practice managers, nurse, physiotherapist. This will broaden your perspective of the role of a dentist, doctor or vet.

Stage 2 : Choices: About


[STEP 42] 

If you are not offering an EPQ on a related subject, I advise you to focus on a relevant area of research and read articles or books on a specific question. This, too, can be useful material for both a Personal Statement and interview, and I suggest that you offer to give a presentation on this to your school/college class or a relevant society, if possible. Explaining a specialist subject to non-specialists is good preparation for developing fluency at interview. Fielding the audience’s questions is also good interview practice.

I also encourage you to collect a file of health issues in the newspapers, as these might come up at interview.

Stage 2 : Choices: About


[STEP 43] 

Oxford and Cambridge interviews will very much focus on the ability to use your scientific knowledge.

Areas on which you might expect to be asked in both panel and MMI interviews:
- points raised in the UCAS Personal Statement and/or BMAT essay
- Why do you want to study Dentistry/Medicine/Veterinary Medicine?
- What makes Dentistry/Medicine/Veterinary Medicine at this university unique? So be aware of the full curriculum.
- Awareness of full training path, including after initial 5-6 years to qualification.
- Social issues: e.g., What conditions might you expect to find presented by people living in poor housing?
- structure of NHS + the core values of the NHS
- ethical issues: e.g., dilemma over whom to treat, if funds are limited.
- what learned in work experience
- examples of team work
- examples of being resilient, organized, decisive
- reflecting on other people’s skills and abilities (patients’ and colleagues’)
- awareness of other associated healthcare roles

Examples of stations in MMI interviews:
- role play: e.g., breaking bad news (e.g., “Your injury means that you won’t play this sport again.”); speaking with someone who has just received bad news (e.g., a relative of someone diagnosed with a terminal illness); speaking to an angry patient.
- manual dexterity tests: e.g., origami
- summarizing: e.g., extracting key points from a text; describing a photograph
- giving oral instructions (without gestures): e.g., how to tie a shoelace
- data interpretation
- numeracy test
- responding to scientific information
- debate task: e.g., an ethical dilemma, an issue facing the NHS, medical issues currently in the media
- read a passage or watch film clip and then discuss it
- problem solving: e.g., what to do, if someone has gone missing from a group
- group exercise, testing the ability to listen to others and to contribute individual insights

Don’t underestimate the stamina required in undertaking a series of MMI stations. It is useful to prepare for this by doing a variety of short but intensely focused timed activities within an hour. They don’t have to be medically related, but the headings above should guide you.

Stage 2 : Choices: About


[STEP 44] 

If your short-list has a programme that requires the UKCAT test, remember to register (and pay) for the test online, from May in Year 12. I advise you to arrange to take the online test at a local Pearson Test Centre during the summer vacation. See

If your UKCAT score is disappointing, you can re-assess your short-list and apply to unis. that don’t require UKCAT.

If you are applying for programmes that require the BMAT test, remember to register in September of Year 13, as for any other public examination, to take it at school/college in early November. See

Although the deadline for applications to be received by UCAS is 15 October, many schools and colleges impose an internal deadline of 30 September. It is very much in an applicant’s interests to allow as much leeway as this, to allow time for thorough checking of the form and reference before the form is submitted to UCAS.

These are the most competitive of vocational subjects for university entry (e.g., Edinburgh had 2,455 applicants and 187 entrants in Medicine in 2016-7).  The selection procedure at all medical/dental/vet schools is rigorous. Unfortunately, it is quite common even for applicants with predicted grades of AAA and above not to receive any interviews or offers.  This is why you are allowed to apply to only 4 schools, but you may apply for a different subject as your 5th choice. Your Personal Statement should focus on Dentistry/Medicine/Veterinary Science rather than Biomedical Sciences or whatever other subject you have put as 5th choice. Admissions’ staff are used to this situation and it will not prejudice your chances of getting an offer in the 5th subject, if you don’t focus on it in the Personal Statement.

Medical/dental/veterinary schools will interview a short list of applicants. Some begin interviews in November and December, but expect the bulk of interviews to be in January to March. You might have to wait until Easter before you get a decision.

Stage 2 : Choices: About


[STEP 45] 

The Medic Portal website is an excellent guide for applicants to Medicine and Dentistry:
  – provides very useful background on the health and social care system. and click on “Education and training” – General Medical Council website – General Dental Council website – Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons’ website – Widening Access to Medical School: created by a group of medical students at University of Leeds.   – UCL’s procedure for selecting applicants for interview and offers is particularly clear.

Stage 2 : Choices: About


[STEP 46] 

Among the many that might be recommended, one stands out for its insight into issues involving patients and colleagues for someone training to be a doctor.

“Direct Red : a Surgeon’s Story”      Gabriel Weston           Vintage 2010 (£9.99)       ISBN 9780099520696      

Each chapter could be taken as the basis for a seminar discussion:

(1) Speed
1.            How fast should a surgeon work?

(2) Sex
2.            How does a doctor cope with the potential embarrassment of touching a patient’s sexual organs?
3.            How does a doctor cope with sexual feelings towards/from patients and colleagues?

(3) Death
4.            What is the relationship between a trainee doctor and the cadaver dissected over a long period of time?
5.            How does a doctor cope with the approaching death of a young person?

(4) Voices
6.            How does a doctor cope with communicating with a patient who has an interpreter to help him/her
7.            How does a doctor deal with the situation of a patient’s “supporter” speaking on the patient’s behalf,
                while the patient remains silent?
8.            How far should a surgeon try to respect a patient’s wishes?

(5) Beauty
9.            How far is the principle of order important in surgery?
10.          Is surgery aesthetically pleasing?

(6) Hierarchy
11.          How does a medical student avoid feeling excessive pride?
12.          What pressures are involved for a registrar surgeon making a diagnosis?

(7) Territory
13.          In what circumstances might a doctor be under pressure to sacrifice duty to a patient to duty to herself/himself?
14.          When should a doctor expect to intervene when off duty?

(8) Emergencies
15.          How does a doctor learn to hide his/her shock from a patient?
16.          What is the anthropology of an A&E department?
17.          How should a doctor attempt to offer comfort to a psychiatric patient or an assault victim?

(9) Ambition
18.          How far does a doctor’s status within a hospital interfere with her/his treatment of a patient?

(10) Help
19.          What problems of communication might occur among members of a medical team?
20.          When might a junior doctor feel disinclined to ask a senior doctor for help?
21.          What techniques might be used in handling an uncooperative patient?

(11) Children
22.          In what ways does a surgeon have to combine roughness with gentleness?
23.          In what ways might a tired doctor behave differently from one who is not tired?

(12) Appearances
24.          When is cosmetic surgery appropriate?

(13) Changes
25.          What problems are there with a system of specialists in the medical profession?
26.          How does a doctor remain alert to the possibility that a patient has come to see him/her for a reason other than the one initially                         given?

(14) Home
27.          How might a doctor try to establish a home-work balance?

Stage 2 : Choices: About


It is natural that potential uni. applicants want to know how far their employment prospects are improved by going to uni.. Some professions require entrants to have a degree: sometimes the degree is specific to that profession and work placements are integrated into the degree programme (as with health and social-care disciplines); sometimes it is possible to enter the profession with or without a specific degree, and work placements are not a compulsory part of those vocational degree programmes (e.g., Accounting or Law). In the latter case, those entering a profession without the associated degree might have a slightly longer entry path.

In the last 20 years there has been increased focus on degree programmes that offer students the chance to experience the workplace while they are at uni.. This experience can take a variety of forms: two-year Foundation Degrees with a vocational focus (Step 47); “sandwich degree” programmes that might include a year’s paid work placement (Step 48); company-sponsored degrees that offer guaranteed work experience (Step 49); undertaking work-related projects while remaining on the uni. campus (Step 50); Degree and Higher Apprenticeships, through which a full-time employee has the opportunity to acquire a degree through part-time study (Step 51).

Stage 2 : Choices: About


[STEP 47]

Foundation Degrees programmes are 2 years long. They were introduced in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2001 to provide a vocationally-focused stand-alone qualification equivalent to two-thirds of an Honours Degree: i.e., they are a qualification at Level 5 in the National Framework (see Step 2). The entry requirements are much lower than for an Honours Degree, but students who do sufficiently well on the Foundation Degree can in many cases take an additional “top-up” year and gain an Honours Degree in the same time as if they had started on the Honours programme. As such, these programmes are suitable for those who might be described as “academic late developers”.

Although these degrees are validated by a particular uni., they might be delivered through a network of associated Further Education colleges. It is therefore important for a potential applicant to know where a particular Foundation Degree programme will be delivered and to visit the campus and speak with the students and staff there.

The Foundation Degrees in Hotel Management and Events Management with Hospitality offered by the Edge Hotel School (University of Essex) offer a good example of how theory and practice can be combined. These degree programmes have the advantage of being based in a building that is not only at the heart of a uni. but is also a four-star hotel. In both years of the programme 8 weeks of teaching and 4 weeks of independent study are combined with 16 weeks of working in the hotel (4-5 shifts per week). Moreover, there is the opportunity to progress onto a final year, when there is more emphasis on the academic side, in order to gain the corresponding BA degree.

With the recent proliferation of Higher Level Apprenticeships (at Level 4 and 5 in the National Framework) and Degree Apprenticeships (Levels 6 and 7) (see Step 51 below), it is tempting to think that Foundation Degrees might disappear over the next few years. However, the same was said about Higher National Certificate (HNC – Level 4) and Higher National Diploma (HND – Level 5) programmes, when Foundation Degrees were created, but there are still many HNCs and HNDs to be found. So the reports of the imminent demise of Foundation Degrees are probably greatly exaggerated.

Stage 2 : Choices: About


[STEP 48] 

A “sandwich” degree programme is one which includes at least one period based in a work placement, often in industry or commerce, away from the university: i.e., the placement is the “filling” and the periods spent at the university either side are the “bread” of the sandwich.

The most common type of sandwich programme is the “thick sandwich”:  i.e., one long placement, usually in Year 3.  For instance, many Modern Languages courses have the structure:

                Year 1-2   university
                Year 3       year abroad
                Year 4       university

Note that the year abroad might be spent in a variety of ways by modern linguists:
(i)            teaching in a school;
(ii)           studying at a university;
(iii)          working in an industrial placement.

There are other types of sandwich programme. Brunel University, for instance, pioneered the “thin sandwich”: i.e., two shorter periods in different placements, alternating with periods in the university. Some uni. programmes offer a placement of several weeks, either during the term or in a vacation.

Sandwich programmes are offered on a voluntary basis in a large number of subjects, including Business, Engineering, Science, Finance, Psychology and Sport. For some subjects in which the degree forms a professional qualification the degree programme has a compulsory work-based element: Nursing and Social Work are two examples.

Although programmes with an optional placement year are one year longer as a result, there can be significant advantages to opting for this type of programme:
- financial: a salary is normally paid during periods of work.
- security of work during the period at university.
- a practical dimension is given to the academic side of the course.
- personal development, including acquisition of new skills through full-time work.
- insight into potential areas of employment: the opportunity to see a variety of areas within the same firm or in different firms.
- the possibility of full-time employment with the placement company after graduation.
- a competitive edge in applying for graduate careers.

Not everyone is suited to such a programme. Some might see the placement as an unwelcome interruption to full-time study; others might have gained a lot of work experience before applying to uni. or might have a lot planned in a “gap year”.  However, there are significant advantages to embarking on a “sandwich” programme, if your university subject is likely to lead to a career in a similar area.

In researching the placement element in these courses, it is important to check the following:
- the amount of assistance given by the university in finding a placement.
- the variety of placements available and the scope for students to choose.
- the amount of support given by the university while the student is in a placement.
- whether/how the student’s performance in the placement is assessed as part of the ultimate degree result.
- how much pay would be received by students on these placements.

There is a wide range of support offered by unis. to placement students before and during the placement. It is important to check what support is likely to be offered. The worst example I have come across was an academic rather than a work placement: a Biology student who was sent by her UK uni. to a “university” on a Greek island (see Step 23 point 5). In contrast, many years ago I attended a conference at Loughborough University, in which we were taken through the structure of a “sandwich” programme in the Business School. It has remained my model of best practice, and I offer it here as a checklist for those looking at similar programmes at a variety of unis..

Best practice in supporting students opting for a “sandwich” placement

- There is an office with staff dedicated to helping students looking for work placements.

(End of Year 1)
- a meeting of students with staff:       
                                                                               - a guidance booklet is given and explained
                                                                                - students are asked to prepare a c.v.
                                                                                - networking is encouraged
(Year 2)
- placement jobs are advertised (70-90 “blue chip” companies regularly return, as the uni. has a reputation for sending good placement students, but the placement office constantly searches for new jobs)
- there are seminars on job application and counselling for those who are rejected (or, very rarely, for those who have to be pulled out during a placement)
- students apply for placement jobs (some will apply for 15-20) and have ‘phone and/or face-to-face interviews
- once a student accepts a placement job, there is no going back
- an accommodation directory gives help to students looking for accommodation in places where previous students have been
(Year 3)
- students are given appropriate induction and initial training by the placement company
- students are given significant responsibility in their placement (neither too much, nor too little) and have the opportunity to develop a variety of skills
- students receive appropriate support from both the placement company and the uni.
- students receive appropriate recognition (including financial) from the company
- students complete a portfolio during the placement year and receive a Diploma from the uni.
(the placement year does not contribute to the final degree assessment, but it does at some unis.)

In considering what is “appropriate support” during the placement, I would apply the “appendicitis test”: i.e., “What help would I get, if I suddenly fell ill and wasn’t able to help myself?” At the Loughborough conference we heard from a student who had suffered a serious injury during his placement year but had received immediate and appropriate support from both his placement company and the uni..

Incidentally, I also advise anyone to use the “appendicitis test” in examining local support on offer from any company offering “gap year” placements (as local support can vary in different parts of the world). I have come across examples of “gap year” students left in inappropriate placements or without appropriate local support by well known “gap year” specialist companies.

It is not surprising that “sandwich” degree programmes were pioneered by unis. that had been Colleges of Advanced Technology offering many degree programmes with a vocational focus: Aston, Bath, Bradford, Brunel, City, Loughborough, Salford, Surrey. Similarly, many of the former polytechnics have for many years offered these work placement opportunities in their vocationally orientated subjects. In other unis. the development has been mixed: many older unis. might have been offering a year’s placement in STEM subjects for a long time, but have only recently begun to offer this in other subject areas, perhaps in response to the increase in fees and a greater emphasis on a uni. degree as a gateway to employment. Lancaster, however, has been offering work placement opportunities in its Business School for a long time, and I was impressed with student feedback when I visited. In short, don’t judge a uni. by its historical reputation in this area but by current practice.

You might find the RateMyPlacement website useful. It was set up by three Loughborough graduates in 2007 and has expanded greatly since then. The website has reviews of shorter internships and placement years as well as advertisements of vacancies. See and .

The University of Kent website also has useful information and advice on this area: . It also has excellent advice on cover letter and c.v. writing.

Stage 2 : Choices: About


[STEP 49] 

Some companies have worked with unis. to devise tailor-made degree programmes to train their employees. They are not available to the public. Increasingly, these are likely to feature as Degree Apprenticeships (see Step 51).

However, there are some companies that have produced open-access degree programmes with unis.. In this area financial services’ companies have taken the lead. Over 10 years ago PwC formed a partnership with Uni. of Newcastle and the Institute of Chartered Accountants for England and Wales to produce a degree programme in Business Accounting and Finance. Around the same time Ernst and Young (now known as EY) teamed up with Uni. of Lancaster in a similar programme, and this Assurance Scholarship scheme for Accounting and Finance students has now expanded to include Bath and Warwick, while PwC has expanded what it calls its Flying Start programme to include partnerships with Reading and Nottingham.

These were fast-track recruitment programmes devised by these companies to attract talented graduates, although it was made clear that there was no obligation on either student or company to continue the relationship beyond graduation. The PwC programme lasts 4 years and includes 3 paid work placements built into the uni.’s academic year as well as reduced tuition fees; participants also complete 80% of the exams. needed to qualify as a Chartered Accountant, so that they will be on track to gain full qualification only one year after graduating. The students on the EY 4 year programme are paid several thousand pounds a year and gain paid placements with the company in a summer vacation and in a third “sandwich” year.

The selection methods are rigorous. There is an Assessment Centre, in which applicants are given a group activity, during which their ability to work with others in solving a problem within a case study will be assessed. There will also be a one-to-one interview. I have known several successful applicants and, to judge from what they have said, you should expect the interview to last as long as an hour (i.e., far longer than any Oxbridge or Medicine panel interview) and you should arrive at the Assessment Centre ready to offer your own views and listen to others’ in a way that is neither domineering nor inhibited (“Why do people apply, if they then don’t contribute to the discussion?” wondered one successful applicant). Key preparation is to do as much research as possible about PwC, read about issues involved in accounting and finance and try to get some relevant work experience. I was once at a conference where teachers were given a mock group exercise from a PwC Assessment Centre. I soon realized that I was out of my depth, whereas the Business/Economics teacher was in his element.

PwC has developed its Flying Start programme to include those studying for Business degrees at Queen’s Belfast and Actuarial Science at Heriot-Watt. In extending this recently to include Computer Science, it has seemed a natural development to offer the programme as a Degree Apprenticeship (see Step 51).

Other uni. innovators in this field have been Northumbria and Nottingham Trent, which developed “In Company” degrees in Business/Corporate Management. The first year is spent at university, but in the following years students are employed by a company but continue their degree programme in blocks of study integrated within this. This is therefore an open-top sandwich, with a lot of work placement “filling” over the “bread” of the foundation year on campus. It is possible to see how this kind of programme was also a precursor of the new Degree Apprenticeships, the significant difference being that applicants have applied to the “In Company” programmes through the uni. rather than the apprentice employer.

Stage 2 : Choices: About


[STEP 50] 

Some unis. include in their degree programmes work done at the uni. in cooperation with a company, such as students in Graphic Design or other creative subjects preparing a professional brief.

Look out for unis. offering mentoring or internship opportunities through departmental contacts with companies.

There are also many competitions that can help students to develop employability skills and knowledge of industry requirements. Some of these are organized outside the uni., such as Formula Student UK by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers: student teams from different unis. design and build a racing car to compete in an annual event at Silverstone. Other unis. have well-established internal competitions: Bath’s final year students participate in the flagship Basil Spence competition, in which Architecture and Civil Engineering students collaborate in teams of 4 or 5.               

Stage 2 : Choices: About


[STEP 51] 

It is no exaggeration to say that the launch of these new apprenticeships in the last few years has changed the landscape dramatically for many potential uni. applicants and is likely to continue to do so at an ever increasing rate. At the big “What Career Live? What University Live?” event at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham in 2017 the most frequent question I was asked in individual interviews was “Should I apply for uni. or an apprenticeship?” The good news is that, as you apply for apprenticeships through an employer rather than UCAS, you can make an application for apprenticeships side by side with a UCAS application for uni..

In November 2014 the government set up a pilot study with 8 unis. for these new Degree Apprenticeships (Levels 6 and 7 in the National Framework – see Step 2) and Higher Apprenticeships (Levels 4 and 5). The unis. involved spanned a range of backgrounds, but a majority had a strong vocational focus: UCL (one of the most research-intensive unis., founded in the first half of the 19th century); Exeter (a research-intensive post Second World War uni.); Aston and Loughborough (former Colleges of Advanced Technology); Greenwich, Manchester Met. and Uni. of the West of England, Bristol (ex-polytechnics granted uni. status in 1992); Winchester (a former College of Higher Education granted uni. status in 2005).

These apprenticeships are a partnership between an employer and a training provider (which might be a uni. or another organisation); the apprentices, either new recruits or current employees, gain most of their training in the workplace, while earning a salary, but also study part-time alongside this (for between one and five years), with teaching either online or by block release at the uni. or another training provider. The apprenticeships are funded by a tax (levy) on the largest companies, and a major attraction is undoubtedly the opportunity to gain a degree without a huge financial debt. It is important to remember that the apprentices are employees of a company rather than members of a uni., although the NUS has produced a new Apprentice Extra card, which entitles the holder to some student discounts.

The government has the ambitious aim of there being 3 million apprenticeships (Levels 2-7) by 2020. Groups of “Trailblazer” employers are developing “Standards” for each of the new apprenticeships: a list of skills, knowledge and behaviours relevant to the workplace that an apprentice will need to acquire before the end of the apprenticeship. By December 2017 Standards had been developed for 36 sectors/occupations at Level 4, 9 at Level 5, 22 at Level 6 and 8 at Level 7, with more in the pipeline.

This scheme is in its infancy and there have been problems in convincing some potential employers and in getting comprehensive information to potential applicants. Although the government has established a website with vacancy information for England ( ), employers are not obliged to use it, and some large companies prefer to advertise only on their own websites. In the year to July 2017 36,600 out of the 494,000 apprenticeships created were at Level 4 or above, but only 2,100 went to school leavers, whereas 26,000 went to people aged 25 or over.

There are similar websites with apprenticeship vacancy information for:
- Wales ( );
- Northern Ireland ( );
- Scotland ( ). In Scotland Degree Apprenticeships are called Graduate (Level) Apprenticeships.

7,611 Degree Apprenticeships (Levels 6-7) have been created in England from 2015 to 2018. Apprenticeships with Standards in three areas have been dominant: Chartered Manager (36%), Digital and Technology Solutions (33%) and various forms of Engineering (20%).

Most older, research-intensive unis. have not been involved as training providers. However, PwC, in extending its Flying Start programme (see Step 49) to the IT sector, has launched a partnership with Birmingham, Leeds and Queen’s Belfast, in which they will be training providers for the Degree Apprenticeship in Digital and Technology Solutions ( ). The apprentices will be paid employees of PwC throughout their 4 year degree programmes, and will have 10 weeks’ work experience at the end of years 1 and 2 and a full year’s placement during year 3. Moreover, the work placements will be in the respective uni. cities, so there will be no issue with moving accommodation.

Other older unis. have gone into partnership with a small number of companies on one or two Degree Apprenticeships. Queen Mary in London is working with 6 companies on Digital and Technology Solutions. Other unis. are working with the NHS: e.g., East Anglia (Adult Nursing Degree Apprenticeship); Leeds (Healthcare for Assistant Practitioners Higher Apprenticeship). Exeter’s Degree Apprenticeships in Civil Engineering Site Management has been developed in partnership with companies including Laing O’Rourke, Bouygues and EDF Energy, and placements are focused on Hinkley Point C nuclear power station project in Somerset. Exeter’s website entry for the Degree Apprenticeship in Digital and Technology Solutions shows 11 employers that either have previously been involved in the partnership or are currently advertising vacancies on the website. I think that Exeter’s explanation of what is involved in these Degree Apprenticeships is particularly clearly set out and would be useful for you to read, if you are considering applying for a Degree Apprenticeship in any area ( ).

Other older unis. are clearly building on traditional strengths in the Apprenticeships offered. Birkbeck, with its background in providing part-time evening programmes, with some justification can claim that it is “the ideal university for students undertaking apprenticeship degrees who are balancing work and study”: the first to be offered are Chartered Manager and Digital and Technology Solutions Degree Apprenticeships and Laboratory Scientist Higher Apprenticeship. City University’s well known Law School has launched a Solicitor Degree Apprenticeship with a range of firms including ITV and urban councils. Similarly, Reading’s famous Henley Business School offers the Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship. Sheffield’s Degree Apprenticeships in Engineering, whose training provider component is based at the AMRC Training Centre, are highlighted in a useful film:

Other pre-1992 unis. that are developing Degree Apprenticeship partnerships include Essex, Hull, Kent (which seems to have particularly ambitious plans), Nottingham and Warwick.

I had expected all those Colleges of Advanced Technology that gained uni. status in the 1960s to be at the forefront of these new developments. However, to judge from the information currently on their websites, I would say that 3 are in the vanguard: Aston, Bradford and Salford. Aston, which claims to be the first UK uni. to offer Degree Apprenticeships, should soon be offering a dozen of these apprenticeships.

The sector that has focused most on developing Degree/Higher Apprenticeship partnerships with employers is the ex-polytechnics. Given their vocational background, this is not surprising. However, to judge from the information on their websites, some have been particularly active in this development across a range of subject areas. This includes Bristol’s Uni. of the West of England, Coventry, Derby, Greenwich, Hertfordshire, Leeds Beckett, Liverpool John Moores, London South Bank, Middlesex, Northumbria, Nottingham Trent, Portsmouth, Sheffield Hallam, Staffordshire, Teesside and Wolverhampton. Among post-1992 unis., Bucks New, Northampton, Solent and Winchester feature prominently. Coventry offers a particularly large number and calls itself “The Nationwide Apprenticeship University”. It is particularly useful for applicants to see a rolling vacancy list provided by unis. – provided that it is kept up to date: e.g., Hertfordshire, Manchester Met., Northumbria, Roehampton (on the website of QA, its training partner).

Some of these “newest” unis. have focused initially on a narrower field in partnership with a particular employer: e.g., Chester with Airbus (Chartered Manager DA), Lincoln with the National Centre for Food Manufacturing. BPP has links with Moorfields Hospital, BBC and L’Oréal and is involved in a Chartered “Rotational Apprenticeship” in which the apprenticeship gains a Uni. of Kent degree and has experience with 2 of the following 3 companies: IBM, Pearson and Kantar Added Value.

The quality of information given to prospective applicants by unis. varies hugely. Some websites are clearly aimed at recruiting employers as partners rather than elucidating the process and highlighting opportunities for potential applicants. Although a prospective apprentice applies to an employer rather than a uni., if I were considering this route, I would want to see details of the academic component (degree programme) on offer. Cumbria, for instance, is a uni. that does offer such comprehensive detail. Liverpool John Moores outlines the process particularly clearly: . I hope that the overall quality of information improves, as these apprenticeships become embedded.

In Scotland, Graduate (Level) Apprenticeships have been pioneered by the more vocationally orientated newer unis., with Glasgow Caledonian and Robert Gordon at the forefront. The latter has a particularly good level of detail on the academic content of the programmes offered. Download Edinburgh Napier’s useful “Information for Apprentices” (at ), which contains a comparison of Scottish Graduate Level Apprenticeships and English Degree Apprenticeships.

In Wales, equivalent apprenticeships are at an earlier stage of development, with very little information on the uni. websites. However, Careers Wales has a good search engine for vacancies: .

In Northern Ireland, Ulster has developed Degree Apprenticeship programmes across a variety of STEM subjects. In addition, the partnership between its Business School and Deloitte’s has been developed to include a Degree Apprenticeship focusing on Business (70%) and Technology (30%).

In view of what has happened so far, it is reasonable to expect that many school/college students in the next few years will increasingly see the attraction of Higher and Degree Level Apprenticeships, not least the absence of debt, and that many unis. will feel the need to respond by developing more apprenticeship partnerships with employers.

Stage 2 : Choices: About


This section [Steps 52-55] explains the difference between taking one or more subjects as part of the degree programme.

Stage 2 : Choices: About


[STEP 52] 

There are many programmes that are applied to as Single Honours: i.e., there is a single focus throughout, although one or two modules might be taken from a different subject area in Year 1. Most Single Honours programmes have a single subject as their title: e.g., English or Computer Science. However, some self-contained programmes might have titles that refer to two or more subjects: e.g., Money, Banking and Finance or Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic. It is therefore best to define a Single Honours programme as an integrated programme that is run within one department.

This includes some programmes that are professionally accredited and that are so full of the content demanded by the external accrediting professional organisations that there is no space for studying anything else. Architecture, the various disciplines of Engineering and Real Estate are good examples. Dentistry, Medicine and Veterinary Medicine are also examples, but the availability of an intercalated year at some unis. does permit some diversification. Law and Psychology might also be thought to come under this category, and for those applicants looking to work in a professional capacity in these fields the programmes might offer few optional modules and instead might be packed with the compulsory modules required for accreditation on the first rung of the professional ladder. But even they might be able to study a different subject as a small proportion of the degree programme instead of some or all of the optional Law or Psychology modules. Moreover, those not seeking professional accreditation may include a much larger proportion of another subject and end up with, for instance, a BA in Law and French (50% devoted to each subject) rather than an LLB in Law with French (far more Law studied than French, to ensure that this is the basis for qualification as a lawyer).

Degree programmes in Art and Design, which are not professionally accredited, are very often offered as single focus disciplines. Many applicants will have taken a broad-based Foundation Diploma in Art and Design, but, once a specialisation has been determined, this tends to be followed intently. There are, for instance, surprisingly few programmes that even offer Art and Art History in combination.

By their nature, some subjects offer a great deal of variety of perspective in single focus programmes. It should not be assumed that in Geography a BA focuses almost entirely on Human Geography and that a BSc focuses almost entirely on Physical Geography: the choice and focus in each programme needs to be looked at carefully by an applicant, especially as Cambridge, for historical reasons, chooses to give the title Bachelor of Arts not only to Geography but also to Natural Sciences (but MSci to the 4 year programme!), whereas Kingston, again for historical reasons, gives the title Bachelor of Science to a Geography programme that offers a human/physical balance. Classics is a degree that can offer a very broad range of disciplines to study: language and linguistics, literature, history, philosophy (ancient and modern), history of art and archaeology are all optional or compulsory elements in the Oxford degree programme.

Stage 2 : Choices: About


[STEP 53] 

These are programmes that require two departments to cooperate in their design and that allow students (for the most part) to take modules from the two departments’ Single Honours programmes, as opposed to pursuing a more integrated programme focusing on the links between the two subjects. So Accounting and Finance programmes do not fall under this heading, as a programme with this title will be constructed by a Business Management department. At Newcastle, it is possible to study Business and a language either in an integrated programme (International Business Management), where the focus is on studying the language in the context of Business, or in an unintegrated programme (Chinese/French/German/Japanese/Portuguese/Spanish and Business Studies), where half a degree is taken from each of the Single Honours programmes.

Does this matter? I think it might. The Newcastle example reinforces the point about not making assumptions and investigating at module level what exactly is offered in a programme. Moreover, my feedback from hundreds of students across the country raises some common themes, one of which is that two departments offering joint programmes should cooperate more in their administration. That is not to say that all Single Honours students have a streamlined programme: a Politics student once told me that each of the 6 modules taken that term required a major written assignment, and all 6 were due on the same date. Students should be expected to organize their work schedule around deadlines, but this student, who told me that “There is a lot of work and quite a lot of pressure”, did seem justified in looking for more sympathetic treatment from this department.

There are few things that unis. agree a policy on in naming their degree programmes. However, they do agree that a title in the form of “Subject A and Subject B” (Joint Honours) indicates that 50% of the programme is to be devoted to each of the two subjects, and that a title in the form of “Subject A with Subject B” indicates that more of the programme is to be devoted to the first subject than the second. The contrast is unlikely to be as close as 55% to 45%, but could be as high as 80% to 20%.

Remember that a uni. programme might in most cases be viewed as a pyramid. There is a broad base in Year 1, with large areas covered in modules that are mostly compulsory. In Year 2, there are more options, which give a less broad base and allow specialisation in areas of evolving interest. In Year 3 there might be no compulsory modules and a wide choice of options, including perhaps a dissertation, so that the apex of the pyramid is much more focused on a specific part of the discipline, a preparation in some cases for specialized postgraduate research. So an applicant who has entered the university studying English and History in equal measure might end up by focusing far more on the former by writing a dissertation on a literary aspect of Hardy’s later novels – but might receive a degree called “English and History BA Honours”.

Stage 2 : Choices: About


[STEP 54]

I am defining Combined Honours programmes as those that require or allow undergraduates to study 3 or more separate subjects in Year 1, any one or more of which may be continued in subsequent years. These are to be distinguished from Joint Honours programmes that allow you, in addition to your 2 main subjects, to dip into the odd “open” or optional module(s) in Year 1 in a subject that may not be continued in Year 2.

There is an element of personal judgement in what constitutes a separate subject, but for the purposes of this section, I feel that the following programme titles do NOT qualify under this definition, as two or all three of the subjects are too closely related to be classed as “separate”:
Ecology, Conservation and Environment (Sussex)
Economics, Politics and International Studies (Warwick)
Society, Culture and Media (East Anglia)
Theology, Religion and Culture (KCL)

Although the UCAS database is useful in locating Combined Honours programmes, some are particularly hard to track down. I therefore offer no apology for treating this in some detail.

The Combined Honours programme is a key feature of the first 2 years of many Scottish degree programmes, as is also the case in USA. So I shall treat these separately.

In the 1990s, beginning with Mathematics, A Level syllabi became more modular and were eventually rebranded as “specifications”, when Curriculum 2000 ushered in the new AS and A2 modular exams.. Similarly, in the mid 1990s some unis. eagerly embraced “modularization”, while others doggedly resisted it. At some of the newer unis. a “pick and mix” approach gave undergraduates an unparalleled freedom to shape their programme to their interests, but in more recent years there has been a retreat from this, perhaps in the face of organizational difficulties, insufficient coherence across the modules that formed the completed programme and the lack of a community feeling among students studying a wide variety of combinations.

However, there is a demand among applicants for broad-based programmes: some Sixth Form programmes, such as Scottish (Advanced) Highers and the IB Diploma are themselves broad-based, and they can foster a culture of interdisciplinary study; and even A Level students are more likely than 20 years ago to be studying a mix of science, arts and social science subjects.

Broad-based programmes are NOT inferior. I occasionally come across people who think that broad-based programmes somehow do not have high status. This is perhaps a hangover from the era in which broad-based Pass Degrees were offered, which were at a level below Honours Degrees.

It is worth mentioning at the outset that the title of the programme initially applied for might not be the title that ends up on your degree certificate at the end. The extent to which you might mould a programme to your developing interests across the subjects and topics within subjects studied is worth exploring now. For instance, if you apply for Politics, Philosophy and Economics, you might end up with a degree in sole Politics, just as, if you apply for Business Management, you can end up with a degree title mentioning Marketing at some unis. but not at others.

(i)           Combined Honours programmes in England, Wales and Northern Ireland

It is important to check whether it is necessary to take all three subjects throughout the programme and how far each programme is integrated: i.e., how far interdisciplinary links are explored.

Many of the Combined Honours programmes fall under the following headings.

Liberal Arts

The term “Liberal Arts” is derived from classical antiquity, but in medieval universities referred to the following seven subjects: arithmetic, astronomy/astrology, geometry, grammar, logic, music and rhetoric. After the Renaissance, the focus moved to classical language and literature, history and ethics.

“Liberal Arts” as a title has come to be associated with universities in the USA offering a 4 year broad-based programme that might include in its first two years the study of Arts, Humanities, Languages, Mathematics, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences.

However, there has been a resurgence in Europe, including the UK, in recent years.  This is partly in response to interest among students in broad-based degrees and among employers in graduates with transferable skills acquired through multi-disciplinary study. Universities are also keen to exploit an international market.

The focus in Liberal Arts degree programmes is breadth and interdisciplinary study. Such a programme might cover topics within the humanities and social and natural sciences. However, there are significant differences among the programmes: e.g., studying a language is compulsory in some; some require study of both arts and science subjects; in some there is a strong focus on developing skills and experience for employment. So it is important to look at each programme separately.

Liberal Arts is offered by these unis. for 2019 entry:
Aberystwyth, Birmingham (Liberal Arts and Sciences), Bristol, Central Lancashire, Dundee, Durham, Essex, Exeter, Keele, Kent, KCL, Leeds, Nottingham, Queen’s Belfast, Regent’s Uni. (Liberal Studies), Royal Holloway, SOAS (Global Liberal Arts), Warwick, Winchester.

UCL’s “Arts and Sciences” (without “Liberal”) should be seen under the same heading.

As many of these unis. have only recently begun to offer new Liberal Arts programmes or have modified existing programmes under this name, it important to check the UCAS website for up to date information.

Natural Sciences

Broad-based science programmes have been around for a long time. The Cambridge programme dates back to 1851. As with Liberal Arts, there is considerable variety in programme structure.

A Natural Sciences programme is offered by these unis.:
Bath, Cambridge, Durham, East Anglia, Exeter, Greenwich, Keele, Lancaster, Leeds, Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham, Southampton, UCL, York.

At Birmingham, you can enter on the Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences programme and emerge with a BSc in Natural Sciences.

MORSE (Mathematics, Operational Research, Statistics and Economics)

A broad-based programme that focuses on the application of Mathematics in business, finance and economics. It was invented at Warwick in the 1970s, but is now also offered by Lancaster and Southampton.

Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE)

This degree programme was launched by Oxford in the 1920s as a modern alternative to Classics for those planning to enter the Civil Service. It is now offered by many unis..

PPE is offered by these unis. (* indicates unis. where the title is Politics, Philosophy and Economics rather than Philosophy, Politics and Economics):
Aberdeen, Buckingham, Durham, East Anglia, Essex, Exeter*, Goldsmiths*, Hull, KCL, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, LSE, Manchester*, Nottingham, Oxford, Queen’s Belfast*, Reading, Royal Holloway*, Southampton, Stirling*, Strathclyde, Sussex, Swansea, UCL, Warwick, Winchester, York, Uni. of Highlands and Islands, Uni. of Wales Trinity St David (Lampeter). It is also offered by The New College of the Humanities.

Note that PPE is used by Birmingham as an abbreviation for its degree in Policy, Politics and Economics.

Other Social Science/Science/Humanities combined programmes

Anglia Ruskin                      Psychosocial Studies (Psychology, Psychoanalysis, Sociology)
Birmingham                        Policy, Politics + Economics
Brighton                              Globalisation: History, Politics, Culture
Brighton                              Philosophy, Politics, Art
Buckingham                        Economics, Business + Law
Buckingham                        International Studies
Buckingham                        Politics, Economics + Law
Cambridge                          Human, Social + Political Sciences (HSPS)
Cambridge                          Land Economy (Environment, Business Finance, Economics, Law)
Cambridge                          Psychological + Behavioural Sciences (PBS)
Durham                                Combined Honours in Social Sciences
Durham                                Health + Human Sciences (Biol. + Social Anthropology + culture, society + health)
East Anglia                          Archaeology, Anthropology + Art History
East Anglia                          Culture, Literature + Politics
Exeter                                   Flexible Combined Honours
Goldsmiths                          Economics, Politics + Public Policy
Hertfordshire                       Philosophy with any 2 Humanities as Minors
Kent                                      Social Sciences
KCL                                       Politics, Philosophy + Law LLB
KCL                                       Religion, Politics + Society
Lancaster                              History, Philosophy + Politics
Leeds                                    Philosophy, Psychology + Scientific Thought
Leeds                                    Professional Studies (core strands in each year: Professional + Interdisciplinary)
Leeds                                    Religion, Politics + Society
LSE                                        Psychological + Behavioural Science
Middlesex                             International Politics, Economics + Law
Newcastle                             Combined Honours
Newman                               Applied Social Science
Oxford                                  Classics + Modern Languages/Oriental Studies
Oxford                                  Human Sciences
Oxford                                  Psychology, Philosophy + Linguistics (PPL)
Sheffield                               Applied Social Science
Sheffield                               Combined Honours – Triple (Arts + Humanities) (choose when you arrive)
Sheffield                               Health + Human Sciences
Sheffield Hallam                  Applied Social Science
Southampton                      Quantitative Social Sciences
Swansea                                Humanities (part-time only)
UCL                                        Economics + Business with East European Studies
UCL                                        European Social + Political Studies
UCL                                        History, Politics + Economics (East Europe focus)
UCL                                        Human Sciences (+ Evolution)
UCL                                        Modern Language Plus (1 language + 1 Humanity + options)
UCL                                        Politics, Sociology + East European Studies
UCL                                        Population Health
UCL                                        Statistics, Economics + a Language
Warwick                                 Law with Humanities/Social Sciences (BA degree, but a Qualifying Law Degree)
Warwick                                 Politics, Philosophy + Law
York                                       Applied Social Science
York                                       Environment, Economics + Ecology
York                                       Social + Political Sciences

Combined programmes including 2 or more Modern Languages

Aberystwyth                         Modern Languages (3 languages)
Aston                                     International Relations + (max. 2 of) French + German + Spanish
Aston                                     International Business + Modern Languages (max. 2)
Bangor                                  Three Language Honours
Bath                                       Modern Languages + European Studies (2 languages)
Chester                                 Modern Languages (3 languages)
Essex                                     French/German/Italian/Spanish Studies + Modern Languages (max. 3)
Essex                                     Global Studies + Modern Languages (max. 2)
Essex                                     Modern Languages (4yrs.)/Language Studies (3yrs.) (max. 4)
Essex                                     Modern Languages (Translation) MLang (min. 2)
Exeter                                   Modern Languages (max. 3)
Greenwich                            Languages + International Relations (1 or more languages)
Hull                                      Combined Three Languages
Leicester                              Modern Language Studies (3 languages)
Liverpool                             Modern Languages (Triple Subject)
Newcastle                           Modern Languages (max. 3)
Nottingham                        Modern Languages with Business (2 languages)
Nottingham                        Modern Language Studies (3 languages)
Portsmouth                         Applied Languages (max. 3)
Royal Holloway                   Modern Languages (max. 3)
Sheffield                              Modern Languages (3 languages)
Southampton                      Languages + Contemporary European Studies
Southampton                      Modern Languages (3 languages)
UCL                                       Language + Culture (2 languages)

Other Arts combined programmes

Aberystwyth                      Creative Arts (Art+Design, Language+Writing, Performance+Production)
Bangor                               Creative Studies (Creative + Profes. Writing, Film Sts., Media + Journalism, Theatre + Performance Sts., Media Sts.)
Reading                              Art + Film + Theatre

N.B.       Keele has many Dual Honours programmes, including unusual combinations, with Free Standing Electives from other subjects offered.

(ii)          Combined Honours Programmes in Scotland

Scotland has a very different secondary education system from the rest of the UK. At the end of the compulsory phase of secondary school (usually at 16 years old) pupils sit National 4/5 exams. in 6 to 8 subjects. Pupils can go to university at the end of the following year, after taking Highers in (usually) 5 subjects. Highers are the main university entrance qualification. In the UCAS Tariff they are awarded the following points: A=33, B=27, C=21, D=15. The points are similar to those awarded to lower grades of A Level and to higher grades of AS Level: A Level C=32, A Level D=24, AS Level A=20, A Level E + AS Level B=16.

Advanced Highers are an optional qualification taken after a further year of study beyond Highers. They are considered to be at the level of the first year of university study in Scotland and therefore may be used to gain entry to university in the second year. In the UCAS Tariff Advanced Highers are awarded the following points: A=56, B=48, C=40, D=32. These points are equivalent to those awarded to A Levels from grade A*(56) to C (32).

This structure explains why Scottish university degree programmes have a standard length of 4 rather than 3 years, and why some students might gain second year entry on some programmes, especially in science and engineering. This includes A Level students with higher grades than those required for first year entry. The fact that Scottish students take more subjects at Higher level than Sixth Form students in the rest of the UK also explains why broad-based programmes in the first two years of university study in Scotland are prevalent.

Scottish students, along with students from other EU and EEA countries outside the UK pay no tuition fees in Scotland. However, those from England, Wales and Northern Ireland do pay these fees and so might feel tempted to opt for second year entry, if possible, rather than pay 4 years of fees. There are pros and cons. As the Tariff points above indicate, if you have got high grades at A Level, you might feel that you are treading water in some subjects in the first year at a Scottish university. However, if you have not got high grades, you might benefit from being able to consolidate previous knowledge and skills. If you enter the second year, you might graduate more quickly and more cheaply, but you will be joining subject groups in which most of the students have been socially and academically working together for a year.

There are notable exceptions to this broad-based structure in professionally accredited programmes such as Accountancy, Architecture, Dentistry, Engineering, Law, Medicine, Nursing and Veterinary Medicine.

Some Scottish university prospectuses are better than others at explaining the complexities of the broad-based degree structure. Aberdeen, Glasgow and St Andrews offer examples early on in their prospectuses to illustrate how exploration of three or four subjects in Years 1 and 2 leads, as elsewhere, to a focus on one or two subjects in the final two Honours years.

Some unis. offer 5-year undergraduate Masters programmes in science and engineering (e.g., MSci and MEng) equivalent to the 4-year programmes elsewhere in the UK. Those applying for Modern Languages should investigate whether their year abroad might be included in a 4-year programme or necessitate a fifth year.

Some broad-based programmes are more flexible than others. Some unis. might not require entrants to decide on the subjects to be taken in Year 1 before they turn up at the start of the year.

Some of the degree programme titles in Scotland are reminiscent of those listed above for the rest of the UK:

Abertay                              Social Science
Dundee                              Liberal Arts
Edinburgh                          Government, Policy + Society
Edinburgh Napier             Languages + Intercultural Communication with Tourism/Marketing Mgt.
Edinburgh Napier             Social Sciences
Glasgow Caledonian        Social Sciences
Heriot-Watt                        Combined Studies
Robert Gordon                  Applied Social Sciences
St Andrews                         Modern Languages (3 languages possible)
Stirling                                Politics, Philosophy + Economics
West of Scotland               Social Science
West of Scotland               Society, Politics + Policy

Stage 2 : Choices: About


[STEP 55] 

In the context of broad-based programmes it is worth mentioning that there are different types of Foundation programme that can form the substructure of an Honours degree. Similar titles can be confusing, and it is important to differentiate between these distinct programmes.

Note that many of these Foundation programmes might not be offered on a uni.’s main campus. The teaching is often franchised to satellite Further Education colleges, but the Foundation Degrees are validated by the uni..

(i) Foundation Diploma in Art and Design

This is a diagnostic 1 year programme in Further (not Higher) Education, in which the student is exposed to a variety of artistic media in the first phase, before specializing in the next phase in one area as preparation for applying to a degree programme in Higher Education.

(ii) Foundation Year for international students

This is designed to improve the students’ level of English and bring their knowledge of subject disciplines up to the level required for Year 1 of a degree programme.

English language teaching used to be the responsibility of a uni. department. In the last 20 years unis. have contracted this out to private companies like Kaplan and INTO. During this time large buildings have been constructed by these companies on campus (e.g., by INTO at East Anglia, Exeter and Newcastle) and the companies now offer a variety of routes into uni.: e.g., International Year One (to prepare for Year 2 undergraduate entry); International Graduate Diploma (to prepare for entry to Master’s programmes); pre-sessional English (a course taken in the summer before the academic year starts); A Level courses.

(iii) Foundation Year for “disadvantaged” students

This is part of a uni.’s Widening Participation (WP) strategy, to include more students from “disadvantaged backgrounds”, whose results don’t allow them to proceed directly onto Year 1 of a degree programme. One example is the Royal Veterinary College’s Veterinary Gateway Programme, which is a 6 year (rather than a traditional 5 year) programme in veterinary medicine aimed at UK students from a WP background.

(iv) Foundation Year for students without relevant Level 3 subject qualifications

This is designed for students wishing to apply for science and engineering (STEM) degree programmes who don’t have relevant A Level or other Level 3 qualifications.

(v) Foundation Degree

See Step 47 above.

Stage 2 : Choices: About
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