Any parents see getting into the right university as the culmination of everything their child has worked for over the last 14 years at school. However, this final step can often be the hardest and feel the most complicated. The headaches start with having to choose which university and which course is right. Once that’s narrowed down, you then have to secure the place.

For many students, the aim is a place at one of the Russell Group universities. These include Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick, Edinburgh, UCL, Bristol, Imperial, LSE and York. Applying to these institutions means students are competing against applicants from all over the world.

A place at a top university can define your child’s career and future, so it is always surprising how little time many sixth formers dedicate to researching the choices available and completing their applications.

The personal statement is the one chance students have on the UCAS application form to convince admissions tutors that they should be given a place. Because it is so crucial it can often be a source of great stress for both students and parents. It has to show that the student is interested in the chosen subject and has the academic potential to cope with studying it for three of four years. It’s challenging to get it right. The personal statement should not be a list of achievements, books and work experience placements; the best ones will map out the journey which the student has undertaken in order to arrive at the decision to study the chosen subject.

While many schools have their own support services, the best applications are made by those students who have thought ahead and spent a considerable length of time planning their applications. By planning, I mean more than the structuring and drafting of the personal statement itself. A planned programme of reading and research will help a student to gain a better understanding of the subject that they want to read at university.

At Bonas MacFarlane our advice is that, even before an applicant puts pen to paper, they should research their subject and how it is taught at university. A student who has made a genuinely informed decision to study a course will find the entire application process less challenging.  Knowledgeable students find it easier to convince an admissions tutor that they are a strong candidate. The challenge is how to become genuinely informed about university courses.

The Bonas MacFarlane Academy offers a unique University Preparation Programme designed to make sixth formers become more effective university applicants. Students joining the Academy’s programme are taught in small online seminars, working alongside high calibre fellow students from all over the world. Students are asked to consider the skills required in their chosen degree subject and helped to reflect on how they can evidence these. They are fully prepared before they begin writing their personal statements. The Academy also provides expert guidance on aptitude tests and interviews, which are required for Oxbridge courses and for highly competitive subjects such as Law and Medicine.

We find that as students investigate their subjects more deeply, many want to undertake further research. For those interested enough to do this, the Academy provides courses which will steer a student through a supported piece of research on a topic of their choice. It is a good option for those students whose school does not offer an opportunity to study for the Extended Project Qualification. As well as extending their subject research and, therefore, their interest, it can be an excellent source of discussion for an interview if it is mentioned in the personal statement.

The University Preparation Programme aims to give students the tools to produce something truly excellent for their application. It encourages self-reflection and careful consideration of the subject which the student has chosen to study. The very best personal statements are from students who have done these things.

My experience in sixth forms has taught me that the best applicants are the most prepared. Those who leave this to the last minute do not obtain the offers they want, because the lack of preparation shows. In the Academy, we aim to address this by asking students to start thinking in January of their Lower Sixth year. We then work with them all the way through to the point of application in the autumn. University really does set us on a certain path in life and so the application warrants some very careful attention.

Sarah Charters
Head, Bonas MacFarlane Academy