How to get into university

At the end of Universities Week, we look at what students are doing to get noticed by the admissions departments, and why a degree is still worth it.

Exam pressures have been multiplied this year by increased competition for university places.

The fear of not getting the right grades is rational – without them, you won't make it onto the course of your choice.

But aside from studying hard, university admissions advisors say there is a range of things that can help make your application to university successful.

First and foremost, you must demonstrate a commitment and passion for the subject you want to study – by reading and researching beyond the examination syllabus and making connections between your field and other interesting avenues of investigation. What's in the news is a good place to start, and can provide material for an extended project.

Work experience can also impress the selectors, but it must, if possible, be relevant to your subject or career.

Then you have to target your application form at the right course and the right institutions. Happily, the information available is becoming better all the time. If in doubt, university admissions experts say someone wondering whether or how to apply should feel no hesitation in picking up the phone and calling a university admissions department: there's nothing better than direct contact, especially if your qualifications are not just standard A-levels.

But the internet can also help you, with a range of advice sites, from the official information hubs of each college to the more recently developed collections of online feedback and reviews of each university and course by current students (see links below).

From next year, universities will have to disclose everything they know about each course – even the sort of jobs students go on to – so that applicants have a better basis for their choices.

And with higher tuition fees a reality from next year, there are range of sources on how to work out the immediate financial liabilities – and the eventual payback from having access to graduate jobs and careers.

Still worth it?

And that's the main consideration. There are voices, sometimes from businesspeople who learnt on the job, saying it's no longer worth studying for a degree. The amount of extra earnings over a career for a graduate rather than a non-graduate has been gradually decreasing. But individuals with a degree in the bag are still better placed to prosper financially – especially women, for whom non-graduate jobs tend to be very badly paid.

Other benefits are much harder to calculate in bald figures: the people you meet, the extra opportunities that come your way in terms of career, broader interests and social life.

Would you get all that from 'the university of life'?

You Decide

  1. Do you want to go to university? What has affected or is affecting your decision?
  2. 'A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.' US President Theodore Roosevelt. What did he mean?


  1. Prepare a short presentation to the class 'The case for university', based on the latest Office for National Statistics data here:
  2. Since their origin in ancient groups of higher learners, through the early development of monastic schools into European institutions, philosophers have grappled with defining 'the idea of a university'. What do you think it is? In words, pictures or song, with a bit of history thrown in.

Some People Say...

“University is just a way to postpone real life.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Who goes to university?
As recently as the mid-to-late 20th Century, university was only for a narrow section of society. But it has gradually expanded to become a rite of passage for a much broader group of young people – and there are far more mature students going back to study later in life.
So there's more demand for places?
Yes, it gets more competitive every year. But there are also more places to study, both here and overseas. In recent years, British students with very high grades have started to be wooed by America's top academically selective institutions, where the fees are much higher but there is also financial aid available.
What about financial help in the UK?
Glad you asked. The more prestigious the university, generally the more generous the bursaries and scholarships on offer to help with study and living costs. So if you want to aim high but have limited family help, it might make financial sense to investigate the very top tier of research-intensive institutions.

Word Watch

Tuition fees
The fees charged by all universities in Britain. They've recently been raised to a possible £9,000/year.
University of Life
A way of describing 'real life' as opposed to a student existence. Not all important things are taught in schools and colleges – some are learned in the world outside.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.