Starting uni in 2016? 6 ways to get ahead this summer - Step 5

flipping burgers

Develop your skills

You’re 17 years old. Possibly older if you have taken an Access course or followed a non-traditional route. No one is expecting you to be the ‘complete package’ yet. But that doesn’t mean to say that admissions tutors aren’t looking for evidence of the types of skills that are needed to perform well at university and beyond.

This is all about identifying and building skills that are going to help you to develop a strong personal statement. I mentioned in the previous post just how important it is to keep the main focus of your statement on academic information and I stand by this assertion. But that’s not to say that the ‘other stuff’ isn’t important too. So let’s start by breaking these skills down into two main types:

  1. specific subject-related skills, applicable to your course and career ambitions
  2. broader ‘transferable skills’ (often referred to as ‘soft skills’) which are relevant to pretty much all areas of study and work

Addressing the specific skills first, those of you heading towards very vocational degrees will no doubt be aware of the importance of evidencing these skills through work experience. A number of courses do exist where, without work experience, even the most academically able student is not going to get into university Admissions tutors will be expecting to see the efforts you have gone to learn about the industry from the inside and, hopefully, this is something you have already been doing. The most impressive applications inevitably come from those who can show an ongoing and established commitment to vocational work experience. If you’ve not started yet you’ll need to get a move on. You are already playing catch-up, but it can still be done as long as you make the most of the time available to you over the summer holidays. Don’t leave it too late.

Unfortunately, finding work experience can be a hit and miss affair. As with job hunting, there is a lot of luck involved and it is often a case of being in the right place at the right time. My advice - draw up a list of target companies and (importantly) try and track down a named contact within the organisation. Get a CV and covering letter together, tailoring it to the company in question, and send them out. Follow up with phone calls if you don’t hear back. Utilise every network that you have available to you - friends, neighbours, family etc. It is always easier to secure a work experience opportunity through the help of an existing member of staff. This article will give you further tips and helpful websites.

Admissions tutors do realise how challenging it can be for students to get their hands on work experience placements, particularly in some vocational areas where demand for such opportunities far outstrips supply. So you may need to think outside the box and prepare to be flexible. Wannabe medical students - everyone is going to be chasing work shadowing experiences in hospital wards. The reality is that hospital staff are often too busy to take on work experience placements, and hospital volunteer coordinators can seemingly be the hardest people in the organisation to track down. Consider instead gaining work experience in less glamorous, but equally valuable, environments. A prolonged spell of work experience at a local care home or hospice can give you that valuable client contact, the opportunity to observe visiting health professionals at work and an insight into the challenges of the healthcare system that you may not even get from a frantic week spent on A&E.

Generally speaking, we are not a country with a well-developed internship culture and these opportunities can be hard to come by. With the exception of those students lucky enough to be involved in wonderful programmes with their schools such as Career Ready (previously known as Career Academies), you are on your own here, so need to be proactive and show determination. If you are struggling to find work experience in the commercial sector then consider working for charities instead. I’m not just talking here about people who want to be social workers and teachers. Don’t forget that individual charities couldn’t exist without the finance teams, marketing staff and IT professionals (to name but a few) who work within their head offices and provide the organisational backbone. Find out what charities are based near you or use a website such as www.do-it.org.uk to find out about your local opportunities. You will be surprised by how much is out there.

Showing evidence of transferable skills in your application is vital for all courses - those with and without strong vocational direction. We are talking here about the kind of broader skills that, of course, employers will want to see in the future, but that are also vital for successful study at university level - communication, literacy, time management skills, commitment, team work, IT skills, and the list goes on. Think about how you can be developing these skills in order to strengthen your application in the eyes of the admissions tutor. I’ve spoken about volunteering in relation to course requirements but volunteering in general is a great way to show these skills. Consider also involvement in community projects and events, school ‘challenges’ such as Duke of Edinburgh or Young Enterprise, participation in organised sport and part time work. All of these activities involve transferable skills which will help you to prove yourself as a capable and committed individual, whether or not you may consider them relevant to your chosen degree discipline. Don’t, for example, dismiss part time work experience because you feel it’s not important. It will be. It’s a great way of highlighting evidence of the very skills we are talking about.

The key point here is to be someone who gets involved. Admissions tutors want to read applications from students who are ‘doers’. A university which is made up of straight-A students with limited extra-curricular involvement is going to be a much less inspiring environment than one where students may not be academically perfect but are proactive and opportunity-seeking.


If you missed them, the previously steps in this blog series can be found here.


Momentum Careers Advice offers one to one career consultations to anyone who needs help with their university choices or decisions. We also offer a great value-for-money personal statement review service, to help optimise your chances of impressing the admissions tutors. For more information about either service click here.