How schools and colleges can support
students to write
a great university
This blog content was kindly supplied for the Teachers' Guide to University by Orla Kirkland, when in employment as the Outreach Officer for the
Midlands at the University of Exeter
Clichés, jokes and bending the truth have no
place in a professional university application.
You may have read a few of these yourself and
have been surprised at your students’ hidden
talents. Many are unsure of how to start, but it
is easy, with the truth!
Passion and motivation can grab attention
and quickly provide a real understanding to a
student without the classic procrastination of
the perfect opening line. Remind them it is not
a detailed personal monologue but like a job
application which needs to be formal, clear and
Identifying a student’s favourite module, topic
or experience in a subject will shape the start
of the personal statement, allowing the focus
to be on the skills and knowledge acquired
which are relevant for their chosen course.
If they are unsure which skills would be
relevant, then a quick look at course modules
on the website will show what may be
appropriate to discuss. Identifying common
research themes/modules/skills between
university courses is key to ensuring that the
statement will be applicable to all courses the
student applies to.
To say facilitating work experience has
been a challenging task in the last few years
is an understatement. However, the skills
needed can be gained and, in an increasingly
competitive environment, it is vital students
try to identify any skills gaps to increase their
confidence and success.
It would be effective to try and gain these
online, for example:
• A student applying for Environmental
Science may undertake an online course on
sustainability (pro-active, passion and motivation,
learning outside classroom).
• From this they create an eco-schools club
for younger students online (creativity, project
management, leadership and teamwork).
• As a result, they designed an online proposal
(written communication, problem solving,
• They then presented this at a virtual assembly
(verbal communication, inspiring others,
• And subsequently removed single use plastic
from classrooms (implementation, negotiation,
This will benefit them on the course where
they would need to find appropriate solutions
to environmental problems by assessing,
reporting and quantifying environmental risks.
The good news for pro-active students is that
there is an opportunity to develop effective
skills and knowledge without the fear of excess
time, historic networks or cost of travel. An
example of this is the Discover University
programme at the University of Exeter. We
deliver free evening sessions for students on
writing a personal statement which dispels
myths and gives top tips from our admissions
team. I would highly recommend encouraging
students to attend this style of session at
the institutions they wish to apply for to gain
an insight into a successful application, ask
questions and learn about their process.