Applying to a British university can be a struggle, especially if you are not from the UK. The process, which is handled through a central admissions body called Ucas, requires you to submit, among other things, a personal statement and a reference letter. Because you lack cultural capital in the UK, all this can feel like climbing a mountain. The process may confuse not only you but also your parents. Yet rest assured that with some patience and care you can get through it all successfully, which will leave you feeling like you really can climb any mountains in your way.
The first step in tackling this challenge is to decode the cryptic language of applications, then the real battle begins:
The difficult decision
Reading course descriptions, looking at entry requirements – scrolling down the whole page until you finally find your specific high school diploma – and comparing different universities soon become a daily habit. Step by step, you find your way through the jungle of future possibilities: physics, medicine, arts or maybe politics? The potential choices, which seem to determine your future life, keep spinning around in your head for weeks and weeks, not letting you sleep at night. Just when you think you have made a decision, doubt creeps in again and destroys the stability you had just reclaimed. “OK, I’ve got it now,” you think to yourself. “I will study English literature.” You feel relieved – the decision has been made, written into stone, steady like a rock. The only thing left to do now is to actually apply. After having struggled so hard in the past weeks, this seems like an easy task to take on.
You register for Ucas – that was easy – and find five slender red boxes in the top left corner of your screen. Only five sections, that doesn’t seem like too much work.
“Personal details? I know myself, so that is easy!”
“Employment? Also easy, not much to write there.”
“Course choices?” This is what you have been preparing yourself for over the past weeks, months – years, it seems.
“Academics? Oh, I will just fill in the address of my school and scan my diploma. That should take me 10 minutes maximum!” And yet, an hour later, you still sit at your laptop, fingers sore and red from typing in names of the 50 courses you have taken over the past two years of high school, constantly receiving red warnings that you have not entered your centre number. Too bad that your school just doesn’t have one. But you also overcome this hurdle.
The personal statement
The last section of your application left to fill in is “just” the personal statement, the final obstacle on your way to completing the application. As a German who was prepared for the exhausting bureaucracy of the Ucas application, I had assumed that it was just a matter of sitting down, typing in the right details and deciding on your courses. You’d think that after this, you have completed your application for university. You have been taught that a university application involves sending your grades, overcoming bureaucratic hurdles and filling in personal details.
So you innocently open the last section and, Beethoven’s Fifth playing in your head, see a huge blank box. It presents to you an unknown concept. Just as you thought you had decoded the UK application system, you come upon this blank, mysterious box that you are supposed to fill with 4,000 characters. After getting over your initial shock and realising that it is not 4,000 words but just 4,000 characters, you frantically start to search the internet for information to help you understand this new task.
Eventually, when you sit in front of your seventh draft, you finally realise that all they want to know is why you actually want to go to university, what has inspired you, what you like about your subject and what you have done in the past that proves that you know what you are applying for.
Submitting your application leaves you with an anxious feeling as your wait for news begins, but it also gives you a sense of success and relief. Not only did you just apply for five universities somewhere abroad, but you managed to do it while clearing bureaucratic hurdles and decoding a foreign system of applications. Through this process, you have actually learned and reassured yourself about what you want to do at university and in life.