If I have to be completely honest with you, I feel that the entire university application process has been overly dramatized as a stressful experience. There always seem to be horror stories about people pulling all-nighters before deadline day in order to finish their personal statements, or perhaps you might have heard about someone having gone through a mini existential crisis because they were simply unsure about the subject they want to study, or maybe even about students stressing out over which universities they should apply to.
So, to begin with, I would have to emphasize that these series of unfortunate events (pun not intended, or maybe?) is extremely preventable!
A little bit about myself
To start with the usual intro – hi, I’m Bianca. I previously studied at Kolej Tuanku Ja’afar, did the classic triple science single maths subject combo (i.e. Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Mathematics) because I’m not the biggest fan of double maths.
Survived Completed the BSc Biochemistry course at Imperial College London in 2020 and am currently reading a Master’s in Management at Imperial College Business School!
The whole idea for this article is really to help demystify the UCAS application process (with some focus on Imperial’s Biochemistry course), and I sincerely hope that this short piece can, in some way, be of assistance to you during your application journey.
An overview of the application process
The UCAS application process is probably one of the simplest university application process that I know of for the time-being.
In the context of getting into Imperial’s Biochemistry course, the process can really be summarised into these simple steps:
- Get the grades (AS Level in my case)
- Get good predicted grades for A Level
- Choose a degree subject
- Pick Imperial and four other universities to apply to
- Write up a 4000-character personal statement
- Get your teacher’s references
- Create a UCAS account
- Sit back, relax and wait for your offers to come! (no interviews are conducted for admissions into Imperial’s Biochemistry course)
Okay, maybe I am getting a little ahead of myself. Yes, it looks simple on paper, but there are several mini sub-steps that one would have to go through in order to complete the entire process.
Let’s start again from the top, shall we?
Choosing your degree subject
Okay maybe not quite the top, but I trust that you are working hard to achieve the best possible grades that you are capable of!
When it comes to picking your degree subject, I would daresay you really need to think about what you are truly passionate in, because the truth is that top universities will grind you over the next three/four years of your life (bear in mind that they are top universities for a reason). Thus, it is really important for you to enjoy what you are learning because grit, hard work, and commitment towards your subject are key to being successful in your tertiary education.
Some of the key questions that you could try asking yourself to help you get started would be:
- Which subjects are you strong at?
- What kind of problems are you passionate about solving? And would studying your chosen subject equip you with the skills to address it?
- What sort of topics make you forget to eat?
Those are definitely relatively difficult questions to answer, I don’t blame you for that. Though what you can do to help you find your answers to those questions would be to explore the different topics. Read a relevant book, watch a few educational videos on YouTube, take some courses on FutureLearn, Coursera or Udemy, speak to your teachers, university alumni, or someone working in that field. Do something to learn more about a degree subject that you are thinking of applying to!
In essence, be proactive in finding out what topics “click” with you, and I believe this will be a useful way to you to learn more about yourself and what you care about.
Picking your universities
Many students tend to not think that through well enough as they fall into the trap of only wanting to apply for a place at prestigious universities.
You got to remember, gaining admissions into a top university is really only the beginning of your learning journey, and to directly quote a friend of mine – “surviving your degree is another challenge all by itself”, but that’s not the focus of this article. In short, university reputation and ranking forms only one part of the entire story. There is a myriad of other aspects that you ought to think about before filling up your five university choices.
To begin with, once you have made a decision on the subject you want to study at university, it is time for you to look into the course structure of the various universities offering your subject. Always remember that different universities may structure their Biochemistry courses differently, despite the both of them bearing the same course title. Typically, you can find the Biochemistry course programme booklet for each university on Google pretty easily, and the university website would have elaborated further on how this course is designed too! Do also have a think about the style of teaching that suits you best – are you the type who prefers smaller groups (e.g. how Oxbridge conducts regular tutorials with their students), or are you more of a lecture kind of person?
Besides that, do factor in the potential expenses incurred to study at any of your top five choices. Don’t forget that in addition to the tuition fees, accommodation fees can differ significantly across different regions in the United Kingdom. Thus, it should come with no surprise that London is going to be a pretty expensive stay! And not to mention, you should also consider the university’s location – can you see yourself living in a big city like London? Or stay in a relative quiet place like Warwick?
To shift gears slightly, do some research into the unique opportunities that your chosen universities has to offer. Taking Imperial as an example, Imperial offers a year in industry/research placement if you are interested in pursuing a career in R&D or academia (fun fact: some of friends got to intern at GSK or study abroad in other European countries). If you are more business-oriented, Imperial’s Biochemistry course also includes the option of taking a Joint Honours Management course at Imperial College Business School. Meanwhile, did you know that the Life Sciences Department at Imperial hosts a science invention competition, where you can win lab space to develop proof-of-concept of your idea (Google Imperial FoNS-MAD)? Not to mention, the Imperial Enterprise Lab also provides a lot of resources and entrepreneurship competitions that you can participate in if you happen to be entrepreneurial.
But of course, I can only talk about Imperial given that I studied there. There are definitely other unique opportunities that other universities may offer in which Imperial doesn’t, so I would encourage you to do a thorough research on those as much as you can.
One platform that may be helpful for you in learning more about these unique opportunities would be to check out a platform known as UniBuddy, where you can speak to current students at various universities about their Biochemistry course, so that you can better understand what a typical day is like at university, the expected workload, the breadth of topics covered, unique opportunities, and many more.
Crafting your personal statement
To put things simply, the personal statement is the perfect chance for you to showcase your passion and commitment towards your subject. It helps a lot to view it from the mindset of your personal statement being a toolfor you to express your thoughts regarding your subject.
If I were to pick three top tips for writing a good personal statement, it would be these three:
1. Structure and simplicity are key
Trust me, you don’t need to a walking Thesaurus that churns out bombastic sounding words and sentences for your personal statement, because they often don’t add any value to your personal statement. One thing to always keep in mind is that scientists rewardconciseness, so a potential strategy you can adopt whilst hunting for content would be to ask “so what?” whenever you are considering to add a certain snippet of your life story – does this piece of information show my passion for Biochemistry? Does it make my writing a little more unique? Does it demonstrate how I grew as a person/scientist?
Just like for any other project, you will need to plan out your structure before writing. Make sure that your story flows in a coherent and concise manner so that it makes it super easy for your reader (i.e. the Admissions Tutor) to follow. Remember that I mentioned that Imperial’s Biochemistry admissions doesn’t involve an interview stage, and that’s because the Admissions Tutors place a great focus on your personal statements. So this is that one opportunity to sell yourself
2. Your experiences don’t have to be something absolutely amazing
Based on my experience working as a Student Ambassador at Imperial, where I was involved as a panellist in various student outreach events regarding university admissions, one of the Admissions Tutor highlighted that “it doesn’t matter whether you interned at a Nobel laureate’s lab or spent your summer holidays collecting flora and fauna in your local park, if you are unable to talk about what you have learnt from those experiences, then the entire purpose has been defeated”.
To put it simply, all you really need to do in order to demonstrate your passion for your subject, is to be able to properly reflect on your learning experiences. Tell your readers what you have learnt – did something in lab internship surprise you? How did you overcome a certain challenge you faced during your time there? What insights could you draw from reading that book? Do you have a certain opinion regarding the topic you have just read? What would you like to learn next?
3. Most people are excellent “re-writers”
You probably are already aware that being a perfectionist may be counterproductive in the long run, and that would be true for your personal statement writing journey.
A lot of people tend to fall into the habit of procrastinating because they couldn’t craft the perfect opening sentence or paragraph. To help combat this, I would advise that you don’t worry too much about it first and just get started. Write down everything you hope to tell your reader and then worry about fixing the flow of sentences after that.
For my application, I wrote a lot about my Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), a book that I’ve read (Genome by Matt Ridley), and then draw links between them to talk about what I’ve learnt and what do I hope to learn about next.
What I think helped to give my application a boost
Before I dive a little deeper in this, a little disclaimer – I acknowledge that I have had some privileges that may not have been easily accessible for others and am grateful for those experiences as they have helped shaped my application.
To strengthen my application, I completed an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), which is basically an independent project that you can take to obtain a qualification that is equivalent to an AS Level subject. The project entails you picking a topic of your interest and then doing a lot of research around that subject area before writing up a 5000-word essay report detailing your findings and opinions about it. In some cases, you can opt for a 1000-word report coupled with a prototype/product instead, though that is more for students intending to pursue more technical-/vocational-related degrees such as Architecture. On top of that, you need to reflect upon your progress as you go along (by keeping a logbook) and are required to chair a 10- to 15-minute presentation at the end of your EPQ journey whilst
getting grilled completing a Q&A session right after that.
It might sound a little intimidating for some of you, but trust me, it really isn’t that bad! In case you happen to be curious, I wrote about the effectiveness of using the Sterile Insect Technique to curb the ever-increasing global prevalence of malaria for my EPQ.
I chose to do an EPQ mainly because it allowed me to lead my own research as well as learn about something that was not covered in the A Level syllabus. You could arguably say that one doesn’t need to take this qualification in order to do all these, but I digress. The whole idea was to challenge myself on improving my secondary research capabilities, formulate a well-structured report, practice academic writing (an extremely critical skill at university!) and referencing. Not to mention, taking an EPQ also pushed me to cultivate certain soft skills including communication and presentation skills, time management and organisation. Remember me mentioning about university grinding you earlier (not literally of course!) – university will constantly assess you on all these skills, so it is never too early to start practising!
Besides completing an EPQ, I also attended a number of academic events discussing biology-related topics, which were hosted by The Oxford & Cambridge Society Malaysia (I got to learn about these events through my college). At that point of time, I got the opportunity to learn a bit more about certain life sciences-related issues and the current research that is being done to address it, whilst getting the opportunity to speak to the presenters to gain a better insight about their thoughts about it. Attending these events briefly introduced me to the various fields of biology and biochemistry, thereby giving me a few prompts for further reading and research for my personal statement.
Some final food for thought
Having said that, this concludes the end of my article. I hope you managed to gather some useful insights that can give you a clearer direction on how to approach your UCAS applications.
A few last words from me would be to stay calm and try to enjoy the journey. This would be a time where you reflect on your past and go on your own mini adventure to find out more about your subject and area of interest. To a certain extent, it is really about following your heart, thinking about what kind of “legacy” you hope to leave behind and whether your chosen degree subject help you to achieve that. It really is some sort of self-discovery journey that helps you grow as a person, so take it as something positive and worth celebrating!
All the best there, you’ve got this.
Bianca is the author of a book called How to Write a Winning UCAS Personal Statement. You can find a snippet of the book below. You can purchase the book here.
Bianca is a BSc Biochemistry graduate from Imperial College London. She is the Co-Founder of a platform known as www.in2biochem.com and also the author of How to Write a Winning UCAS Personal Statement for STEM Subjects that is now available on Amazon. Overall, she is passionate about finding ways to bring a positive impact to her community, whether big or small. When she’s not tied to her work, Bianca is a big fan of jogging in huge parks, trying out different flavours of ice cream, watching TV series on Netflix, and exploring new places.