Standing Out in a Crowded University Applications List

By Steve Tippen

Steve Tippen is Director of Higher Education and Careers at Wellington College International Shanghai.

Often Im asked by parents: What should my child be doing to prepare for a university application?

There is a relatively straightforward answer they should work hard on their academic courses. This might seem obvious, but academic grades are still the most vital component of any university application by quite some distance. Nonetheless, its true that grades by themselves are not enough to guarantee that a pupil will get an offer from a world-leading university. To achieve this goal, extra-curricular and super-curricular activities are a vital component in supporting a candidates application.

Extra vs Super-Curricular 

The term extra-curricular is in more common usage and refers to those activities that a pupil takes in addition to and outside of their core academic program (whether at school or not). The term super-curricular is less commonly used and refers to those activities which seek to extend knowledge of a specific subject beyond the boundaries of any official curriculum that the pupil may be studying. Broader extra-curricular activities are much more important when applying to US-style universities, whilst UK-style universities will have a narrower focus on a pupils super-curricular studies. 


Super-Curricular Activities

A UK-style university will want to know that a pupil has all the relevant skills and interests to succeed at the specific subject for which they are applying. Therefore, undertaking wider-reading and study will be vital in convincing subject-based academic admissions tutors that a candidate deserves a place. Furthermore, this commitment to independent, self-driven study will also aptly demonstrate the types of study skills that will be needed for undergraduate study.

A pupils super-curricular involvement is likely to be assessed through an application essay or statement such as the personal statement required by those applying to UK universities through UCAS and potentially an academic interview. Interviews are much more likely at world-leading universities such as Oxford or Cambridge, and usually involve a sitting academic assessing a pupils ability and interest in their chosen subject. This can be quite a daunting experience, so its essential to prepare well in advance. 


Extra-Curricular Activities

US-style universities wish to see a more rounded view of the candidate (which goes beyond the specific major for which they are applying) which a university-wide admissions team will assess as part of a holistic admissions process.

Candidates should seek to use their extra-curricular activities to demonstrate how they will contribute to university life emphasizing their wider talents and evidencing key attributes such as leadership and a commitment to the wider community. Candidates will generally need to include a list of their most important activities and may choose to use one as the focus of a college essay. Some universities may even allow pupils to send supplemental information (a video, extra recommendation, artwork etc.) to further enhance their application. 

Regarding the type of activity, there is a long-standing myth that pupils need to have a ridiculous range of activities in specific categories play a team sport, play an instrument etc. This approach may work for some but it isnt necessary to cover such a broad range of activity. It is also vital that any activity reflects the true interests of the child. Forcing a child to take a particular activity is likely to be counter-productive.  


It is true that there may be occasions where a particular talent/skill may increase the chance of a successful application. For example, a university may need a tuba player for their orchestra or may need individuals for their fencing team. However, these are factors which are difficult to predict. Obviously, if a pupil has a particular talent/skill which they perform at a significantly high level, it is worth researching into the opportunities offered by different universities. However, generally speaking, when these exceptions are removed, universities dont tend to favor one activity over another it is what these activities say about the candidate that is much more important.  

In closing, the top priority for any university application will be the academic grades that a candidate achieves at school. Any other aspects of an application process, including extra-curricular or super-curricular activities, should enhance and fit around the demands of a pupils core academic program. Ultimately, preparations for university study should start early, should focus on the full range of admissions procedures understanding how the different aspects of any application will be judged and ensure that the correct amount of emphasis and attention is placed on those different aspects.

The university offers that Wellingtons current year 13 pupils have so far received represent a truly outstanding achievement. Gaining a range of offers as impressive as these is not easy. They are the product of years of preparation, forensic research and input from a wide variety of people on a range of topics related to university admissions. The fact that Wellingtons pupils have been recognized by the most selective of global universities, from Oxbridge to the Ivy League, is a real testament to the hard work and ambition of the pupils as well as the dedication of all those people involved in supporting them.

Find out more about Wellingtons outstanding 2020 university offers.

Although the Wellington College campus is physically closed, you can still take a look round via a virtual tour by scanning the QR code below or contact their admissions team for more information and to schedule a personalized virtual tour. [email protected]

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