How to make your university application stand out

Each year thousands of students set their sights on attaining a place at their dream university. In 2021, nearly 750,000 students applied for university through UCAS in the UK, with just under 75% of those students successfully gaining a place on a course.

Top-ranking universities like Oxford and Cambridge, have a 1 in 5 chance of success, resulting in stiff competition for places. Therefore, finding ways to make your university application stand out will increase your chances of getting onto your chosen course.

In this article, we will cover what universities are looking for in both students and applications, how to improve your application, and finally, ways to make your application stand out.

How to make your university application stand out

Once you have done your research and decided on a university and a course, you will need to submit a persuasive application to your chosen university to be considered for a place. A great place to start is answering the question:

What are universities looking for?

The first step to standing out on a university application is to identify what your chosen university is looking for in its students and tailor your UCAS application accordingly. Once you have made sure your application has covered the basics such as required grades, you can add any additional information that will help you stand out against other prospective students.

Required Grades

Admissions teams consider your GCSE and A-Level grades as the foundation of your application, so making sure you have the required grades to apply is important. If you are applying for university with predicted grades, the success of your application can depend entirely on you achieving the grades stated in a conditional offer.

Additionally, consistent grades can show both academic potential and commitment to studying which will help you stand out in the admissions process.

Personal Statement

The personal statement section in a UCAS application is your initial opportunity to explain why you are applying for your chosen subject, along with highlighting any extra details that can set you apart from other applicants.

Showing commitment to your chosen subject is key at this stage and most admissions tutors will expect you to have gone above and beyond your previous course syllabus. Use your personal statement to discuss any extra reading you have done, along with activities that support your passion within your field of study.

If you are struggling to write your personal statement, consider a simple structure:

  • A concise introduction explaining your reasons for applying for your chosen course.
  • Write around 75% of the content with a focus on academic achievements.
  • Around 25% of supporting information detailing relevant extracurricular activities, personal interests, and awards.
  • A solid conclusion.

Once you have completed your personal statement, check thoroughly for spelling and grammatical errors and ask for feedback from your tutors if you can. Not only do you want to make the best first impression possible, but your spelling and grammar are important, particularly for humanities courses such as English Literature.

Transferable Skills

A transferable skill is a skill that has applications across multiple areas of your life. Admissions officers will be specifically looking for transferable life skills that will be invaluable for studying on a university course.

Whether you have picked these up through partaking in specific activities, or just everyday life, including solid examples (e.g. applications of organisation, writing skills, problem-solving, and research) in your personal statement is a sure-fire way to impress tutors during the admissions process.

What can I do to improve my university application?

Once you have written your personal statement, there are some small steps you can take to make improvements to your application, giving you a better chance of standing out.

Ask for feedback on your personal statement

It can often prove hard to proofread your own work, especially if you have spent a considerable amount of time looking over it, therefore asking others for feedback is advisable.

Tutors in particular are well versed in the university application process and are adept at providing valuable suggestions for improvements. They will likely be able to pick up on small errors which are critical to avoid for those wanting to make an excellent first impression. It can also be useful to get a second opinion on how your personal statement reads to others.

Carefully Consider Academic Referees

If your course requires you to submit academic references, carefully consider the individuals you will ask to write you a recommendation.

Ideally, you want to receive references from tutors who have known you for a few years and can attest to your academic capabilities and achievements, along with your interest in your chosen subject.

What can I include on my application to make it stand out?

There are limited spaces on university courses, meaning tough competition against fellow students, especially for high-ranking universities. Being able to add information about any of the following to your application will help you stand out:

Awards and Achievements

Including relevant awards and achievements on your application conveys to universities dedication and potential for further success.

Whether you have taken part in sporting competitions or completed the Duke of Edinburgh award, being able to show commitment to a cause along with applying skills, and the ability to perform in the face of competition, will set you apart from other university candidates and impress admissions tutors.

Extracurricular activities

For many, extracurricular are an excellent way to pick up transferable skills that universities value, therefore including them in your application is important.

Examples include:

  • Being part of a sports team – this shows the ability to work as part of a team, along with commitment and the ability to perform under pressure.
  • Attending a summer school – shows your commitment to academics that extends outside of the school curriculum, as well as showing your interest in university life.
  • Having a part-time job – will emphasise your ability to balance your workload which will be crucial to your university success.
  • Volunteering e.g. for charity or local animal shelter – shows care and consideration as well as communication skills and leadership.

Extended Project Qualification

The Extended Project Qualification is designed to prepare students for careers or further studies past the A-Level syllabus. Within the course, students learn how to lead projects, make complex decisions, increase planning and research skills, and independent thinking; all of which are invaluable skills at university.

It is recognised by both employers and universities making it a valuable asset, especially for those applying for university – it is worth 28 UCAS points and some universities will lower their grade offers for students undertaking the qualification.


Sneha Shukla

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