10 Ways to Make Your University Application Shine in Two Hours a Week

Image shows the astronomical clock in Prague.

As the time for you to submit your university application draws ever closer, you’re probably starting to think about what you’re going to do to make it catch the eye of the admissions tutors.

Many students worry that they won’t have enough to talk about, but this needn’t be a concern, as you’ll soon realise after reading this article. You don’t need to devote massive amounts of time to undertaking activities that will help your application to shine; small amounts of time add up, and what you achieve in just a couple of hours a week could be enough to elevate the quality of your personal statement to the upper echelons. The suggestions below can all be completed in less than two hours a week, and they’ll each give you something extra to help your application stand out.

1. Read

Image shows a young woman reading a book.
Regardless of your subject of choice, you will benefit from reading more in that area.

The academic part of your university application is always going to be the most important part, and anything you can do to show your aptitude and enthusiasm for the subject you’re applying for will not go amiss. If you only have a couple of hours to spare each week, one way of using them productively is to read around your subject. This will allow you to drop in titles of books and names of authors along with intelligent and insightful comments to show that you’ve read, absorbed and reflected on them. There are bound to be seminal works associated with your subject that you won’t necessarily read at school, but that would look good on your personal statement, so these could be your priority. For example, if you were applying for History of Art, Gombrich’s Story of Art would be a good one to read. For Physics, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. If you were applying for English Literature, you could set yourself the challenge of reading as many of the books on the BBC’s  Top 100 Books; not only is this challenge worthy of a mention on your personal statement anyway, but it will make you widely read and introduce you to a range of literary styles. For any subject, it’s also worth delving into lesser-known writers – the ones your school friends probably haven’t heard of – as this shows that you can go beyond the famous names and can appreciate more obscure scholarship or literature (a necessary skill for digesting university reading lists).

2. Write

Image shows a young woman with a camera around her neck writing in a notebook.
Keep a notebook on you to jot down your thoughts for later.

We’ve extolled the virtues of blogging before, but it’s worth another mention because few students realise its potential for showcasing their academic talents. Writing about your subject shows your dedication to it as well as demonstrating to admissions tutors that you think about it intelligently, keep abreast of relevant news, and are interested enough in it to spend your spare time writing about it. What’s more, if you’re applying for a top university such as Oxford or Cambridge, the chances are you’ll have to submit written work to show what kind of academic level you’re working at. A blog gives you even more opportunities to prove that you’re thinking at the required level, as you can mention it in your personal statement (including the URL, so that the admissions tutors can look it up). Blogs are free to set up – try WordPress.com – and a couple of hours each week would give you enough time to research and write a weekly post. Personal Interpretations is an example to illustrate what we mean. It was started by a prospective History of Art student prior to her applying for Oxford University, and it details her responses to various works of art. It came up in her interview and the interviewers mentioned that they had read a few of her posts. She’s just starting her third year of studying History of Art at Oxford, so they were clearly impressed!

3. Speak

Image shows an airline seat with a cover that gives advice on Icelandic grammar.
Fewer than half a million people know how to speak Icelandic.

The ability to speak more than one language will stand you in good stead for life, not just your university application, so one way of spending a couple of hours a week on improving your UCAS form is to start studying an additional language. This could be in the form of an evening class or weekly sessions with a private tutor, or you could teach yourself using books, CDs or the internet. You may already be studying a language at school, so you could either choose an extra language that will be useful in everyday life, or go for something really unusual and challenging, which would provide a good talking point in your personal statement and interviews – perhaps Russian, Swahili Japanese, or even Icelandic! Choose anything that captures your interest and would prove to admissions tutors that you’re not afraid to take on a challenge. Don’t forget to have an impressive phrase memorised in your chosen language so that you can say something if they put you on the spot in the interview.

4. Create

Image shows someone making a vase on a potter's wheel.
If you’re naturally artistic, you could try out a different medium from usual.

Another conversation-starter that you could mention in your university application is a creative project you’re working on – ideally one that’s related to your course, but not necessarily; if it demonstrates your initiative, commitment to achieving something, or any similar attributes, it won’t be a waste of time. As with anything creative, the only limit to what you could achieve is your imagination. If you’re a prospective architecture student, for instance, you could design a simple building and make a model of it. If you want to study Fine Art, your creative project could be a work of art (or several), perhaps a painting, sculpture or drawing. If you’re applying for English, you could write a novel or a volume of poetry. If you’re applying for a science subject, you could design and carry out a long-running scientific experiment. The possibilities are endless, and you only need to set aside a couple of hours a week to do something worthwhile.

5. Volunteer

Image shows volunteers at the London Olympics.
Your volunteer work could lead you to be involved in something as spectacular as the London Olympics.

A couple of hours a week is unlikely to be enough time to take on a part-time job, but it is enough time to do some volunteer work. Demanding volunteer roles – such as working in a homeless shelter or a care home – are going to look good on your personal statement, because they show you to be responsible, caring, and not afraid of hard work. They also demonstrate good ‘people skills’, which admissions tutors like because it shows that you’re someone who can interact confidently in discussions, which benefits everyone involved.
The alternative to this kind of demanding volunteer work is to volunteer with an organisation that’s relevant to what you’re going to be studying. Volunteering as a guide at a country house or museum, for instance, would look good on the application of a prospective history student. Volunteering at a dog rehoming centre would be great if you have your sights set on becoming a vet. You can find all kinds of volunteering opportunities at Volunteering England.

6. Organise

Image shows six homemade cupcakes in a tupperware box.
Bake sales are easy enough to organise.

Put a couple of hours a week into organising an event for your school, and you’ll be rewarded not just with the respect of your school, but with the ability to prove several useful skills on your university application. It shows initiative, proves good organisation and time management skills, and demonstrates that you’re a useful and active member of your school community. Indirectly, you’ll probably also be rewarded with good references from your teachers, who’ll be able to show admissions tutors that you’re not just brilliant in the classroom, but a valuable person to have around. It’ll be good experience for the long-term, too, as you can refer to these early experiences to help you when you apply for part-time work while you’re at university, or even full-time work after you graduate. Charity fundraisers are the obvious events for you to organise; you could, for instance, organise a charity fashion show or a bake sale. Alternatively, you could create a new school society, such as a special interest club, and recruit new members and organise weekly meetings. If it’s related to your course, even better. For example, if you were hoping to study English, you could form a book group. If you were a prospective science student, you could organise a science club. If you’re aiming to study maths, you could form a maths club for bright mathematics students (similar to the “Mathletes” in Mean Girls). Make sure your teachers know about it so that they can recommend new members, as well as remember to include it in your reference.

7. Visit

Image shows Oxburgh Hall.
You could visit National Trust properties – or even volunteer at one.

Another way to make your university application shine is to talk about places you’ve visited that relate to your course. Doing so indicates your interest in the subject because it shows that you go to the effort of learning more in your spare time. It’s also a way of proving that you’re genuinely interested; those who aren’t really that enthusiastic about a subject will often just name-drop books (that they’ve read little or none of) and leave it at that. For example, if you were intending to study history, you could talk about local historical sites that you’ve been to see, or museums you’ve visited. If you want to study law, you could request to sit in on a legal trial at your local magistrates’ court and talk about the experience on your personal statement. Prospective scientists could arrange a visit to a local scientific laboratory to observe scientists at work in the real world. Whether or not these things can be achieved in two hours a week will, of course, depend on how much there is in your local area that’s of relevance to your course.

8. Tutor

A sure-fire way to impress admissions tutors is to show experience of tutoring or mentoring another student, particularly in the subject for which you’re applying. It’s one thing to be proficient at a subject yourself, but the ability to explain it to others requires a different set of skills. The ability to communicate complex concepts in such a way that others can understand them is an excellent skill to have, as you’ll need this ability at university both for essays and for the presentations you’ll almost certainly have to give in front of your fellow students. What’s more, tutoring or mentoring shows you to be a responsible, mature individual whom others can rely on – an excellent addition to any university community.

9. Debate

Image shows an audience applauding.
Debating hones the kind of analytical skills you’ll need at university.

Confident debating skills are never going to go amiss in an academic environment, in which the ability to debate a point and defend or challenge an argument is crucial. You can develop your debating skills in a couple of hours a week by joining your school debating society. This will enable you to practice researching a point of view, thinking about it critically, and communicating articulately and persuasively. Debating will also give you practice at speaking in public, which will certainly increase your confidence in speaking up in the classroom – and that will likely be reflected in the references your teachers give you, as they’re sure to mention that you’re the one who always pipes up with an intelligent point or question.

10. Enjoy

Hobbies and pastimes may not be the most important aspect of your university application, but they show your human side, demonstrate that there’s more to you than your academic talents, and develop other life skills that you won’t necessarily learn in the classroom. Extra-curricular activities need only take up a couple of hours a week of your time, whether it’s a sports team, an orchestra rehearsal or a special interest club meeting. The more unusual your hobbies, the better, as unusual pastimes show that you’re not afraid to stand out from the crowd in the pursuit of your interests. Academics by their nature stand out from the crowd. The bonus is that the admissions tutors might be more likely to remember your application if you have an unusual hobby; you might be “the one who does the sky diving”, for example. Universities value individuals: those characters who have the intelligence not to follow the crowd and who aren’t afraid to go out on a limb. If this shines through on your university application, you’re in with the best possible chance of securing a place at your favourite university.

Image credits: banner; reading; writing; Icelandic; pottery; volunteers; baking; National Trust; debating.