University Applications and Admissions: Expert Advice
TopUniversities.com asks admissions staff to share their advice on how to make university applications as painless as possible.
So, you’ve done the research, you’ve talked it over with your nearest and dearest, you’re pretty confident that you’re going to get the grades you need, and you’ve finally concluded that studying abroad is right for you.
Congratulations: you’ve made one of the biggest – and hopefully most rewarding – decisions you’ll ever have to make in your life. Now there’s just one small obstacle standing in your way: actually getting into the university of your choice...
Of course, ‘small’ is the wrong word – this can be a very daunting experience. But fear not: if you keep your wits about you, then there’s no need for this to be any more than an administrative hassle – though admittedly a rather long-winded one, as you’ll learn very quickly once you begin the application procedure.
Choosing where to apply
It may seem obvious, but given the amount of time each application can take up, it’s important to think carefully about where you really want to apply.
Caroline Berry, International Officer at the University of Leicester, UK, advises students to begin preparations as early as possible: “As well as searching on the internet and checking the web pages of individual institutions, speaking to family, friends and teachers who have studied [overseas] is always a good place to start, and a way of narrowing down choices,” she advises.
“As well as choosing a course, students need to consider many other elements, including the type of environment they would like to live in, location, transport links, availability of accommodation, cost of living, options for financing studies through institutional scholarships and, of course, the type of institution they prefer.”
Stuart Schmill, Dean of Admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US, echoes this sentiment, emphasizing the importance of looking at the different degree structures on offer: “The key thing for an applicant to understand is the kind of educational environment that will best suit how they like to learn.
"Universities in different countries – or even in the same country – are very different in their styles and methods; some are very focused on a specific course of study, while others are more broad-based in their offerings."
He adds, “Culture is important. Students want to find the environment that best matches the way they like to learn.”
In the opinion of Pieke Hoekstra of Delft University of Technology, Netherlands, it’s best to focus on institutions rather than countries. However, Miranda Cheng, Director of the Centre for International Experience at the University of Toronto, Canada, says looking at the host country’s immigration policy should also play a part in your decision, particularly if you’re planning to work there during or after your degree.
Schmill points out the importance of having “a realistic understanding of what it will cost, and how [you] will pay for it” – there’s no sense, after all, in going through the entire application procedure if you find at the end that you just can’t afford it.
Getting started with university applications
Once you’ve weighed up all the factors and carefully made your decision – and remember that this where you’re going to be spending a not-inconsiderable portion of your life – it’s time for the really fun part: applying.
Though this might also seem obvious, it makes sense to ensure you take care over this. You don’t want to miss out simply because you forgot to submit the required evidence, or applied too late.
“Students should check entry requirements and deadlines before applying to make sure that they have the best possible chance of gaining a place on their chosen course,” Berry confirms.
“If they are unsure whether their qualifications are acceptable, they might like to contact the admissions office or international office in their chosen institution to check before submitting a full application.”
She emphasizes the importance of applying in good time: “It sounds obvious, but students should try to make an application as early as possible as this will give them plenty of time to make all the necessary arrangements for a move abroad, including organizing their finances, applying for scholarships and obtaining a student visa.”
And as Cheng adds, if you’re ever unsure about anything, ask!
Writing your personal statement
Of course, it is extremely unlikely that you will be the only person applying to your course, and Peter Dunn of Warwick University, UK, warns that – especially at top universities – the competition is likely to be stiff.
“Almost all applicants who apply to top universities will have high predicted grades that will meet the university’s academic requirements, so any other personal information on the form is a very important way in which you can impress the selectors.”
Your personal statement, he continues, is your main chance to convey this: “The person reading your application form will want to know in what ways you ‘connect’ with your chosen subject. They will look for motivated students who can articulate their aims and have the potential to succeed on the course.”
Though work experience and extracurricular activities certainly play a part in this – especially when you can show how they are relevant – you should not allow them to dominate your statement, Dunn says.
“Remember that you are applying for an academic course of study, and the limited space available to you for your personal statement should predominantly focus on this.”
Berry agrees: “Admissions tutors are most impressed when students can demonstrate a real understanding and commitment to their chosen subject area, and show that they have considered its relevance to their future career choice.”
Schmill adds that presenting yourself as someone who will contribute to the campus community will work in your favor.
University application mistakes to avoid...
So what are common mistakes people make during their applications?
“It makes an admissions tutor’s job more difficult if applicants do not provide enough information with regards to their qualifications,” Berry says.
“In the case of those applying with overseas qualifications, students shouldn’t attempt to translate theirs into [another system] – it’s always better to state the original name of the qualification gained.”
Schmill emphasizes the importance of paying attention: “It is important to fulfil all of the requirements that a university lays out. Make sure you take all the tests that you need to, have your interviews, and if an application asks you to answer a particular question, answer that and not some other question that you would prefer to answer.”
Bear all this in mind, and you’ll stand as good a chance as anyone. But, remember, if you don’t get in, it’s never the end of the world.
“It’s important to bear in mind that admissions tutors have a student’s best interests at heart when considering applications and will only make offers to those who they believe can be successful on their chosen course,” Berry says.
For this reason alone, it is worth applying to more than one university, because even if you don’t get into your first choice, Schmill concludes, “a university education is what you make of it – so you can have a terrific experience wherever you end up.”
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This article was originally published in October 2012 . It was last updated in January 2020