13 Ways to Build a Competitive University Application When You Don’t Know What You Want to Study

Image shows a black and white photograph of a woman sitting on a sofa in front of huge shelves of books.In a previous article, we talked about the various super-curricular activities you can do in support of your university application for a number of popular subjects.

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If you don’t yet know what you want to study, knowing what you should be doing to improve your chances of a successful future university application isn’t quite as straightforward. If you’re torn between two subjects, you can undertake super-curricular activities in both, but what happens when you really haven’t the slightest clue what you want to study? If this sounds like you, it would be wise to keep your options open by undertaking a range of super-curricular activities that aren’t tied to a particular subject, but that will build your general academic and life skills in preparation for any degree. In this article, we look at a few ideas that will help you do this.

1. Read widely beyond the A-level syllabus for all your subjects

Image shows a pile of books next to a half-finished coffee.
Don’t neglect your reading lists.

Admissions tutors will want to see evidence that you’ve read beyond the subject, but since you don’t yet know what you want to study, and it’s impossible to find the time to read around every conceivable subject, a more realistic reading plan is needed. A good starting point is to read around your A-level subjects, as you’ve presumably chosen these because you’re interested in them. Asking your teachers for some further reading won’t just benefit your future university application; it’ll benefit your A-level grades, and it will provide evidence on your personal statement that you’re serious about studying, which is sure to create the right impression.
Your further reading around your A-level subjects may help you start to realise which subject you might want to pursue to a higher level. At this point, it’s also worth reading up on any other subjects you have an interest in that you’re not studying at A-level. This is your opportunity to learn more about anything academic that you’ve had a passing interest in, perhaps sparked by a documentary you’ve seen on television or by something your parents are interested in. Don’t rule anything out at the moment; keep an open mind, because the wider your reading, the more likely you are to be able to support a future university application.

Image is a button that reads "Browse all University Admissions articles."2. Start a blog about general academic subjects

Image shows an old-fashioned drawing of a woman blogging.
You can blog about any academic topic that takes your fancy.

We’ve often advocated blogging as an excellent way to demonstrate your interest in a subject, but if you’ve not yet decided what you want to study, there’s no reason why you should have to limit yourself to blogging about just one subject. The beauty of blogging is that you’re free to write about whatever you like. You could start an academic blog that covers a range of subjects, with a category for each one; once you decide what you want to study, you simply start blogging more about that subject than the others, so that when someone clicks the category for that subject, there’s plenty to read. Then, when you come to apply to university, you can drop into your personal statement that you “enjoy blogging on a range of academic subjects, with a particular focus on this one”, with a link to the category covering the subject you’re applying for.

3. Tweet about general academic subjects

Along the same lines as blogging, you could utilise the micro-blogging site Twitter to help improve your credentials for a range of academic subjects. Give yourself a Twitter handle that isn’t subject-specific and tweet about a variety of academic topics. Also follow and retweet others who do the same; university lecturers are good people to follow, and so are accounts that tweet about the latest developments in different subjects. This will keep you abreast of cutting edge research in a range of subjects, which will come in useful for your personal statement and interviews later on (as well as helping your A-level studies).

4. Grow your general knowledge

Image shows a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I.
Which monarch preceded Elizabeth I?

Following on from reading, blogging and tweeting about general academic topics, another thing you can do is to begin a more structured programme to improve your general knowledge, as more knowledge never goes amiss, and the process of learning a large volume of facts will stand you in good stead for university study. Make a list of the things you feel you ought to know: the names and dates of all the English monarchs, for instance, or learning more about the history of the UK’s political parties, or learning the capital cities of all the world’s countries, or learning pieces of music by all the famous composers. If it helps, imagine you are preparing to go on University Challenge!

5. Watch or listen to lecture series online

With many lectures now freely available online or as podcasts, it’s never been easier to learn more about a subject. Try going to a site or app such as iTunes U and watching a few lectures in different subjects. You may find yourself leaning naturally towards certain subjects after you’ve watched a few; these are the subjects you should look at more seriously with a view to possibly studying them at university. Then, on your personal statement, you could make a comment such as, “watching a series of online lectures by X University cemented my conviction that this is the right subject for me”.

6. Take our Broadening Horizons course

Image shows ORA students debating in the Oxford Union.
Oxford Royale Summer Schools offers many subject options you’re unlikely to have studied at school.

Another way of growing your general knowledge is to come to Oxford Royale Summer Schools and study with us on our Broadening Horizons course. This is designed to help you pursue your academic interests as well as learning something new, and with 23 subject options, there’s plenty to choose from. It’s a good opportunity to sample different subjects that you might not have thought of, but that you might end up enjoying so much that you end up finding the subject you want to study at university. As part of the Broadening Horizons course, you could, for example, choose to study Archaeology and Anthropology, Political Science and International Relations, Experimental Psychology or Journalism – to name but a few. If you did find you want to study at university one of the subjects you discover with us, you’ve then got an extra thing to talk about on your personal statement to show how you’ve pursued your interest in the subject. And you’ll have experienced a stimulating academic environment in the inspiring scholarly surroundings of Oxford University.

7. Enter essay competitions

Essay-writing is a valuable skill for university for any humanities subject (and you may have to write essays for science subjects too), and thus being able to prove ability in this area will stand you in good stead for a huge range of subjects. A quick Google search for “essay competitions” reveals plenty you could apply for, and a win would be an impressive thing to talk about on your personal statement, whether it’s related to the subject you end up applying for or not.

8. Visit museums and other interesting places

Image shows an elephant in the Smithsonian.
You can think about the way that museums choose to convey information.

Just because you don’t yet know what you want to study, it doesn’t mean you can’t still engage in general super-curricular activities such as museum visits or trips to other interesting educational places. A science museum will cover a range of science subjects, giving you something to talk about if you end up applying for a science subject; National Trust houses and English Heritage sites are great for mentioning on your personal statement for any kind of degree relating to history; authors’ houses are a good bet for English-related degrees; and so on. If you can blog about your experiences of visiting such places, even better, as it shows that you’ve thought critically about your experience, rather than just seeing it as a fun day out.

9. Take extra qualifications to widen your experience

Another thing you can do to widen your experience in preparation for studying any subject at university is to take some extra qualifications to enhance your UCAS form with extra points and skills. Whether that’s taking an extra A-level, doing a diploma or adding the Freestanding Mathematics Qualification to your gamut of skills, there are numerous qualifications out there that can be taken while you’re studying your A-levels that will grow your abilities and impress admissions tutors. We’ve detailed lots of ideas in our article on brilliant ways to get more UCAS points.

10. Do some work experience – perhaps in an academic environment

Image shows Chemistry equipment.
Getting work experience may even help you towards a job in future.

Work experience is just as valuable for your CV as it is for your future university application, so it’s definitely something you should do before you apply. If you’re neither sure what you want to study at university, nor what you want to pursue as a career, try to gain some work experience that would prove a useful talking point regardless of which subject you end up applying for. An academic environment is one such workplace that could lend itself well to a range of subjects. For example, work experience in a lab would prove useful for any scientific subject as well as giving you an insight into a possible career option, while work experience in a library would be applicable to any subject. However, it doesn’t really matter where you end up getting work experience, as whatever you do will help grow your knowledge and give you life skills that can be transferred to an academic context (such as effective communication).

11. Join Mensa

Image shows a typical pattern-recognition IQ test.
Practice makes perfect with IQ tests, like any other kind of test.

Membership of subject-relevant societies is one way of showing your commitment to a particular subject, but there are other options for those who don’t yet know what they want to study. Mensa is one such option that isn’t limited to a particular subject. Membership of Mensa is limited to those whose IQ falls within the top 2% in the world, so entrance to the organisation relies in your performance in an IQ test. Not everyone will get in – and it’s no bad reflection on you if you don’t – but if you do, it’s a great badge of honour that will immediately signal your intellectual capacity to admissions tutors. What’s more, it’s a great way of meeting like-minded people through the organisation’s networking events and special interest groups (the latter of which include subject-specific interest groups – a great thing to get involved in once you’ve decided what you want to study at university).

12. Take on a position of leadership

Positions of responsibility will benefit you in numerous ways, for your university application, CV and general life skills. It doesn’t matter which subject you end up applying for at university; a position of leadership will help demonstrate that you’re someone who is going to be effective during university group work (that is, you can conduct yourself well in a group task, delegate tasks and so on), confident contributing to class discussions, and that you’re someone who will take responsibility for their own learning. A position of responsibility could be something like a paid part-time job, a role organising a school event or running an after-school club, leader of your section in an orchestra or other music group, team captain of your sports club, or voluntary work. While not necessarily linked to a specific subject (unless you help run the school maths club, for example), such positions demonstrate skills that will be useful for any subject.

13. Dabble with a few subject-specific super-curricular activities

Image shows a planetarium.
Even if you’re not set on Physics, why not visit a planetarium all the same?

You may be undertaking extra super-curricular activities primarily with a view to strengthening your future university application, but you could also use this as a chance to try a few different subject-specific activities that could help you decide what you want to study. This will give you the chance to experience new things related to subjects you might want to study, as well as covering a range of options that will support your application, whatever you decide. Super-curricular activities are also a more fun way of learning, so whatever you do will benefit your general knowledge in a more enjoyable way than sitting in a classroom.
Finally, if you’re torn between two possible subjects, have a read of our article on how to choose between two university courses.






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Image credits: banner; reading; blogging; Elizabeth I; museum; experiment; IQ test; planetarium.