Although I applied for university only a few years ago, I remember the application process with terror. Unlike my academic studies, which built upon the work I had done the year before, every year, from the age of four, this was totally unchartered territory.
I ended up applying in my gap year, winning an unconditional place to Cambridge to study English Literature. That extra year, and the successes and failures of my friends, taught me a lot about what I needed to do to get into university.
In any given group of school-friends, the chances are that on paper there isn't a huge amount to distinguish between you. Within my own peers, many of us had similar exam grades, similar interests, and similar achievements. I guess that's a reason to sympathy with the universities - how are they meant to make sure they pick the right person for the course?
Many Jewish students attend courses at universities such as Nottingham, Birmingham, or Leeds, where interviews are unusual, and you are only known through your application. Therefore the personal statement is of the utmost importance. Science or maths-based subjects are more likely to accept students solely for their grades. But the potential and passion of a student in the arts or humanities is harder to decipher. Applying to study English, History, Politics, Philosophy, or Business? What makes you stand out?
The community-centric lifestyle of many young Jews is something that should immediately appeal to universities. Many Jewish teenagers spend summers of their life going on Jewish summer camp or engaging with youth work.
They become leaders, take Israel tour, or participate in some manner with the pastoral upbringing of others. The abilities and qualities acquired from both participating on and leading such schemes are endless and variable. Most will take away a whole host of skills, which their university needs to know about.
I remember lots of things from my own Israel tour experience with FZY (scarily long ago now) which made their way onto my personal statement: The experience of being away from home for so long, supporting my new friends, developing a trusting relationship with tour leaders, engaging in some often-tricky debates about the nature of religion or politics.
There are many experiences you have probably garnered from your synagogue, your community or even Bar or Batmitvah classes that you would not think of using in a personal statement. It is time to change that.
A number of tutoring agencies, largely based in West London, have pounced on the personal statement predicament and the wider trend of seeking outside help is becoming more and more prevalent. There's nothing wrong with that. Despite attending one of the major London single-sex private schools myself, I still saw tutors for GCSE subjects that I was struggling in.
A good education is incredibly competitive, and the crazy thing is that even high grades at A Level and an excellent work ethic can't promise you the university place you deserve. We spend our whole young lives working towards going to University, and to mess around with a well-known saying, no one wants a piece of cake with no icing on it.
With an exponential increase in high grades at AS and A Level, students, parents, and external tutors alike are realising the importance placed on the personal statement. Jewish students need to use the support, expertise, and resources available to maximise their opportunities.
Lauren Cooney is a Cambridge graduate. She runs a London-based company offering help with university applications. Email her on firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
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