Life After Sixth Form

Helping you get that university place or career

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The UCAS reference

Rather than thinking of the reference as an awkward extra over which you have no control, and which just annoyingly delays your application being sent off, you should consider it as an integral part of your application.

If you are reading this at an early stage of your sixth-form career, and you know who will be writing your reference (at McAuley it will be your form tutor) then you can begin the process of ensuring your reference is both personal and positive by the way you conduct yourself both academically and socially.

In our case, part of the reference will be compiled from the comments of subject tutors towards the end of Year 12, so make sure your teachers have a very positive view of you as a student that will allow them to make comments that show you standing out from the crowd, whatever your academic ability. Asking for suggestions for wider reading or other study materials (and then doing that wider study and showing it in your work) is one straightforward way of doing this. Make sure you are fully engaged in lessons, asking questions and contributing to discussion.

Impress your form teacher (or whoever will write your reference) by your punctuality, and willingness to contribute to form and school activities, such as assemblies and fund-raising. Ensure your tutor knows about any and every extra-curricular activity you are involved in, and if you have part-time work, make clear how you are organising your time well to fulfil that responsibility without it harming your academic work. Show that you are well-organised and committed to higher education (or future career if you are applying for work or training) by starting your research early, arranging work-placements, visiting universities, developing a network of contacts through social media in your field of interest, and make sure your tutor knows about all this. A good way of doing this would be to start a blog tracking your experiences. I posted about this idea previously here.

Once you are closer to completing the application process, you should work ever-closer with your tutor to make sure that your UCAS personal statement (or CV / letter of application for jobs) is complemented by the reference. One of my main sources of annoyance as a tutor is when the guidance I have given is not followed, leading to extra work on my part: if you want the best reference possible, you should obviously want to make your reference writer’s job as easy as possible, so make sure you carefully take on board all the advice and instructions you have been given (in my case you will find it all on this blog). In particular make sure you are in a dialogue with your tutor as you draft your personal statement. Perhaps there are things that you are struggling to fit into your personal statement, which it would be appropriate to be mentioned in the reference instead. For me, one of the most important things is making sure that my reference not only shows genuine knowledge of the student, but also of the courses they are applying for. However, it is frustrating to have to constantly switch between the personal statement, my draft reference, and university websites or UCAS entry profiles. So remind yourself of this post on targeting your personal statement about making sure you know exactly what universities are looking for, and share this information directly with your tutor as you are drafting the personal statement, so that it can also be used to tailor the reference to be specific to your course choice(s).

You may like to read some of the guidance that is available for staff who write references (see links below). This will help to give you an idea of exactly what we have to do, and help you work with your tutor to make your statement and the reference complement each other positively.

UCAS advice on reference writing. Ucas have also produced a video guide to reference writing.

Slides from a UCAS presentation on references – succinct and useful advice with examples of what to write (and avoid)

Exeter University Teacher Information Sheet– a short and succinct advice sheet.

Slides from a Leicester University presentation – covers both personal statements and references.

Tips from Birmingham University academics – a short video packed with useful advice.

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Personal Statement Paragraphing

Grammar and spelling must be checked and checked again before submitting your UCAS form and your Personal Statement should be written in full paragraphs

Rebecca Lee (undergraduate recruitment and widening participation officer at Manchester University)

It is also always vital that you proof, proof and proof again your statement. It may sound obvious but it is really important. Write your statement as you would an academic essay, using paragraphs, avoiding repetition and thinking about how it might be read. We are looking for you to demonstrate your ability to write longer essays once you come to university.

Dr Abigail Harrison-Moore (admissions tutor for seven years at the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, University of Leeds, where she is now head of school)

Remember to draft and re-draft your personal statement. Watch out for spelling mistakes (spellcheckers are not a guarantee) and missing or repeated words: doing this shows your commitment to the application and attention to detail. An admissions tutor will be impressed by the use of good English; a personal statement needs to be well written, in straightforward English, and laid out carefully. If you try too hard to impress with clever language you’ll normally make your statement harder to read and your reasons for wanting to study a particular programme less clear.

Richard Emborg ( Director of Student Recruitment & Admissions, Durham University)

Universities are reading a lot of personal statements and so I really like the first few lines to clearly outline the intended area of study and the reason why.  The end of your personal statement should also reinforce this.  Although you are working in a restricted space I find it helpful when students use paragraphs so that the statement flows well and it’s easy to identify key points.  If you’re going to be interviewed for a course, the interviewer will read the statement beforehand and may even refer to it during the interview so a well-structured statement is imperative.
Alix Delany (Assistant Head of Admissions, University of East Anglia)

See: it’s not just me!


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Yet more personal statement guidance

This is brilliant, from Altrincham Girls’ Grammar School. I wish I’d done it:

Writing a personal statement

And here’s a guide from Essex University which, among other things, includes some example statements with comments on strengths and weaknesses:

Stop Thinking, Start Writing

Don’t forget there’s lots of other useful guidance elsewhere on this blog. Click ‘Personal Statement’ under ‘Categories’ in the sidebar.


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Transferable skills and the Nobel Peace Prize

Still struggling for things to include in that Ucas personal statement? How about: “I showed my teamwork skills by, along with 499,999,999 fellow citizens, winning the Nobel Peace Prize recently.”

Actually, maybe that wouldn’t be such a great idea, but showing that you are up-to-date with recent developments in your proposed area of study, or how it relates to areas in the news, could be impressive. Referring to transferable skills such as teamwork and communication is also often recommended, but too often it feels like an awkward add on, or too far of a stretch from the experience gained to the situation it is related to. “I gained valuable teamwork skills working in McDonald’s which will be valuable as I hope to be involved in international diplomacy after my politics degree” is likely to sound more comic than impressive. On the other hand, a paragraph like the following makes a realistic and thoughtful link between the skills required on the course, and the applicant’s recent experience:

Physiotherapists need to be caring, understanding and tolerant with their patients of all ages with different abilities. I have shown similar skills helping in a maths booster class for year seven pupils who found maths difficult, which also helped me develop my skills of patience, flexibility and a sense of humour.

I strongly suggest you research carefully the ‘entry profiles‘ that many courses list on the UCAS website, and also check for any further descriptions of the skills and qualities that universities are looking for in applicants for individual degree courses that are published in their prospectuses and websites. Tailor your personal statement to address those specific profiles, and submit that information, along with your personal statement, to the person writing your reference. That will help them to confirm the appropriateness of your statement when advising you on how to improve it, and they can also use the information to help ensure the relevance of the reference that is written for you.


Extending your digital footprint

A while ago, I was asked for advice by a student interested in journalism.  I reproduce the advice I offered below, but much of it can be adapted to any subject or career area. In today’s world, online networking is an important way of gaining knowledge and contacts in your area of interest. As a teacher, most of my new knowledge of teaching methods and resources comes from contacts on Twitter and in the blogosphere, and increasingly I see people gaining employment opportunities in this way. Only recently I was contacted by the Times Educational Supplement English resources editor and invited to take part in developing materials for a new project, the DocAcademy, resulting in an expenses paid trip to London for a planning meeting, and a tidy little sum for producing a four-lesson resource pack for the website. It was very handy holiday spending money, but more importantly it gave me an opportunity to extend my own skills, and to share them with colleagues, and all because I’d made a network of contacts through using social media for my professional development.

So, if you get online and start asking questions and sharing links and resources about the subject area or career you want to pursue, perhaps you’ll find that when your university or job application crosses the desk of an employer or admissions tutor, your name may already be familiar as someone with a proven interest in the subject and a track record of showing initiative.

Anyhow, here is the advice I offered my inquirer:

One thing you want to do is to establish your online presence in as many potentially useful places as possible. Get yourself a username that is distinctive but professional, and isn’t already taken, that can be used consistently across social networking sites and the like. You can use  to check if a chosen username is available across a range of sites.
I have to own up and say that I’m better at mucking about with stuff than using it purposefully, so I’ve got half abandoned projects scattered around the web, but it’s a good idea to have some kind of page where you can direct people (perhaps having it as your email signature) that will have links to everything you want in the public domain. I’m rather proud of my resolutely lo-fi homepage at, but to be honest you probably want something a bit more like this:  which is dead easy to set up, and you can find links to most of my half-baked bits & pieces there.
With regards to blogging, there are all sorts of directions you can take it. You can go for a general blog that you use as a kind of portfolio of any writing that takes your fancy. Or you could do a topic specific blog on a hobby or interest of some kind. For instance here is a music blog set up by a former McAuley student, Ruth Offord while she was still at school. Ruth went on to become a journalist on the Doncaster Free Press for a time. Maybe you could experiment with a university application blog ((or two)or three) while you get used to blogging platforms and their strengths and weaknesses. This is the kind of idea I have in mind.
Read and comment on others’ blogs (including professional journalists). Follow journalists, journalism students and bloggers on twitter, and engage with them regularly. A good plan is to find someone who tweets regularly and seems to engage in interesting discussions with interesting people, and then see who they follow and look at any lists they have curated or that they appear on. If you want to get an idea of where journalism might be headed in our increasingly networked world, I think you could do worse than starting with @documentally and his blog. If you want to connect with someone who’s making it in the world of (slightly) more conventional journalism and started where you are, then try @jbmurdoch – that’s Mr Murdoch’s son – who was in my form before doing geography at Durham, getting involved in student journalism (ask him about it), and is now cutting a swathe at The Guardian.
I look forward to seeing your online presence bloom and to reading what you have to say.
In case you’re wondering whether my advice was heeded, here  is an impressive part of the answer.