As Admissions Selectors at Queen Mary, we see over a thousand UCAS forms every year. Here we tell you about how we look at them, and make some suggestions about how you can fill in your form to impress us. Bear in mind that our advice might not apply for Admissions staff at other institutions, but we strongly believe that following this advice will improve your chance of being selected wherever you apply.
How we read the form
The four most important parts of the UCAS form for us are the grades you have already achieved in your GCSEs; the subjects you are taking and grades you are predicted at A-level (or equivalent); the reference from your school or college; and your personal statement.
Some University selectors regard the UCAS form with considerable suspicion. They point out the lack of provenance of all of the information apart from the grades you have already achieved. They suggest that they do not know how much trust to place in your school when it comes to predictions and references, and that they do not even know whether you have written your personal statement yourself.
Fortunately, as historians, part of our trade is accepting that although all information is flawed in some way, the best approach is to use everything available, whilst at the same time using our judgement to decide how much value to place on different pieces of evidence. We therefore make an effort to read all of every UCAS form which crosses our desks.
Grades - Achieved and Predicted
The first thing we look at is the grades that you have already achieved. We make sure that you have reached basic requirements in English and Maths. We check the History grade to see how it compares to your AS results and predicted grades at A2.
We then look at your predicted grades. It is obviously not possible for us to keep a database in our head which lets us remember how good or bad any one school is at predicting grades. We can, however, compare your predictions to your past grades and to the quality of your school’s reference to form an idea of how seriously we should take their prediction. In common with most institutions, we have a standard offer – a level at which we aim to take candidates. This year, that standard offer is 320 UCAS points (equivalent to ABB at A-Level – though we do not accept A-Levels in Critical Thinking and General Studies).
If there is a noticeable difference between GCSE results and A-level predictions, we will notice. This difference needs to be addressed and explained in either your teacher’s reference or your personal statement. If your predicted grades do not meet the standard offer, we do not immediately discard your form. We will, however, have to be seriously impressed by your reference and personal statement for your application to progress further.
We then look at the reference written by your teacher or teachers. You do not have input into this yourself, but you can affect what goes into it by the quality of your behaviour during your studies. What we are looking for here is evidence that you are fundamentally a good citizen: that you can interact appropriately with others, that you are moderately responsible, and that you show up for most of your classes. We don’t want to create a department full of identical goodie two shoes: this would be extremely boring. On the other hand, we may well be your personal advisor for three years and we would rather not spend it chasing you because you are too lazy to get out of your bed. Most schools work hard to gather information and write effective references for their students, and all are obliged to write positively. There are, however, a selection of coded statements which all those who write and read references can understand. ‘X is capable of hard work’ means ‘X could work hard if they could be bothered, but they can’t’. Try to make sure that your teachers will not have to encode their reference for you.
Next, we read the personal statement. This is the part of the UCAS form over which you have direct influence. It is worth spending time over: each year, we change our minds about admitting students on the basis of their personal statements. What we look for in the personal statement is evidence of enthusiasm and potential.
The most basic criterion we apply to UCAS forms is whether we would like to teach the author. Much university teaching is done in seminars: it places a heavy reliance on the individual responsibility of the student and their willingness and ability to participate in discussion. Enthusiasm for the subject is a key quality: it is what will carry you and us through when we are stuck in a grey seminar room on a wet Thursday afternoon in late November. It also reminds us why we care so much about what we do.
Bear in mind how many UCAS forms we see each year. The single best thing you can do for your application is to think about how to make it interesting for us to read. This means taking in all the good advice you will be offered by teachers, parents and friends, and then making sure that your statement does not read like everybody else’s.
Some mistakes to avoid:
‘Starting with somebody else’s words’
Each year we will read about a hundred forms which begin by quoting what some famous person has said about history. Often, these applicants then make no effort to even dissect what has been said. Instead, we presume, they hope to impress us with the breadth of their knowledge of quotations. Sadly, we too can type ‘history quotations’ into Google, so we tend not to be too blown away. We already know what Cicero thought about history: we want to know what you think. Don’t waste words. If you are incapable of beginning without a quotation, then at least have the wit to choose something different from everybody else. None of us has yet to read a UCAS statement that begins: “War, what is it good for?” and goes on to discuss the works of Edwin Starr, but this applicant would stand an excellent chance of getting in.
‘These are the books what I read.’
Merely telling us some history books that you’ve read isn’t much use. It provides some basic starting points if we choose to interview you, but if you are going to put down book titles, then please tell us what you thought of them and why. This is an excellent opportunity to display the skills we talk about below.
‘Where do I put it’s apostrophe?’
This might be the most important form you ever fill in. It’s going to decide the next three years of your life. Please do take the time to proof read it, or have somebody else do so, to make sure that the spelling, grammar and punctuation are correct. Citing historians or historical events and misspelling them is not a path to UCAS success.
Now think about the historical potential you want to demonstrate. We are not looking for perfection at this point. If you already had everything with which we aim to equip you, there would be no point in coming to us. But we do ask whether you have the basic skills to become a historian: the ability to select evidence to make a logically coherent case, the ability to analyse, and the ability to think conceptually, drawing out common themes from different subject areas.
Many candidates will simply write in their personal statement that they have these skills, or something like them, and leave it at that. This leaves the case unproven. Instead, try to demonstrate these skills when you talk about the subjects you have studied, the books you have read, and the reasons you want to come to university. To give one example, if you have studied English Literature as well as History, why not write about how ideas which you have encountered in the two subjects have affected your studies in the other? This gives us reason to hope that you are able to think at a conceptual level. Bear in mind that much of this is about ‘spin’ and predicting the questions that Admissions Selectors will be asking. To give another example: many people would suspect that having studied ‘scientific’ subjects as well as arts subjects at A-level could come across as a diffusion of effort. But if you write about how you’ve carried over a scientific approach, leading you to question the lack of empirical evidence presented in some cultural historical texts, then you not only indicate an ability to analyse, but also a skill in persuasive writing. (Even better, you could write about how, at its highest levels, much science involves the same uncertainties and requirements to make judgements about evidence as does history.)
You should also note that the personal statement is not a personal reference. We should get all the information we need about your character and good conduct from your teacher. You get a limited number of words to sell yourself to us in the personal statement: do not waste them by telling us about your perfect attendance record.
Evidence that you have a personal hinterland beyond academia is useful to us in two ways. You might use it as evidence to back up a quality with which you want to impress us: your time management skills or your ability to work with others. But it is more important to us to feel that we are creating a diverse and interesting community made up of people with lots of different interests, who will stimulate each other to think in new ways, than it is to feel that we have selected a team of future management consultants with excellent leadership skills. Again, a department full of carbon copies of ‘perfect’ undergraduates would be extremely boring.
Remember – think about the Admissions Selector who has already read a hundred UCAS forms that evening. Try to grab their attention and impress them.