Applying to Universities: A Guide

Applying to Universities: A Guide


If your teenager is moving into their final year at school in September, and university choices are the hot topic at home, it may help to understand the application process you have in store. We spoke to trusted expert, Siobhan Dickerson, Director of Specialism at GEMS FirstPoint School, to understand the application processes in detail. 

University destinations for UAE school-leavers are changing. While the UK remains the dominant choice, there is no doubt final destinations are becoming more diverse. This should not be a surprise: Some countries, notably the US, are actively targeting top UAE teens with scholarships, while the likes of the Netherlands and Germany offer highly attractive fees and still teach in English.

This guide focuses on some of the current most popular university destinations for UAE school leavers right now: the UK, USA, Netherlands, Canada, Germany, Australia, India and UAE. 

What do university applications entail?

University applications vary depending on course choice, university and country, but certain key elements are broadly required. Siobhan Dickerson explained:

“Generally a student will require a personal statement or entrance essay, a reference from their school teacher or careers counsellor (often also called a letter of recommendation), a list of their qualifications, their predicted final grades and an application form containing basic details like name, address and passport information.”

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For many students, the personal statement is the area in which they will need the most guidance. A personal statement should not merely be a record of the student’s academic achievements, but should paint a picture more broadly, including activities and initiatives they have lead or taken part in, within and outside of school, skills they have developed and relevant experiences they have had. It should also detail why they are applying for the course, and what makes them a suitable candidate for it. 

Ms Dickerson added:

“In addition to the written application, a student may have to sit an entrance exam, submit a digital or physical portfolio, complete an audition or send a video entry. They may also be invited to interview, either face to face or via Zoom. Finding out what the requirements are as early as possible will help students prepare and be thorough in their preparation, allowing them to avoid stressful last-minute cramming.”

How can applicants stand out?

Students are advised to do all they can to stand out from other applicants. Having top exam results is not enough to secure a place in the world’s top universities. Ms Dickerson provided her top tips on how students can stand out in their applications:

  • For specific courses, not all qualifications and subjects are equal. Identify the right combination of course subjects for your desired university course, and be realistic about what grades you can achieve. 
  • If you are studying an alternative curriculum such as BTEC, make sure this is accepted at the university of interest and that it is recognised in the country in which the university is based.   
  • Take up additional positions of responsibility in school, such as class ambassador, student council member or wellbeing committee member. This helps to demonstrate your leadership skills, collaboration, empathy and other competencies.
  • Take advantage of the opportunities made available at school, including attending webinars, completing short courses and doing voluntary work.
  • Look out for additional learning opportunities such as summer schools, distance learning internships and other activities linked to education or industry.

When should students complete their applications by?

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With some university application deadlines being as early as September of the year prior, it is advisable to start researching university and course choices well in advance of this. Ms Dickerson explains:

“The university application process, as a rule, should start in the student’s penultimate year of study, though research and exploration of potential destinations should start much earlier. Each country has its own deadlines, so being aware of these a year in advance is helpful.” 

United Kingdom: For applications to UK universities via UCAS, 15th October is the deadline for courses at Oxford and Cambridge, as well as for the majority of courses in medicine, veterinary medicine/science, and dentistry. For the majority of courses at other universities, the deadline is 25th January.

Netherlands: There are multiple application deadlines for universities in the Netherlands. The application deadline for most courses is 1st May, while some universities have deadlines of 1st February and 1st March. For the ‘Numerous Fixus’ (study programmes for which universities set a certain capacity, resulting in a limited number of places being available) the deadline is 15th January.

USA: Universities in the US have three in-takes across the year (September, January and May) but September, as with most countries, is the primary in-take. Application deadlines for US universities vary between universities and courses, but also according to the conditions of the application, which the student can choose. The US has a system called ‘Early Decision’, which involves a student applying early (usually in November) and then being legally bound to accept an offer if one is made. ‘Early Action’, meanwhile, also enables a student to apply early, but without the legal obligation to accept any resulting offer. ‘Regular Decision’, which most students apply under, usually has a January or February deadline. 

Canada: Canadian universities typically have three in-takes per year: September, January and May (although there are few courses with a May start). Application deadlines vary for different universities and courses, but September in-take deadlines generally fall between December – March, January in-take deadlines are between September – November, and May in-take deadlines are between October-February.

Germany: German universities have two in-takes per year: September/October and April. The majority of courses start in September, with some a little later in October. For the main September/October intakes, the application deadline is usually 15th July, while the April in-take deadline is usually 15th January. Some universities set deadlines earlier, particularly for courses with “numerus clausus” (limited spaces available). 

Australia: The academic year in Australia typically starts in February, rather than September,  although many universities also have a July in-take. Application deadlines vary but are typically between October – December for the February in-take and March-June for the July in-take, although some universities have earlier deadlines. 

India: Indian universities typically have two in-takes per year: September and January, although the top universities often have September in-takes only. Application deadlines vary considerably between universities. 

UAE: Application deadlines for UAE university courses vary but applying early for popular courses is recommended. 

Ms Dickerson advises:

“It’s a good idea to apply as early as possible for two reasons: being first in line means your application will be considered earlier and a decision will be made quicker, giving you peace of mind or more time to find alternatives if you are unsuccessful; and applying early also means you can then take your mind off filling in applications and focus on your studies, leading to better results.”

How does the application process work?

United Kingdom: UK university applications go through a streamlined platform operated by UCAS, which allows students to process all their application documents in one place. For a small fee, UCAS then collates and directs the application to each student’s chosen universities. This system allows students to select up to five course/university choices. In the event that all five applications were unsuccessful, a student would be given the opportunity to add one more choice at a time. In recent years, a small number of UK universities have started to accept applications from international students outside of UCAS, and these must be handled directly with the university.

Netherlands: Applications for universities in the Netherlands generally go through a platform called Studielink, however it is best to check with individual universities whether you should apply this way as a minority use alternative methods. Applicants can select up to four courses at a time, of which only two can be subject to Numerus Fixus.  

USA: Many US universities use a centralised application platform called CommonApp, on which applicants can select up to 20 courses choices. Some US universities do not use CommonApp, in which case applications can be made directly to the university instead. 

Canada: There are multiple university application systems for Canadian universities, which operate in a similar fashion to the CommonApp system; these are online and largely province-specific e.g. Alberta’s universities use a system called ApplyAlberta, universities in British Colombia largely use EducationPlannerBC, and most universities in Ontario use OUAC, although some Canadian universities only accept direct applications. 

Germany: 180 of Germany’s 380 universities use an online application platform called uni-assist for applications from international students. This centralised system will review your  documents and provide a VPD certificate, which provides the German universities you apply to with the German equivalency of your grades, allowing them to respond with their decision on your application.

Australia: While there is a centralised university application system for applicants within Australia, international students are generally required to apply to individual universities directly. Most universities will detail their requirements and process on their websites. 

India: While there are some centralised state-wide systems for government universities and colleges, the majority of universities in India will require students to apply directly, as per the individual university’s requirements and processes.

UAE: There is not a centralised system currently in place for UAE university applications. Applications are submitted directly to the individual university and the student will typically be made an offer quite quickly and on a case-by-case basis. 

Receiving an offer…

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Applicants will either receive a conditional offer, an unconditional offer or will not be offered a place on their desired course.

Conditional Offer: In most cases, a conditional offer of a university place means waiting for results day to see if exam results meet the conditions set by the university. This is common from universities in the UK, Netherlands and some UAE universities. While US universities do not typically use this terminology, offers typically come with the condition that the applicant retains their level of academic achievement in their final year. 

Unconditional Offer: This means the applicant has already met the entry requirements and can accept the place should they choose to. 

What happens if the applicant is unsuccessful?

With applications at an all time high in many top universities, it’s a good idea for students to have a plan B up their sleeve. Ms Dickerson offered this advice:

“If a student doesn’t get the offer they were hoping for, all is not lost. Many universities now offer entry-level or foundation programmes that are designed precisely for this scenario. Students can apply for these as per the same deadlines or when final results have been declared, provided there are spaces available.”

A foundation programme is a UK-inspired study course designed to fill the gap between a student’s current level of qualification and knowledge and the level needed to be admitted to their desired degree programme. This means an additional year of study but it would still result in gaining an undergraduate degree as planned.

Ms Dickerson added:

“Other options include taking a gap year to re-sit examinations alongside a fruitful employment or charity position. In a gap year, a university will be looking at how the student has enhanced their skills and how they are now a better student than when they first applied. Ultimately, all universities are looking for the strongest candidates who will go on to achieve great things, so they can be proud of the opportunities they provided students and so the students can be credible alumni for them.”

Siobhan Dickerson MA (Oxon), NPQH, is the Director of Specialism – Careers and Higher Education Advisor – at GEMS FirstPoint School, Dubai. 

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