University Tips Blog
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by Michelle Tang

Deputy Head of Widening Participation at the University of Cambridge

posted on 23 Jul '20

How your students can make their university application stand out through supercurriculars and wider reading

In my experience, students often struggle to get started with university applications, particularly with their personal statements where many will wait to be hit with inspiration for the perfect opening line! Yet, when asked “What makes a student stand out in a university application?” my answer will always be to forget about the perfect opening line and instead, focus on talking about all the wonderful supercurriculars activities they have done.

What are supercurriculars and how do they help university applications?

Supercurriculars are academic activities that students undertake outside of their mainstream lessons and which are related to the course or subject area they are looking to apply to. They enable students to go beyond the curriculum and encourage them to explore their specific interests.

There are many ways students can engage in supercurricular activity. For example, they could:

- Read books and journal articles
- Watch documentaries/films or other types of videos
- Listen to an educational podcast or radio show
- Do an online course such as a MOOC
- Enter a competition
- Visit museums and other attractions
- Undertake an independent academic project and learn new skills

Image of a student reading an e-book

Why are supercurricular activities important in a university application?

For students, supercurriculars are an excellent way for them to find out what university courses they might be interested in. After all, if they find a particular activity incredibly boring, then it might indicate that a given course is not best suited for them!

It also helps develop skills which will help prepare students for university-style learning which often requires more independence, as well as skills such as academic research, critical thinking and synthesising ideas. When universities look at applications, they will be trying to assess a students’ academic potential and seeing evidence of supercurricular engagement is one way students can demonstrate this.

How could I support my students in supercurricular activity?

As educators, whilst we want to encourage independence where possible, there are many ways we can still support the students we work with.

1. Signpost relevant, free activities and places to find resources

There are plenty of free and easily accessible resources online but young people can sometimes struggle to find the most relevant and reliable content. Having a teacher signpost reputable sites will help young people narrow down their search and be more focused in their approach.

Plus I find that students can often overlook more ‘old-fashioned’ resources such as local libraries or other local amenities such as museums. Some may find these unfamiliar spaces to be intimidating or will want a bit of support in learning how to navigate them. But importantly they are often free or low cost which will save students from forking out for expensive books!

(A note on MOOCs: many are free to access but charge for certification and in my opinion, there’s no reason for students to pay for that certification).

2. Encourage them to start early and to be organised

Students could be engaging in supercurriculars from a very early stage, before they’ve even decided what course they might want to study (as mentioned, it could even help them decide). Doing a little bit over a longer period is more likely to hold their attention and enable them to do the deep dives into the material that are required.

It’s a good idea for students to keep a record of their supercurricular activity. A basic log including titles, authors and some basic notes about the content would suffice.

When it comes to writing the personal statement, remind them that it’s better to pick a few things (perhaps 3 – 4) to focus on and write about. So they don’t need to worry about reading every book under the sun!

3. Promote active engagement with the material

Students will need to actively engage with the supercurricular resource as it won’t be enough to just state that they have read or watched something. To demonstrate that active engagement, we can encourage students to consider questions such as:

- What did you learn? What did you think about it?
- How does it relate to something you learnt at school?
- How did you solve the problem or how did you go about your project?
- Do you agree or disagree with the author? Could you find alternative or contrasting views?

Students should be writing in detail on their personal statement about the supercurricular activities, giving an overview of what they thought, their processes and what they found most interesting. For courses that interview, they may be asked about these activities so they could also practice talking about these topics in depth.

Final thoughts

Overall, supercurriculars are essential for students to demonstrate to universities that they are interested in the course, are willing to do extra work in their own time, have started to develop their understanding of the subject and that they are a highly motivated student who can work independently. And what student wouldn’t stand out after all of that?

Supercurriculars and wider reading - as a video..

Would you prefer to watch a video rather than read the blog? Check out Michelle's UniTaster Tuesday session below.

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