As schools enter the last few weeks before the summer holidays, many students will be contemplating how to spend the break. After a term of exams, reading around the syllabus is unlikely to feature highly. That is, of course, unless you have decided to apply to the University of Cambridge.
Applications for both Oxford and Cambridge close on October 15,months ahead of the main deadline for university applications in January. For those wishing to apply to the elite institutions, it’s a good idea to start thinking about the Ucas personal statement before the summer break.
Not only can you get ahead and avoid any last minute hiccups, it also gives you time to identify any weaknesses in your application. While applicants to Cambridge will typically need the highest grades at A-level, evidence of passion is also desirable, which is where a bit of extra work in the summer could pay off.
Today, the experts look at a question sent in from a parent concerning their son’s extracurricular activities. Get in touch with your own education question and see it featured on Telegraph Education (details at the end).
Question: What can our son do to make his application to Cambridge stand out?
My son is keen to study English literature at Cambridge with the intention of working in broadcasting as a writer.
At the moment he is in Year 11 at a state grammar school taking his GCSEs. He will take A-levels in English, history, maths and further maths. We are interested to know what extracurricular activities he could do through sixth form which would make his application stand out?
Currently, he teaches English at our local Kumon centre once a week; writes weekly for the school website and magazine, and also spends a lot of time writing fiction. He has published one of his radio plays online and won an accolade from Southampton University for writing a song for a musical.
In addition he has Grade 8 distinction on the Violin and plays in the county youth orchestra. He also plays the piano and electric guitar to a high level and has worked as a volunteer at our local open air museum.
Steve Watts: Admissions tutors would all say ‘read, read, read’
There is certainly no problem with the subjects your son will be taking at A-level. These will show his abilities not only in his chosen English literature, but history will give contextual breadth and maths will show admissions tutors such as me that he can think analytically.
When asked what else would make an applicant competitive for studying English, academics and admissions tutors would all chorus ‘read, read, read’. Reading beyond the syllabus is nearly always good advice anyway, but for students of literature it is crucial.
In Cambridge we aren’t so concerned with the extra-curricular. Steve Watts
Your son has clearly got a lot of irons in the fire with his music and his writing, and these are well worth continuing with, but reading another novel or two by a writer on the syllabus, or comparing a Shakespeare set play with a couple of others read or seen, or just having a favourite area of literary reading and knowing it really well are, for admissions tutors and English specialists, signs of genuine commitment to and love of the subject – and that’s what we really like.
In Cambridge we aren’t so concerned with the extra-curricular; no-one gets a place because they are good at something unrelated to their academic subject.
What impresses, however, is when a student forges significant links between their wider interests and enthusiasms and the subject they want to study at university.
In your son’s case working with words and music would give, we hope, some critical understanding of great writing and its inherent musicality.
Steve Watts, tutor for undergraduate arts admissions and college lecturer in English, Homerton College, Cambridge
Shaun Fenton: Be careful of spreading yourself too thin
Don’t get hung up on Oxbridge when many top universities offer well-travelled routes into journalism and other professions. Secondly –for the most selective universities, it is exam grades and performance in aptitude tests that make the biggest difference. Interviews, the personal statement plus school reference are also important.
There are many ways that academic information is gathered. Specifically, although rare for other universities, both Oxford and Cambridge ask candidates to take the ELAT in November – an English pre-test.
Normally, students also submit a couple of A-level essays. Applicants from Reigate Grammar report back to us that some Cambridge colleges (such as Churchill and Trinity) are also doing written tests at interview.
Having explained the importance of exam results, it is great to do extra-curricular activity. There is a good chance that a young person with wider interests will have a balanced, more sustainable approach to life that may well help with the pressures of the A-level or university years and beyond.
It may also be that a wider set of life experiences will aid thinking, development of empathy and other skills and personal qualities that might help a young person stand out in examination or interview.
It will be academic studies that secure an offer and no amount of violin excellence will compensate. Shaun Fenton
But what about those important university applications? I would recommend a ‘Super Curriculum’. This is more co-curriculum than extra-curricular.
For an English student, it might involve reviewing books for an independent book shop, writing and delivering speeches, entering essay competitions. For a historian, it might mean volunteering on an archaeological dig or working as an assistant-curator in a museum. For a medic, the need for extensive work experience and volunteering in a medical or carers context is well understood.
One last word of caution. Be careful of spreading yourself too thin. With four A-levels, the dedication to be grade 8 on the violin, volunteering, sport, a social life and more to fit in …. Be careful not to sacrifice quality for quantity.
So, it will be academic studies that secure an offer and no amount of violin excellence will compensate. Having said that, Oxford and Cambridge admissions tutors are human (!) and will be keen to admit interesting young people into the college community but extra-curricular activity will not be hugely significant in the overall decision.
Shaun Fenton, headmaster of Reigate Grammar School
Kate Shand: Your son must achieve the highest grades possible at A-level
Your son is certainly making the most of his time at school and excelling in so many ways – congratulations.
The range of activities you’ve mentioned will ensure that he is developing into a well-rounded individual, able to take on new challenges with confidence.
However, although it is excellent to have this extracurricular experience, it is worth noting that a highly academic university such as Cambridge will be focusing primarily on your son’s academic results and intellectual interests.
It is essential that your son achieves the highest grades possible at A-level and reads widely around his subject, not just focusing on texts he is studying as part of the curriculum but going beyond these to delve into new genres of literature.
It is important that your son is able to discuss his personal interests in English. Kate Shand
Cambridge looks for students who are passionate about their subject so it’s wonderful to hear that your son spends his spare time writing both for school and for his own pleasure.
At interview, it is important that your son is able to discuss his personal interests in English and he will also need to engage with texts he may never have seen before.
My biggest piece of advice would be to read, read and read some more. And then be ready to have a robust discussion.
You may be aware that Cambridge recently changed their admissions policy and are reintroducing their own test as part of the process. All students are required to take the English Literature Aptitude Test (ELAT) and depending on his choice of college, your son may have to submit one or two essays prior to interview.
Do take a look at the Cambridge University website which has a wealth of information about the application process and also their open days. You will be able to find examples of the aptitude tests on the College websites and companies such as Enjoy Education will be able to provide further support and guidance about the interview.
Kate Shand, founder and MD of Enjoy Education