It takes more than stellar grades to get into a top university in the UK. Every year, tens of thousands of academically gifted students apply with straight As and high GPAs, yet every year many still end their admissions cycle with disappointing outcomes.
Universities are spoiled for choice as far as academic ability is concerned. While your grades are certainly an important factor in the admissions process, universities want to admit students who display genuine passion about their subject, and who demonstrate the ability to be independent learners (i.e you are able to learn and develop your intellectual passions outside of the classroom).
A term that is often bandied about during the admissions process is ‘extra-curricular’. The word essentially refers to activities that you undertake outside of your regular school curriculum, and could encompass anything from participating in debate tournaments, to creating a financial literacy organization, or even becoming the captain of your basketball team.
If you plan to apply to the US, these are an incredibly important component of your application.
On the other hand, universities in the UK shine a spotlight on super curriculars, the specific types of extracurriculars that are focused on furthering your academic interests in particular, whether they may draw from a concept covered in class that you were eager to learn more about, or display a side of your intellectual curiosity that exists beyond just a classroom setting.These could encompass starting your own home-based business if you are interested in studying Economics or Management, shadowing a doctor if you want to study Medicine, or leading your school’s MUN club if you’re looking at the Humanities.
There are a few key motivations behind the UKs emphasis on super curriculars.
Motivation and Interest
For one, when you attend university in the UK, you commit yourself to one particular course for the duration of your undergraduate study. Admissions tutors want to make sure that you’re truly passionate about your intended course, and providing evidence that supports your interest is a positive sign.
Demonstrating an independent approach to learning
Top universities in the UK want students who are self-motivated, and demonstrate the desire to consistently research and explore topics that relate to their course or interests.
Furthermore, admission tutors will be keenly interested in how you respond to academic stimuli, and how you scratch the proverbial itch when it comes to areas that pique your interest.
After all, it's likely that if you’re already exploring these topics in high school, you would continue to do so, at a deeper level, in college when granted more resources and surrounded by like minded peers.
Evidence for your personal statement
Finally, your super curricular activities will form the crux of your personal statement, providing evidence for any insights gained from your bevy of experiences.
There are several ways of doing this, of course. Oxford’s Engineering faculty, for instance, encourages applicants to share hobbies or activities that show off their love for engineering, whether they’ve built a robot, learned how to program, sought out work experience, or even attended a university level summer course.
The super curricular activities you list can be academic, professional, or community-facing, so long as you are able to effectively articulate what it is you enjoy about the activity, outline the ideas and principles you learned through the experience, as well as how the activity links back to your interest in your intended course, as well as your future ambitions.
But I don’t have many super curriculars - is it too late for me?
If you’re in the year of your application and it's too late for you to engage in a sustained activity there’s no need to fret! Instead, you can spend some time exploring the old-fashioned way: reading seminal books and articles to understand the general trend of discourse in your field, before engaging in a (controlled) descent down a rabbit hole of a topic that stands out to you the most.
Things that you read, watch, and listen to are still super curricular activities that make for valid entries in any personal statement - as long as you have devent reflections about such experiences. You will have to make sure to know your stuff, for if you’re invited for an interview, it's likely that the interviewer will use content from your own personal statement as a launching pad for their questions.
Whether you’re a few years out from your applications, or will be getting your personal statement in this cycle, make sure to reflect upon your readings and activities, and try to find someone to discuss your insights with - this will only help grant different perspectives on the topics or issues you may deal with, and give you fantastic practice for any interviews that may come down the road!