7 Tips to Get Ahead with Your University Plans – The ORA Way

At Oxford Royale Academy, we know what it takes to get into a great university.

Across a wide variety of programmes, we help students figure out their ideal choice of subject, boost their understanding of it and provide guidance on how to approach getting into the university of their dreams. Our inspiring teachers, dedicated counsellors and carefully planned lessons has led to many of our alumni going on to achieve remarkable things.  

The best way to benefit from our approach, of course, is to join us on one of our inspirational academic courses. But if that isn’t an option for you, or if you’d simply like to know more about how we encourage and enable our students to achieve their dreams, in this article we look at the different ways that you can use the ORA approach to get ahead with your university plans.

1. Figure out which subject is truly right for you

Image shows an ORA Medical School Preparation lesson.
Subjects such as Medicine are very competitive – you’ll need to be sure it’s definitely what you want to study.

Subjects can differ a great deal between school and university, both in terms of content and learning style. It’s also not unusual to be interested in studying a subject because you’ve been inspired by a particularly good teacher – or put off by a poor one – rather than because it’s a subject you’re genuinely interested in. Unfortunately, many students only find that out by the time they’ve already started at university, at which point transferring between subjects can be administratively difficult, not to mention expensive.

Much better, then, to spend some time figuring out which subject you should study at university before you make a commitment to a subject you’re not actually that enthusiastic about. One way to do this is taking a summer school course in that subject. At Oxford Royale Academy, we aim for our teaching to reflect the approach and content that you’re likely to encounter at university, to give you an impression of what studying that subject at university is really like. For instance, our Law School Preparation programme, for students aged 16 to 18, gives you a preview of the concepts you’ll encounter at law school, and the ways in which you’ll learn about and discuss them. That’s particularly valuable for subjects that aren’t available at your secondary school, which you therefore won’t have a chance otherwise to encounter in a classroom setting. And if you’re torn between different subjects, a programme that lets you select more than one subject, such as Broadening Horizons, can help you figure out which you prefer, or perhaps even if a Joint Honours course would be right for you.

If a summer school course isn’t an option for you, an online course might be. This similarly gives you a taster of the subject you’re interested in from the perspective of preparing to go to university. Or you could try carrying out some university-style research: think of a topic you’re interested in, go to your local library, and see what you can learn about it. If that sounds like a fun way to spend an afternoon, you’ve probably found the subject you should study at university.

2. Explore your chosen subject from fresh perspectives

Image shows an ORA teacher speaking to a group of students.
Fresh perspectives on your subject might be found in the classroom, or outside it.

Once you’ve figured out which subject you should study at university, it’s time to start thinking about it in a new way. Not only is this valuable preparation for all the fresh perspectives and approaches you’ll encounter at university, it also helps you stand out from the crowd of applicants in your personal statement and at interview; after all, they will all attend similar schools to you and quite possible study the same curriculum. No admissions tutor wants to read yet another personal statement about how your study of the Second World War has persuaded you of the valuable lessons that can be learned by applying the study of history to the present day.

That’s not to say that it’s easy to be original in your personal statement and interview – in fact, it can be very difficult. But exploring your subject from fresh perspectives gives you more material and a better chance of coming up with something that isn’t hopelessly hackneyed.

At Oxford Royale Academy, presenting each subject in a fresh and original way that complements, rather than replicating, what students will have learned at school is central to our teaching approach. The same can be said of our online courses. To explore your chosen subject from a new perspective at home, a good place to start can be looking at the curriculum for your preferred university. Is there anything that stands out, surprises you, or is completely unfamiliar? That’s a good place to start researching, whether that’s back at the library or just some exploratory Googling until something catches your interest.

3. Work on your personal statement early, and get lots of feedback

Image shows students working on their laptops.
You could set up a study group of friends to work on your personal statements together.

One of the most challenging aspects of the UCAS application process is writing your personal statement. It’s a difficult balancing act: writing something reasonably distinctive and original without going completely off the rails, something that is tailored to appeal to the universities you’re most interested in attending while not excluding any of the the five that you’re applying to, and something that demonstrates your interest in your chosen subject without resorting to cliché. Add to that any common personal statement issues you might be acing, such as wanting to applying to courses that are very different in style or content, and it becomes a tremendous hassle.

On an Oxford Royale Academy course, there’s obviously only so much that we can do to help you with your personal statement, such as talking through some dos and don’ts and highlighting common mistakes; you still need to write it yourself. What’s so useful about doing this in the context of an Oxford Royale Academy course is that you’ll end up with a first draft written good and early, and you’ll have the opportunity to ask our expert teachers for their feedback. You can replicate some of this at home by setting yourself a firm, early deadline for writing a first draft. If you’re not sure what to say, you could even write more than one, trying out different approaches. Then get feedback, especially from people who have seen lots of personal statements before, such as your teachers at school. If you don’t have a teacher you can ask, there are also online forums where people will compare personal statements, though any feedback there might not be from experts, so you should take it with a pinch of salt.

4. Get to know the university that’s your first choice

Image shows ORA students eating lunch in the dining hall of Balliol College, Oxford.
It’s a confidence booster to already feel comfortable and at home in your preferred university.

Knowing the universities you’re applying to undoubtedly helps, not just in making sure that you’re applying to universities that are right for you, but also in allowing you to demonstrate that they’re right for you. While you’re unlikely to make the mistake of showing up at an Oxford interview talking about how you don’t thrive under academic pressure and you’ve always liked the idea of attending a modern university, there are similar, less obvious mistakes that you could plausibly find yourself making. Universities – especially those who interview their applicants – want to make sure not only that you’re a good fit for the course, but that you will thrive at the university in general. In order to demonstrate that, you’ll need to get to know the university yourself.

With Oxford Royale Academy, you get to live and learn in a university and get a true taster of the student experience there. Our courses are currently based in the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews, Imperial College London, and Yale. Independently, you’re unlikely to get the chance to live and learn in these universities in the same way, but you can certainly get a flavour of them by attending open days or, if that’s not possible, visiting at other times. You can also speak to current students there, if you know any, and ask them their impressions.

5. Find out more about studying like an undergraduate

Image shows an ORA drama class.
Studying like an undergraduate can mean working independently, or collaboratively.

The transition from studying like a school student to studying like an undergraduate is considerable. At school, you might have begun doing some independent research, but mostly you’ll be look at textbooks that your teachers have selected for you. At university, most of your research will be independent, and your lecturers will be unimpressed if you stick solely to the reading list they’ve assigned. At university, you’ll be expected to operate independently in more ways than this, as well; for instance, you’ll be expected to form your own opinions and conclusions based on evidence, not falling back on what your teacher tells you is correct.

A better understanding of what undergraduate life is like will help you give a better performance in your personal statement and at interview, particularly if you can demonstrate that you’re already capable of thinking like an undergraduate. At Oxford Royale Academy, our teaching style echoes what you’ll experience in undergraduate seminars, where you’ll be challenged to produce and defend your own opinions on a given topic. You can practise for this teaching style by working on writing more original essays and thinking critically about the arguments you encounter – do you agree with the perspectives put forward in your textbooks? If not, think about why not, and why the perspectives put forward might have been chosen.

6. Practise for interviews

Image shows ORA students sitting in a circle.
Interview practice is best done with others.

Only a minority of students end up needing to interview for university, but if you’re expecting to need to interview to get a place, then it’s important to be prepared. Some universities interview nearly all of their applicants (e.g. Oxford and Cambridge) while others interview some but not all (e.g. Manchester, Loughborough and Bath). Interviews will also range from a challenging academic interview (which is the norm for subjects like Medicine) to a more relaxed chat that enables the admissions tutor to get to know you as a person and see how you would fit in, more than they might be able to gauge from a personal statement. It’s helpful to see an interview as not another scary part of the application process, but as an additional opportunity for you to demonstrate what a great student you’ll be.

Oxford Royale Academy courses such as Medical School Preparation include interview practise as standard. If you have friends who are applying for similar courses and universities as you, it can make sense to practise for interviews together. Interviewing someone else is more useful than you might expect for honing your own interview technique, as you can see the impact of body language and ways of approaching the answer on the interviewer. You might also get some good ideas for your own answers from what they say. Then they can take turns interviewing you so that you get experience of answering some typical interview questions, and won’t feel tongue-tied when it comes to the real thing.

7. Build your academic confidence

Image shows an ORA student addressing the class.
Public speaking is a source of anxiety for many students.

The whole university application process is daunting at the best of times – even more so if you lack confidence in yourself and in your academic work. Having confidence that your academic abilities are more than sufficient for the university of your dreams can help; while you shouldn’t be arrogant, it’s hard to persuade an admissions tutor that you deserve a place at a particular university if you don’t believe it yourself.

We aim to instill our students with academic confidence at Oxford Royale Academy by boosting their knowledge of their subject, taking their thoughts and opinions seriously, and encouraging them to live up to their full academic potential. This kind of encouragement is harder to get at home, but it may be worth taking the time to think about why you might lack academic confidence, if you do. These feelings are not always rational, but they can be tackled nonetheless. Is there a particular subject area that you feel uncomfortable with? Or maybe it’s speaking about your subject in public that gets you into difficulties? You can work through these kinds of issues independently, with a teacher, or with a private tutor, until you can overrule the nagging voices in your head and demonstrate to yourself just how academically successful you can be.

All images used were taken on Oxford Royale Academy programmes.