Nord Anglia Education
Nord Anglia
17 July, 2018

Navigating University Selection

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Navigating University Selection Nikki Mcleod, Head of Sixth Form, provides a detailed account of how to navigate university selection in a vast and complex landscape.

Making decisions about Higher Education can be a challenge. It is often a huge financial investment for parents and is a decision which may shape a student’s future. In the UK alone there are over 37,000 undergraduate courses at over 370 providers and in the US there are over 3,800 providers.

Our Year 13 students have successfully navigated this vast university landscape and have some wonderful offers from a variety of universities, including Imperial, King’s College London, UCL, University of Edinburgh and UC Davis. We look forwarding to hearing the outcome of their placements following on from the A Level results.

Though every journey is unique to the student there are some key factors which can help to make the admissions process more successful.

Self Reflection

This is trickier than it sounds! Thinking about how you have grown through your school years, the successes and challenges that have shaped you can start to help you think about where and how you might like to spend the next 3 or 4 years of your life. Mrs Abery ran some great sessions in the Y11 HE week where, in timed conditions, pupils wrote creative responses to prompts such as ”Hashtag yourself: explain the reason behind it” and “Become what you are not yet: when you daydream, who do you hope to become in the future?”. This sort of task enables our students to start to develop a narrative about themselves which can be applied to their application statement or essays. It also introduced the notion that creative responses are often born out of quite tight rules: in a similar way to which musicians might use Fibonacci number sequences to compose, working within a time limit can elicit excellent, initial ideas.

Creative Thinking

Whether creating a piece of written work for a university, attending an interview or completing a Multi Mini Interview (MMI) students must be able to think on their feet, offer something beyond the minimum response required by a question and be highly adaptable in applying newly-learned facts to an ongoing argument or given context. As part of their university preparation Y12 students participated in workshops through which they learned the principles of improvisation and “Defending the Indefensible”. Students were required to defend arguments such as: “The sun is not hot” and “Mount Everest is made of chocolate”, and were given just five minutes to prepare a response. Year 12 students also learned about logical fallacies during tutorials and had fun applying a range of them - from the slippery slope to the post hoc ergo propter hoc - to short speeches. Thinking creatively is something that requires regular practise and this can be done by actively participating in discussions in lessons or discussing news items or controversial topics with family and friends.

Co-curricular Activities

Activities and learning opportunities beyond the classroom are essential components of successful university applications. Any student applying for Medicine in the UK, for example, should be able to reflect upon work experience, wider reading of medical journals and any activities that have involved leadership and collaboration. It is all of this, rather than references to topics covered within lessons, that should be written about in a personal statement. A student applying for Mathematics (again, in the UK) should reference TED talks, theorem they have researched (and preferable explored themselves) beyond those covered at A Level and be able to cite examples where they have been able to apply Maths within a wider context (such as the tutoring of younger students). Applicants to the USA will be required to list their activities and demonstrate long term commitments to teams/ensembles.

This year’s Year 13 students described many different types of activities that they were involved in which have supported their applications. Many were able to use experiences that were arranged by the school such as observing lab work of PhD students at University Putra Malaysia, completing independent research projects as part of the Extended Project Qualification (offered to all Sixth Form pupils) and attending numerous guest lectures in school such as “Lloyd's, Past Present and Future: the development of Actuarial Science” by Mr Robin Michaelson, Visiting Lecturer, CASS Business School, City University of London.  

Our strongest applicants were able to reflect upon contributions they had made during work experience, evaluate initiatives they had established and run and discuss articles they had read independently all the time linking their ideas to career pathways/degree subject choices.

The current feeling amongst university admissions officers is that they are looking for innovators rather than passengers. It is great for students to participate in teams, complete the International Award, contribute to school events; but if a student is instrumental in initiating or leading something, then all the better.

Other Factors

A variety of other factors will affect a student’s choice of course and university. These include:

- Entrance requirements/test scores/selectivity

These vary from course to course and from University to University. All details can be found on university web pages and, for the UK, on UCAS. Important things to understand are: What are the A Level requirements for entrance? For the USA do they require the SAT/ACT and if so what are the requirements?

- Costs

These vary widely across countries and universities. UK university tuition fees for international students start from around £15,000 per year and are much higher if it is a lab-based or a clinical course. US universities are generally more expensive than this but often have more financial aid/scholarship opportunities than UK universities. EUC university tuition fees (see information below) are often less expensive for international students than UK universities.

- Reputation/employability

Usually included in rankings table and worth considering; although data tends to come from those who gain jobs within the same country as the university.

- Location

Some pupils will thrive living in a big city where halls of residence and lecture halls are spread across a wide area. Others will much prefer the ease of a campus university where everything is in one place. Weather can be an important factor and can play a part in raising living costs.

- Diversity - % international students

- Type of school – majors and learning environment

This is particularly prevalent in the US where the size of the university can vary enormously (< 2000 students versus > 15,000), can be single sex or co-ed and can also have some religious affiliations. Not all subjects will be offered in all colleges - students will need to research.

- Sports and activities

- Support Services

This year we have had over 100 universities from around the globe visit BSKL. Students and parents were able to attend UK, USA and Canadian University Fairs and individual institutions have visited regularly throughout the year. The most competitive universities continue to become harder to enter. Yale and Harvard accepted only 4% of applications this year and Cambridge has stated that the number of applicants to their institution rose 35%.

University Rankings

University rankings can seem like a quick way to start to narrow down choices from a vast selection. However, all university rankings should be approached with caution. What are they measuring and what is important to you? Is employability an important consideration? Do you care about the staff to pupil ratios? Are excellent research facilities essential? Or is student happiness a priority? Whilst these important measures are worth exploring, a ranking alone cannot tell us about how well a student will fit in to an institution.

This term we were fortunate to host Ong Ju Yan (Director of Yale Alumni Schools Committee), Nick Khaw (Harvard College Admissions Alumni Interviewer) and Dato Richard Small from Mabecs who has a strong relationship with Oxbridge Colleges. All commented on the “best fit” element. This is an essential thing to consider before making applications. A distinct difference between the US and the UK was highlighted by all three speakers. If a student is passionate about one (possibly two) subjects and wishes to focus purely on that subject for three or four years, then the UK is the place for them. Students who may be undecided, enjoy the idea of exploring a range of subjects and are good writers are better suited to the US. One way of understanding the differences between the two is to use an analogy. Take the actors Judy Dench and Gary Oldman. The former is known for her classical style and the latter is highly prized for his versatility. Both are exemplary performers; but they are very different. Like the UK University system, Dame Judy represents tradition, excellence and an approach that is focused on mastering one discipline. The US Colleges look for “all rounders”; those students who, like Gary Oldman, are highly versatile and creative.

Mental health was also raised as an important factor in deciding a future college. It is an unfortunate truth that some students do struggle at top ranking universities - especially those used to coming top of the class throughout Secondary school who then find themselves to be a very small fish in a rather challenging pond. Our speakers pointed out that it is better to come top of your graduating class in a slightly lower-league university than bottom of your class at a college such as Harvard, as doing so will provide a better stepping stone to postgraduate courses at top colleges.

Final Thought

BSKL is committed to supporting students with university applications around the world. Our first graduating class were supported by their subject teachers, tutors, Head of Sixth Form and University Counsellor and were given at least three hours worth of 1-1 support with their applications in addition to weekly tutorials. Every application must be the student’s own work. Making these decisions takes time and effort; but in the words of one of this year’s graduating cohort “It really is the most important thing you will ever do”.

Each one of our students has done exceedingly well this year. With competition for places at a high, our students have managed to stand out above others and gained places to study in some of the world’s top institutions. We look forward to what the next few years will bring.

Further reading

The following links provide university search tools across different countries:

There are many sources of university rankings:

The Surprising Thing Google Learned About its Employees: