When to start university applications
The most frequent question we get when doing workshops for high schoolers is: ‘when do I have to start working on my university application?’ The easy answer to this question is 3-6 months before the deadline. That’s approximately the time it takes to get an overview of the admissions process, find out what universities are looking for, write your personal essays/statements, prepare for tests, get references, etc. The right answer, however, is that thinking about this question as a matter of number of months is the wrong mindset.
It is definitely possible to “play” the admissions system; sign-up for a gazillion extra curricular activities if you are applying in the US, or play the ‘grades game’ to impress your high school teachers if you are applying to UK universities. Most students at the top universities have done this to some extent, but the fact remains that the best way to maximise your chances of getting into your dream universities is to dedicate time and effort to your academic passions.
Although there are many tedious aspects of university applications, the process becomes significantly easier if it follows naturally from being passionate about what you want to study. If you like maths, then don’t restrict yourself to textbooks. If you are interested in studying literature, then read (a lot of) books. It sounds almost banal, but the single most important element in your university application is to be truly curious and dedicated to becoming better at what you want to study.
What we’re getting at here is that creating a successful application to a top university does not consist (merely) of a set of robotic motions. It is about dedicating your time to becoming an applicant worthy of attending a top university – whether this means becoming really good at some extra curricular activity or being insightful about the subject you’re applying for. It also helps if you can find the school you really want to attend and start reading about the quirky, fun aspects of life there: personally, this made me extra motivated to spend that extra hour fine-tuning my personal statement. None of this starts some arbitrary number of months before the deadline, it starts as soon as you discover your passions.
What does this mean for you if you don’t know exactly what you want to study? If you’re 1-2 years away from applying, there’s a significant chance that you’re not quite sure yet. Don’t panic – but know that the best you thing you can do then is to start finding out. The best way to do find out what you really enjoy is to dive deep into the subjects that seem the most interesting. Watch TED Talks, read outside your school curriculum, find inspiration in your preferred university’s ‘pre-reading list’ for that course. Plunge into different subjects, be aware of how much you enjoy it. Follow the trails you find most interesting. Once you start reading something that your teacher doesn’t care if you read or not, it will be much clearer if you enjoy it or not. If you can’t focus for the length of a TED talk, there’s a good chance you won’t enjoy spending thousands of hours on it during university. If you really aren’t sure, US colleges may the be better choice for you because that way you don’t have to choose a major straight away.
If you do know what you want to study, get started. Work hard, but ensure you don’t burn out – many good students do nowadays. Spend your spare time in ways you truly enjoy but also make an attractive candidate. Have fun and don’t get too caught up in the “game” of admissions, where you try to model yourself to fit an admissions officer’s ideal candidate. If you are the type who brings psychology books on the Summer vacation with your parents, you will soon discover that this passion is what will really distinguish yourself from the other applicants.
Steven Yew, 18 May 2016