Thinking ahead to university entrance from Year 9 - Hurstpierpoint College

Thinking ahead to university entrance from Year 9

Hurst College’s Head of Higher Education explains how parents can encourage their children to look towards a university education at a young age

For a prospective university applicant who is aiming to gain a place at the best universities, a love of learning and abundant motivation to study their chosen subject is vital. Universities are looking for students who are genuinely curious to find out more about the world, and parents can foster this curiosity.

Parents can encourage their child to be excited about their future at university from a young age. The key is to be open-minded and supportive rather than prescriptive. Parents can talk with their child about which subjects they enjoy at school, and which topics have particularly sparked their imagination. Has a class project on the suffragettes revealed a fascination with history and politics? Are they enthralled by science experiments and desperate to find out more about DNA or the Big Bang theory? Teachers will be happy to nurture a child’s interests by suggesting extension activities or perhaps books or documentaries that will enrich their learning. Parents can also help by looking out for television or radio programmes, newspaper or magazine articles, or podcasts that may apply to their child’s interests. Days out to museums, exhibitions, plays, historical sites, and so on can be incredibly inspiring and formative. Talks and lectures, either attended live or watched online (e.g. TED talks), can be brilliant. Parents can look out for lectures suitable for young people organised by universities, think tanks, societies, local libraries or local theatres. They can encourage their child to make links between new experiences or material and their existing knowledge. A child who is inquisitive about the world and is motivated and enthusiastic about pursuing their interests will be in a great position to think about a university education when they reach the sixth form.

Starting early
University education is rarely out of the news, and parents and pupils can usefully start taking an interest from Year 9 onwards: it is worth keeping abreast of changes and developments in the sector. If your child decides to go to university, it could be one of the most important decisions of their life, so starting conversations early could be incredibly valuable. The UCAS website is extremely comprehensive and provides a huge amount of advice for parents and students. There are also a number of books available to help – particularly popular at Hurst are The Times Good University Guide, Getting Into … course guides (MPW Guides, pub. Trotman), and The UCAS Guide to getting into University and College. University websites and prospectuses are, of course, free and contain a plethora of invaluable information about courses and institutions.

Choosing a course
University gives students the opportunity to pursue their intellectual interests in great depth, and the range of degrees on offer is extraordinary. There are over 160 higher education institutions in the UK, offering more than 50,000 courses. Undertaking some research into their future options at a relatively early age can be wonderfully motivating for students. If your child has taken a keen interest in programming, why not have a look at what a computer science degree involves? This may inspire them to create their own website or app, learn new coding languages, attend a summer course and read books and newspaper articles on computing. If they’re obsessed with animals and nature, you could spend time researching degrees in zoology, environmental studies or animal science. A young historian may pursue a history degree, or specialise by opting for war studies, history of art or medieval studies. A young person who is particularly adept at applying their maths skills to practical situations may be ideally suited to an engineering degree: why not start exploring the different types of engineering degree on offer? If your child is sporty, they may consider a degree in sports rehabilitation, sport and exercise science, sports marketing or sport management. As their interests develop and their perspective broadens, they may consider a subject completely outside of the school curriculum, such as event management, film production, journalism, robotics, criminology, or anthropology. If they have a passion for something, it is worth searching the excellent UCAS search tool for courses (

Going the extra mile
To achieve a place at the best universities, students need to demonstrate that they have gone above and beyond the academic essentials in pursuit of their genuine passion. There are numerous Year 12 essay competitions on a wide range of subjects run by universities. The experience of entering these often proves invaluable to applicants: they can develop and demonstrate their research and writing skills. Another way for students to stretch themselves is to complete online courses through MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) or iTunes U.

Taster courses
Some universities offer taster courses to let students experience life at a university before they apply, some are one-day courses, but the ones in the summer can be longer. These can be a fantastic opportunity for students to gain a greater insight into university study and social life, and they can really add to a UCAS personal statement. These are widely available for Year 12 students ( and some universities offer taster days for year 10 and 11 students. Those that offer taster days for younger students include Cambridge, Oxford, Bath, Sussex and Newcastle. University College London hosts ‘Bring Your Family to University’ days for students as young as Year 5, right up to year 11.

Get involved
At university, students may become involved with student societies such as drama, sports, music or dance. They may engage with student politics and the running of the Students’ Union, or student newspapers or radio stations. They may volunteer with a community action group, or help other students by training to become a peer supporter. Universities are keen to recruit students who will contribute to their institution in these ways. Therefore, any experience that students can build up at senior school will demonstrate that they have much to offer alongside their academic work and will be helpful when applying.

Extra- curricular
In their UCAS personal statement, we encourage students at Hurst to talk about their relevant extra-curricular activities. These include their interests, their responsibilities (such as being a school prefect), and their non-academic pursuits. The latter often includes Duke of Edinburgh Award, Combined Cadet Force, National Citizen Service, Crest Awards, Young Enterprise, Engineering Education Scheme, music, drama, dance and sport. Sometimes extra-curricular activities can be unrelated to A-level subjects, but incredibly relevant to the subject that they want to study at university. For example, a prospective politics undergraduate may stand for election in a school’s mock general election, while a future film studies undergraduate may take the lead in the school’s film society. The editor of the school’s student newspaper will have valuable experience to recommend them for a degree in journalism.

Our students are encouraged to be reflective, thinking about what they have learnt through these activities and interests and how their skills have been enhanced. For example, volunteering in the community often heightens students’ empathy, communication skills and maturity. Students are expected to work hard at highly selective universities, and students can prepare themselves well for this through volunteer work that challenges them and takes them out of their comfort zone. Completing a Duke of Edinburgh Award is a fantastic way of enhancing leadership and teamwork skills. Successfully juggling part-time work with academic studies shows that a student is organised and has strong time-management skills. Being involved in or setting up their own student societies is a fantastic way of demonstrating their love of a subject. Arranging for a speaker to come into school, or delivering a talk to peers and teachers, is a terrific way of displaying individual initiative. Students can volunteer to lead projects and organise events.

In their personal statements, students can then tell their chosen universities how these experiences will help with their undergraduate degree and/or university life in general. For example, a chemical engineering admissions tutor will be looking for excellent young scientists who are also good communicators and good problem solvers. Extra-curricular activities can therefore be a key part of a strong application, as they can help students demonstrate that they are ready for higher education, can undertake independent study, will cope with fresh challenges and will contribute positively to the university environment.

Relevant experience
For some vocational university courses, such as medicine, veterinary science, teaching or midwifery, work experience is incredibly helpful. Students can usefully volunteer in their community and try to gain experience in the relevant work environment. Through such placements, they will be able to build up their transferable skills, such as communication, leadership, problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork and creativity.

Students applying for specialist further education, such as equestrian studies, art school, or music production, will need to build up a portfolio of evidence to prove their interest in and commitment to the subject they want to study. The key to success is organisation: ensuring that sufficient relevant experience has been gained and documented in time for the application, or that an art portfolio is completed to a high standard by the deadline, will make all the difference. As with all other subjects, enthusiasm and clarity about motivation are also crucial.

There are a number of conservatoires in the UK offering performance-based courses in music, dance, drama and musical theatre at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. The emphasis is on practical development with individual tuition and performance opportunities. UCAS has a great deal of information on whether this is the best route for a student:

Hannah Linklater-Johnson, Head of Higher Education, Hurst College