Degreekey Blog

How to Balance your Final Year of School and University Applications

Eliza Mahoney
October 16, 2020

Picture the scene: it’s the summer between year 12 and year 13. Ahead lies a perilous journey, filled with what you imagine to be a number of daunting tasks: Personal Statement writing, UCAS applications, University decisions, academic studying, coursework and final exams. But fear not! This may sound like a lot to manage, but with just the right amount of planning (and by reading this blog), you’ll be cruising through this formidable obstacle course in no time at all!

Tip 1: Start Early!!!

By now (and by ‘now’, I mean the start of the summer holidays), you should already have a vague idea of which universities you want to apply to. If you don’t, then start doing your research as soon as possible (for more on this, visit our other blog on ‘How to get insight into University before you apply’). The key to having a relatively stress-free final year, is to make sure you put in the work during summer. 

That means making a shortlist of the Universities to which you want to apply, doing lots of reading (for your interviews if you’re applying for medicine, vetmed, or to Oxford/Cambridge), and starting your personal statement. These last two points are particularly essential, because your personal statement is time-consuming, and also one of the most important metrics by which you will be judged by universities. It’s absolutely essential to get this right, and to produce a personal statement which reflects you, your interests and your academic accomplishments. To do this justice you need to make sure that you allocate enough time to the statement: treat it like an extended essay with several drafts, and sub-drafts/amendments.

If you’re applying for humanities or social sciences (English/History/Politics/Economics/Geography/Law), then the majority of the books which you read for your personal statement will most likely have been read during this summer. So it’s extra important that at the start of the summer, you schedule plenty of time for reading, and also plan ahead as to what you’re going to read, so that you have a comprehensive list of books with which you can fill out your personal statement. Scientists and mathematicians: the same goes for you; schedule lots of time in your summer to read books, volunteer or complete projects with which you can pad out that all important personal-statement. You’ll find that this reaps its own reward; a whole summer spent reading and assembling ideas will give you lots of things to talk and write about, and will also put you at an advantage when it comes to studying that subject in final year. 

In an ideal world, you’ll return to school in September of year 13, with a strong first draft of your personal statement, complete with a summer’s worth of reading, research and academic exploring. This alone will take a huge weight of your shoulders for the first term of year 13, which is one of the busiest.

Tip 2: Work smarter not harder (well maybe a bit harder!)

Be organised about it. Buy a diary and write in bold all the key dates for the upcoming term: when you need to have finished your personal statement by, when you need to have submitted your university applications on UCAS, when your coursework deadline is. This will give you a clear and direct sense of what you’re working towards, and when you have to have it done. Remember: organisation is key - you do not want to be cramming all your university applications into one night: they simply will not be an adequate reflection of your actual potential.

Remember the mantra ‘little and often’: if you chip away at your personal statement and application, rather than doing it all in one go, you’ll find that it is much easier to complete. Filling in all of the forms, and bureaucracy on UCAS can take a while, so maybe do a little bit every night, rather than forcing yourself to complete it at once, which might well result in mistakes. The same principle should apply to your coursework for any of your A-Level/IB subjects; allow yourself lots of time for preparatory reading and planning, so that you don’t have to fit this in alongside the writing.

If you’re tactical about it, you can also ensure that there is overlap between the reading you do for University Applications, and the reading you do for your A-Levels/IBs. For example, let’s say you know you’re going to be studying a certain period in History, you can expand your horizons by reading historical essays which provide you with more context, or are interrelated. By no means, however, should your A-level reading dictate or align exactly with what you have on your personal statement: universities will spot this overlap and might interpret that as an unwillingness to go beyond the confines of the syllabus. Instead, read around those areas more expansively: go beyond the syllabus by reading academic criticism, and use what you’re studying at A level as a springboard to discover your interests and passions which you can talk about on your personal statement. My point is not that you should copy material from the syllabus onto your personal statement, but instead that your university applications and academic work do not have to be completely mutually exclusive.

Tip 3: Don’t be afraid to ask for help!

No seriously. Don’t be! Think about the number of people who have gone through this exact process before you - all of whom will be more than willing to help (and this will probably include your teachers). Anyone who has been privileged enough to go to university will have juggled applications with their final year of school, and they will all have invaluable tips and coping mechanisms which they can share with you. Try asking an older brother, or a friend from the year above - or even messaging someone who went to your school to ask how they handled it. You can also sign up and have a look at our student life blog posts, or you can create your free account at Degree Key today, and gain access to reviews, blog posts and insights into the university life you are hoping to lead; this will help you with choosing universities, and with getting tips for balancing your time.

Your teachers should also have experience with coaching people through the process of personal statement writing, and if you’re stuck for ideas, or what to read, or how to format it (or any of these FAQs), then make sure to ask them. They, more than anybody else, will know about the struggles of balancing University applications with final year, and they will be most willing to help for that reason.

Remember, it’s not unusual to feel stressed and overwhelmed - if anything, it would be more unusual if you didn’t feel that way! But with plenty of forward planning, organisation and research, you can make sure to stay ahead, such that work doesn’t ever pile up, or feel too onerous.

about the author

Eliza Mahoney

Eliza Mahoney

Eliza is in her third year at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where she is reading English. This year she has taken optional papers in the Victorian period (1847-1872) and in visual culture (art, photography and film). Her first dissertation centred around beginnings in the prose of Stevie Smith, and her final dissertation explored the relationship between dance and literature, focusing on Charlotte Brontë's 'Jane Eyre'. She is a Full Blue in dance and spent this year as the captain of the Cambridge Dance Team - she has danced for 19 years! Eliza has been accepted to study for a PGCE in Primary Education at Cambridge and looks forward to returning for her fourth year in September.

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