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Aim high with York College: top tips for success with your university application

By Vicky Joyce, York College English Tutor

Applying for university can seem like a daunting prospect. Forms, statements and deadlines can seem intimidating and scary. This is especially true when applying for top universities or for competitive courses like medicine. This is why your progress tutor at York College will help you navigate the application process no matter where you are applying.

In your second year at York College, you may find you are asked to work with a specialist tutor. As Oxbridge Coordinator at York College, one of my key roles is to make sure that students who apply for Oxford and Cambridge have the information they need about additional exams and deadlines. This is something that is mirrored by Steph Charles who coordinates the students who apply for medicine each year.

What do I need to know if applying for a top university?

It is never too early to begin researching your chosen courses. I would suggest having a notebook or word document handy and making sure that you keep a note of the additional requirements that your courses may involve. Some courses may also ask you to attend an interview – your progress tutor will be able to organise a practise interview for you if this is the case.

For example:

  • Law: you may be asked to complete an external test called an LSAT.
  • Oxford and Cambridge: you may be asked to complete an exam before or during an interview and you may have to submit copies of marked work.
  • Medicine: you may be asked to sit a BMAT or UCAT exam.
  • It is also likely that you will be asked to provide a portfolio or audition for creative courses.

How do I apply for university?

In the UK, university applications are made though UCAS. You complete an online form and draft a personal statement. Your subject tutors will also give your progress tutor reference material so they can write a reference that highlights your skills and interests. This is added to your application at the end of the process. You can apply for up to five courses.

At the end of your first year at York College, your progress tutor will support you in exploring UCAS and creating a first draft of your personal statement. The basics are quite simple: you have around 450 words to showcase your interest in your subject and give examples of your skills and interests. Universities will use this (alongside your grades and references from your tutors) to decide whether they should offer you a place.

Here are some useful sites to help you research university courses:

  • Explore the UCAS website and the courses offered by your preferred universities
  • Use graduate career websites like Prospects to research routes into your chosen career
  • Look at what your chosen universities look for in a personal statement – University of York and Brighton University offer some great examples.

So what do universities want to see in a personal statement?

Universities want to see passionate and engaged students who are really interested in their courses. When helping students to prepare their first draft of a personal statement, I often find myself relaying a conversation between Ian Martin, Head of Curriculum for Maths and Science at York College, and a Cambridge University Admissions Officer. When asked ‘What are you looking for in an ideal candidate?’, Ian was told ‘We want someone who is a real “insert subject” geek.’ This not only means knowing your course content well but also that you need to be looking beyond the curriculum and furthering your knowledge.

There are plenty of ways to do this. In English, this might be explaining why reading Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ inspired you to look at the history of the gothic genre and the writings of Byron. In Physics, this might be looking at how sub-atomic particles were formed following the big bang. For career-orientated courses like medicine, nursing and teaching, you will also want to be able to show that you have arranged and completed relevant work placements.

As a tutor who has been involved with UCAS applications for more than a decade now, I am also really aware that a good personal statement also gives a sense of who you are and your personal voice – there is no need to overcomplicate your writing – it just needs to read naturally. Your progress tutor will help you to work on getting the balance just right. Expect to do a good few drafts and do get started early. It is also essential that you do not plagiarise/copy previous personal statements – remember that UCAS uses some quite sophisticated checking software.

What else can I do now to prepare?

The best advice I can give you is to become an expert in your subject and to take every opportunity available to you. For example, many of our most successful students have been involved with the summer schools offered by Sutton Trust and UNIQ. This year, Hull York Medical School are also running a summer school for Year 12 students.

Some other suggestions to get you started with your research:

It is never too early to start preparing for your future – especially if you want to increase your chances of being accepted onto a competitive course. Whether it be researching universities, writing a personal statement or developing your subject knowledge, make your first steps today.

Read more on our Aiming High page, keep an eye out for us at future events and contact careers on if you'd like further specialist support.