Dr Rachael Griffiths is a Researcher and Educational Consultant who has previously worked in admissions at the University of Oxford, as well as supporting sixth form students with university applications.  

Here she discusses why students should start thinking about university as early as possible, and what they can do to help ensure they’re in the best possible position when it comes to submitting their applications. 


Deciding on a course and university could be one of the most important decisions of a young person’s life and with over 50,000 courses available at more than 395 institutions in the UK, it can be incredibly daunting with students unsure of where or how to start.  

The truth is, it’s never too early to start. By exploring their options as early as possible, students give themselves the best possible chance of making the right decision for their future as well as the time to fit in any extra-curricular activities that will support their applications and improve the chances of a successful application.  

Here are some steps young people can take to put themselves in the best position when it comes to application time. 


1. Start Researching Early 

Starting conversations around the options available and planning as early as possible can be incredibly valuable in helping students come to the right decision for them.  

Encouraging students to undertake some research into their future options at an early age, ideally in year 8 or 9 when they are thinking about GCSE options (or equivalent qualifications), will help them gain a greater insight into the variety of pathways on offer and reflect on the subjects, skills, and/or wider issues they enjoy most.  

There is a wealth of resources available: the UCAS website is a good place to start, it is comprehensive and provides advice on all aspects of the application process in the UK. The Complete University Guide also offers guidance and support, along with university league tables and rankings. University websites and prospectuses contain an abundance of information about courses and institutions, and often include insights and tips from current students who have been through the process themselves.  


2. Don’t Forget Extra-Curriculars 

Regardless of the course, admissions tutors will want to see that students have gone above and beyond the academic essentials and engaged in activities that have developed their skills and interests. There are a number of ways that students can do this from subject related work experience, extra reading or attending exhibitions, to non-academic pursuits such as volunteering, Duke of Edinburgh Award, sports, and Young Enterprise, which can also be rewarding experiences.  

Encourage students to keep a record of their extra-curricular activities, so that they have a complete and clear list that they can draw from when the time comes to plan and write a personal statement. When adding to their record, students should think about what they have learnt and/or what skills they have developed. For example, completing a Duke of Edinburgh Award demonstrates self-discipline, time management, and leadership. Whilst reading The Wisdom of Psychopaths might help a Psychology applicant develop a more nuanced understanding of psychopathy and gain insight into different research methods.  

In their personal statements, students will be able to reflect on these experiences and use them to demonstrate their ability, motivation, and potential. As such, extra-curricular activities are a key part of a strong application and the earlier students think and engage in these, the better.  


3. Consider All the Options 

When the time comes to start researching specific courses and institutions, supporting students to reflect on their passions and motivations will enable them to start narrowing down their options and get a better sense of what is on offer. 

I wasn’t always sure of what I wanted to study at university, and throughout the years I changed  my mind a few times. I even considered things like studying languages or even law. And eventually, I understood that what I was really looking for was to understand the world around me, and that meant, for me, going to study physics.
– Dario 

Ask students to think about which subjects they enjoy at school, what is it about that subject, and which topics or current issues have recently sparked their imagination. Encourage them to consider subjects outside of the school curriculum that touch on their interests, such as archaeology, chemical engineering, land economy, and pharmacology, and joint honour subjects. I recently met an undergraduate studying History whose fundamental interests were war and conflict; they were kicking themselves that they hadn’t better researched their options and applied for History and War Studies or Military and International History instead. Choosing the right course is crucial to enjoying university, so students should take the time to really explore their options, even if you think they know what they want to study. 

Criminology was not the first subject that I wanted to study. I wanted to study law before, but the UK has a different legal system from Macau.

Attending online courses are a great option as they can inspire students and help them stay motivated. They also provide an opportunity to meet other students in the same boat, which can be both reassuring and encouraging. EtonX offers a course on Applying for University, which familiarises students with the key milestones in the university application process, and taps into their interests, goals, and values, so they feel better equipped and more confident in deciding what and where to apply.  


In short, admissions tutors are looking for enthusiastic students with inquiring minds, a positive attitude towards study and a passion for their chosen course subject and it is never too early to foster this curiosity and start thinking ahead. 

For more support with planning university applications take a look at our Applying for University course.