14 Mistakes to Avoid when Applying to University, or: How to End up on the Right Course at the Right Institution

Philippa Logan, a graduate of Newnham College, Cambridge, clues you in on the mistakes to avoid when preparing your university application.

UCAS application mistakes

When I was at school, I used to get fed up with adults who said that schooldays are the happiest times of one’s life. It was obvious that they hadn’t been at my school.

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But university. Now, university days really can be the happiest times of your life. You’re footloose, fancy-free, and without a care in the world. (Let’s not go into student loans here.)
All this supposes that you are at the right university, and doing the right course. And it’s not easy to get either right. Even if you’re dead certain about what course you want to do – medics, for example, usually fall into this category – you’ve still got to choose where to study it.
So, where to start, and what to avoid? There are about 150 universities to choose from, each offering umpteen enticing courses. All of them want YOU to come to study with them – it’s very flattering.
But there’s so much information out there that it’s hard to know where to start. The reassuring thing is, the more research you do before you apply, the more likely you are to make the right decision, based on the right information.
So let’s go through this logically, with a list of some mistakes to avoid. We’ll start with choosing your course, because that is by far the most important thing to get right.
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Mistake 1. Choosing a course for the wrong reasons

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Don’t choose a foreign language just for the year abroad – no matter how tempting it might be!

So you like Maths, do you? Is it because you find it easy, and can get the prep done in double-quick time, or because you really like it?
Or maybe you like History. Is this because you get good marks in your essays, or because you like finding out about the past?
Or perhaps you think you might like Latin, but your school doesn’t offer it as a subject and you haven’t had the chance to try? Why makes you think you would like to learn Latin?
Only you can answer these questions, but a little test is to ask yourself this question. If you were given a history of modern Britain for Christmas, or one of Robert Harris’s books on Cicero, or a year’s subscription to New Scientist, would you inwardly groan, or would you thank whoever had given it – and genuinely mean it?
Because university is all about studying a subject that you are interested in. It’s not only about having a good time (it’s that as well). If you’re not really interested in your subject, then you’re better off not applying to university. It will save you £9,000 a year in tuition fees alone, and you’ll be on the job market three years earlier. Harsh, but true.
If you have a career path in mind, the best degree course to choose might be obvious.
However, it might not be crystal clear which subject appeals to you most. In which case, you could consider studying more than one subject at university.
Now, let’s imagine you’re doing science A-levels, but you’re not quite sure which science you like best. If you’re interested enough in all of them, then quite a number of universities besides Cambridge offer Natural Sciences, in which you study three or four sciences in your first year, and specialise later on.
If you’re on the Humanities side, and don’t want to limit yourself to studying just one, then have a look at courses that combine subjects: these are usually called ‘joint honours’ courses, so that’s what you need to type into Google. But if you are thinking about doing a combination, then make sure the balance of the two subjects is right for you.
If you make a massive mistake with your choice of course, it’s not the end of the world. It is possible to change degree courses, but generally you have to start from scratch the following year – which means a year’s tuition fees down the drain.
And if you find yourself wondering how easy it would be to change if you’ve made a mistake, then you’re probably not sure enough about the course in the first place. It’s like getting married with a pre-nuptial agreement in place. You’re almost admitting you might have made a mistake before you even make the commitment.

Mistake 2. Applying to a large city if you’re a country mouse

Image shows London, with the Gherkin in the foreground, from Tower 42.
Does this look exciting or daunting?

Actually, the vast majority of people love their time at university, even if they didn’t succeed in getting into their first choice.
That said, you still need to think carefully about where to apply.
Are you a city-lover? There are plenty of large cities with universities: Leeds, Manchester, Bristol, and so on.
Or would you prefer a smaller town or city? For instance, Durham, Southampton, Bath, York.
Do you want a campus university, where all the university buildings and halls of residence are on the same site? There are loads of campus universities: just have a look online. Aberystwyth, Coventry, Essex, Warwick – see for yourself.
Or do you like the thought of living in London?
Now, London is a special case: there are many different universities in London, and, because it’s such a large city, student life is a very different experience to elsewhere. Student events (Halloween parties, for example) which in other universities are organised for students only, may be open to the public. Not everything is, of course, but you have to take this sort of thing into account when applying to London in particular. The cost of living in London is also more than elsewhere, which can be a real consideration.
Many students love their university life in London. Others wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole.

Mistake 3. Assuming that each course is the same

Let’s say you have decided on English Literature. And let’s say you’ve decided that you’d like a campus university.
That hardly narrows the field, as you just about all universities offer English. But English Literature at Exeter is not the same as English Literature at Nottingham. Take a look at their websites, and you’ll see.
Once you have decided on your subject, and the type of university that you would like, you can get down to looking at the real nitty-gritty of each course. Do your research.

Mistake 4. Ignoring the entrance requirements

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Be realistic about your chances of getting in.

No matter how keen they are to have students, universities do have certain standards to maintain. Have a look at the entrance requirements for the courses at the universities you are interested in. Be realistic. If you need AAB to read Chemistry and French at St Andrews, then it’s no good applying there if your predicted grades are much lower.

Mistake 5. Thinking you don’t need an insurance choice

This leads neatly on from the point above. Make sure that at least one of your university choices has lower entrance requirements than your first choice, and make sure your insurance choice is a university you would be happy – not gut-wrenchingly disappointed – to go to.
Remember: you can put up to five choices on your UCAS form, and none of them can see what your other choices are.

Mistake 6. Overdosing on Open Days

Some Sixth Formers spend a great deal of time attending open days. This can’t do any harm, but you really don’t need to go on loads. You can rack up a lot of expense in train fares, zooming all over the country.
If you do your research properly, you can narrow the field enormously. You probably only need to go to three or four open days. After all, some universities interview their prospective candidates, so you may be travelling there in due course anyway.

Mistake 7. Forgetting your other passions

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Whatever your passion is, make sure your choice of university enables you to pursue it.

Here’s a consideration that goes beyond your subject. If you’re passionate about something – playing a sport, or an instrument – or if you fancy trying something new, just check that it’s on offer at your choice of university.
You might be fantastic at rugby or netball at school – captain of the team and all that – but, if you are going to a massive university, the brutal truth is that you probably won’t make the university first team. Check that there are enough teams, or orchestras, or whatever, for you to have a chance of getting into one of them.
And if you’re a keen rower, just check that your chosen university is on a suitable river.

Mistake 8. Limiting your horizons

When you are researching a university or a course, make a little list of questions for yourself. You could also ask these questions on Open Days if you can’t find the answers online. Many universities offer ‘extras’ that may appeal to you, but you need to find out about them.
A year abroad. For instance, some universities offer the chance to spend a year abroad – either through the Erasmus Programme, or though their own scheme.
A year in industry. Some universities offer a year in industry as part of, say, an engineering or chemistry degree. If this appeals, find out more: there might be the chance to go abroad to do this. You might even be paid.

Mistake 9. Bringing the parents

Parents are a mixed blessing. You wouldn’t be anywhere without them, but they can get in the way when you are choosing your university.
Perhaps your mother doesn’t want you to be too far away. She has fond thoughts that you might pop home every so often during term time, and she wouldn’t even mind if you brought back your dirty laundry.
Or you may hate your family, and want to be as far away as possible.
Neither are good reasons for choosing your university.
And although universities increasingly have ‘parent sessions’ for parents accompanying their darling offspring on university visits, do try and limit them to coming on just one or two – the ones where it would be helpful to have a lift.
If you’re unencumbered by parents at an Open Day, you have more chance of talking to other potential applicants and your potential lecturers, and you don’t need to keep half an eye on what your embarrassing parent might be doing or saying.

Mistake 10. Factoring in the boyfriend/girlfriend

Image shows a detail from the painting 'Romeo and Juliet' by Frank Dicksee.
The huge lifestyle change that going to university entails can break up a relationship just as effectively as going long-distance.

It’s a fact of life that a great many boyfriend/girlfriend relationships break up within the first few weeks of going to university.
So don’t choose a university just because your current other half is going there too, or will be somewhere nearby.
It could be a big mistake!

Mistake 11. Getting someone else to write your personal statement

Some parents just love the personal statement. They see it as a chance to show you why they got a First in English at university, or why they would have got a First in English if only they had studied it.
Keep your parents out of it. They are useful as a sounding board, but really, this is all about you – why you are interested in the subject you are applying for, and why you really want to study it. Only you can put your passion into it.
University admissions officers aren’t daft: they can usually spot if a personal statement has been written by a fifty-something-year-old rather than an 18-year-old.

Mistake 12. Telling lies

When filling out your UCAS form, make sure you answer all the questions, and answer them correctly. This doesn’t always happen, believe me. I know someone who filled in the AS grades section incorrectly, and then had to write to the universities explaining the mistake. Doesn’t look good.
And, in your personal statement, don’t say you’ve read a book or done such-and-such if you haven’t. If you do, and if you are called for interview, you may be asked about it – and there’s only one way out of a hole. Best not to dig the hole in the first place.

Mistake 13. Neglecting to check your spelling

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Some university entrance systems allow you to pay extra to make an application after the regular deadline at no disadvantage. UCAS isn’t one of them.

Again, obvious, but worth repeating. Make sure there are no typos in your UCAS form, and especially not in your personal statement. Print off your personal statement, once you are more or less happy with it, and read it on paper. That’s a good way of spotting errors that you haven’t noticed on screen.
Make sure your grammar is correct, and that there are no slang words. It’s got to be as perfect as you can make it, while not masking the real you and not hiding your enthusiasm for your subject.

Mistake 14. Missing the deadline

Make sure you know the deadline for submitting your university application form.
Pretend to yourself that it’s at least a week earlier than it really is – and don’t cheat. It’s the equivalent of setting your alarm clock ten minutes before you actually need to get up.
Good luck with your applications!


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