Posts tagged New To The Process
How To Use The Curriculum

What’s the purpose of this knowledge base?

We are creating the most comprehensive and most easily accessible one-stop guide to getting into your dream university on the planet. We want to take you, dear Reader, from being all confused about what studying abroad is or why you should even do it in the first place, to crafting and sending off the perfect application, and all the way to the point where you’ve secured funding and has packed your bags for your adventure.

If it’s still a bit messy around, it’s because it’s still under construction.

Why have we gone through the trouble?

Lack of information and sheer bewilderment is probably the most important factor stopping international students from getting accepted to their dream university. Sometimes it stops people before they even begin, because they don’t know where to start. Sometimes they miss deadlines, because they lose the overview. Sometimes very smart people get rejected because they didn’t prepare in the best possible way. Personally, I never thought of going to Oxford before I was rejected by a Danish university. Randomly, travelling in Kenya in the gap year that followed my rejection, I met an Oxford student while climbing Mt. Kenya, who inspired me to apply and helped me with my application. It really doesn’t have to be that random. We’re here to change that.

This knowledge base is written by experts – students, who have been just as confused as you might be right now and who care deeply about equal access to universities. Their knowledge is structured into three sections:

  • How to choose a university
  • How to get in
  • What to do after you get an offer

Further to the information, we are also collecting personal stories and university profiles written by our mentors, to show you that all of us are just people as well, no need to be scared.

  • University profiles
  • Subject Guides
  • Mentors’ Stories

Most of our content applicable to applicants from any and all countries, but some of it is country specific. We currently have mentor networks in Armenia, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Italy, The Netherlands, Pakistan, Poland, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sri Lanka and Sweden. (January 2017)

If you’d like to follow our knowledge base as it grows, sign up to our newsletter, where we’ll provide you with admissions tips, university profiles, stories of students and everything else you need to make your dream reality.

If you have a very general question that others might wonder about too that is not covered by our knowledge base – or you’re a student who would like to write something for us, please email with suggestions for new entries!

How to write a convincing Personal Statement (UK)

The personal statement is the part of the UCAS application that many prospective students find most nerve-wracking. It’s just a brief introduction of yourself and your interests. Follow the steps in this guide and you’ll be well on your way to success.

Does it even matter?

Will the universities even read it, or is just a trivial UCAS requirement that people stress unnecessarily about? Our experience is that some universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, place an emphasis on the pre-interview tests and use the personal statement primarily as an inspiration for interview questions. Universities that rely on fewer inputs may place a greater emphasis on the statement, because it helps to signal your interest in the subject and your command of English.


Don’t leave the personal statement to the last minute. In his book “On Writing”, Stephen King recommends budding authors to leave their manuscript in a drawer for at least six weeks before they edit it.

“With six weeks’ worth of recuperation time, you’ll also be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development. And listen–if you spot a few of these big holes, you are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat up on yourself. Screw-ups happen to the best of us.”

Six weeks is a bit excessive for something as short as a one-page reflection on your interests, but we recommend that you allow yourself enough time to let the statement sit in your drawer for about two weeks before having a second look. With the deadline for Oxford, Cambridge, medicine, and veterinary medicine on the 15th of October, aim to have the first draft done before the 1st of October.

From the other point of view, don’t start your statement too early. You’ll end up going through 20 drafts with minor differences that no one but you will appreciate. If you live by Parkinson’s Law, you’ll recall that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”: If you have two weeks to complete an assignment, you’ll manage in two weeks. If it’s due tonight, then by some mystical force of nature, you’ll get it done in a matter of hours. The point is not to leave the statement for the last minute, but to realise that you can produce a high-quality statement in a short period time through the power – and fear – of the clear and imminent of deadline.


Before you start writing, get a blank piece of paper to flesh out some ideas as to what you want to include in your statement. The UCAS “mindmap” can be a good place to start, although with the minor edit that work history is not relevant for the academically focused universities, so don’t worry about it, unless it has some relevance to the subject you’re applying for.

In particular, focus on the material you’ve studied outside school that’s relevant to the course you’re applying for: Books, articles, documentaries, and the like. If you’re wondering “what kind of books?”, don’t think it has to be heavy-duty academic textbooks. If you’re applying for economics, don’t list Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” but something simple and inviting that you’ve enjoyed: Tim Harford’s “The Undercover Economist”, Levitt & Dubner’s “Freakonomics”, or an article you read in the Economist. Don’t judge too much in this process: Just dump everything onto the paper.


Start with a strong opening sentence. No cliches like “I’ve always wanted to study biochemistry” (no, you haven’t), a quotes like “Stephen Hawking once said ‘Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.'”, or a sweeping statement like “Philosophy is the study of choice” (it isn’t)

In the first paragraph, explain your interest in the subject. Maybe you’ve studied physics for most of your secondary education and only recently acquired an interest in English literature?

Then, as soon as it makes sense in your statement, start providing evidence for your interest. You’ll often hear the advice “Show, don’t tell” and it’s worth being repeated many times. It’s the difference between walking up to someone on the street and telling them “I am a rock star” versus showing up on a stage with a guitar and actually being a rock star — only one will truly impress.

Don’t say that you’ve read a book by Bernanke or Krugman and that you liked it or that it resonated with you. Point to specific arguments that you liked or disagreed with: “Krugman argues that X, which I found curious because I read in the Economist that Y, which made me think that … “, implicitly showing that you care about these issues and can think in those terms.

You’re also welcome to draw on specific examples from your school work, as long as you can show that it’s something you’ve given extra thought.

As a rule of thumb, you want to provide a minimum of two examples of your interest in the course. It’s okay to put down clicheed examples — the pop books you’ll find in an airport — as long as you include some original thoughts in your commentary.

Aim to keep at least 80% of the statement focused on the academic aspects and no more than 20% on so-called extracurricular activities. The 20% would, ideally, show that you have skills that are indirectly useful for studying, such as good time mangement skills.

Finish strong, but don’t feel the need to wrap up (“In summary, I’ve read X, Y, and Z”)

Tips and tricks

  • The statement can only be 4000 characters or 47 lines of text (including spaces and blank lines). This is roughly 600 words long, so keep the content relevant and the style short and simple.
  • Don’t copy from other’s statements. UCAS uses plagiariasm software and can be quite diabolical in turning down applications based on this. A 2011 Telegraph article shows, with some humour, why you really would want to keep it original.
  • Avoid big and fancy words: Put your statement through the Hemingway web app and force yourself to write as minimalistically as possible.
  • Don’t write anything cringy. No deeply personal stories — keep it relevant

Further reading

Marcus Henglein, 18 May 2016

Applying to top UK universities: tips for a successful application

Your first steps to studying at UK’s best universities

Studying abroad is a great adventure and a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will widen your horizons and grant you thousands of new possibilities. Here, we will outline the very basics of applying to study in the United Kingdom, in particular its top universities, so you can learn what the overall process looks like.

What universities are out there?

You must have heard of Oxford and Cambridge, the most renowned universities in the UK and Europe. While they may sound mythical at first, they are actually in your reach and would always devote a lot of time to assess your application, no matter what your background is. They view each candidate as a separate case and care a lot about your academic potential, far more than about other things such as grades or qualifications. If you are a naturally curious person with a lively interest in your subject, then you have a very good shot!

Oxford and Cambridge share a lot of similarities. They use the famous tutorial system so that each student is assigned a tutor that guides and mentors him on a very individual basis. They are both stunningly beautiful and permeated with bizarre traditions. They use the college system so that each student is assigned to their ‘house’, just like in Harry Potter, in which they live, eat and sleep, becoming a part of a family-like community. They are both crazy about their sports, most notably rowing, and would meet each year to compete in countless disciplines. And, most importantly, they are both amazing places to spend your initial years of adolescence while having great fun, meeting inspirational people and developing yourself academically, all at once.


If you prefer the atmosphere of a great, vibrant metropolis, studying in London may be your thing. Here, you may be considering London School of Economics or University College London, depending on the course you are interested in. The experience will be much different, less mythical and more urban than in Oxford or Cambridge – but it doesn’t mean it will be less exciting!

How the application system works

The whole application process is centralized and officially hosted by UCAS platform. You need to register by filling in a couple of forms and then you are good to go!. Everything you do regarding your application will be processed by UCAS. After you have registered, you can start selecting universities and courses. Up to five can be chosen, but Oxford and Cambridge cannot be picked at the same time – so you’ll have to make up your mind! It is generally a good idea to apply to more than one university, as they all receive the same application pack – it is a very small fuss for a higher chance of success.

Then, you will have to write a personal statement, which is a 4.000 characters long letter describing your motivations and key achievements. The purpose of the personal statement is to articulate to your university that you are the perfect candidate with lots of academic potential and to assure them that you will not squander the chance if you are successful. . You will also need to ask your teacher for your predicted grades and for a reference letter.

Once your PS is written, referee contacted and grades’ predictions uploaded around early October, it is the time to wait. For some universities (like LSE or UCL) that would be the end of the journey – for Oxford and Cambridge, however, this is just the beginning, so you will have many more opportunities to prove your academic potential in the subsequent steps of the process.

Next in line would be the aptitude tests, for Oxford usually written in November. Their purpose is to check your ability to think on your feet and solve problems you have not encountered before – but with proper preparation they should not be a problem. Many social sciences subjects would take the famous TSA test, but each course may have its own exam. The test result has a considerable impact regarding getting to further stages, but is not that important later on.

After the test comes the invitation to the interview – so that means you are flying to the UK! This is easily the most exciting part of the recruitment process and usually happens in early December. You will get to meet your tutors and show them in person that they would actually enjoy teaching you for the upcoming three years. You will get to see your dream university over a few days of fully funded accommodation, meet like-minded peers and dine in straight-from-Harry-Potter dining hall for free! Interviews are a great experience, but can seem stressful beforehand – make sure you come prepared! Most candidates have one to three 30-minute interviews and spend about 3-5 days enjoying their future colleges.

You will get your offers from Oxford or Cambridge around early January. The system here may be different than in your home country: Once you get an offer, you are not automatically a student. The offer will give you certain conditions that you have to meet to be enrolled – usually sitting a language certificate and achieving a proper A-Levels/IB/national exam score, based on what they think you are capable of achieving. The point of this is not to keep you idle and complacent once you have secured a place at a world best university, so make sure that you do not fail the final sprint – the vast majority of people don’t, so no need to worry.

The journey is long but exciting and rewarding! For your convenience, this is the timeline of all the important deadlines

Jakub Labun, 18 May 2016

How to study for your English Certificate

If you are a non-native speaker and are planning on applying to a University in the UK or US, you will most likely have to submit a language certification as part of your application.

 TOEFL, IELTS, CAE, CPE, they are all quite similar: They consist of a set of standardised questions and tasks that you have to complete, so regardless of which exam you take. It goes without saying that you need a good level of English, but here are a few tips to help you prepare:

  1. Start early
    Give yourself the time to prepare well. Start with a practice test to see where you stand and which areas you need to work on most.
  2. Practice
    There is no secret recipe for doing well in these exams. After doing a number of past exams and exercises in books, you will start to recognise that there are only a handful types of questions and you will become familiar with the way they are phrased. This is crucial. I worked through my entire book and did every exercise, checked it and took notes of words or idioms I was unfamiliar with.
  3. Master time management
    You have a limited amount of time to complete all the exercises, so whenever you practice do it under exam conditions. That means timing yourself, strictly not using your phone or computer to look something up and learn to find around things that you just cannot remember.
  4. Go above and beyond
    Learning a language is a lengthy process, you will need to invest a lot of time into it, but it should be fun! Reading helps tremendously, you can also listen to audiobooks or the news to soak up the intonation and come to grips with accents. The internet is your friend.

Don’t worry if that sounds stressful, many people have done it before and if you are well organised and practice, get exposure and keep your head cool during the exam, you should not have to worry.

Good luck!

Hannah Niese, 02 Mar 2017

English language requirements: IELTS, TOEFL, CAE or CPE, which one to take?

Prepare your English for university

Naturally, all universities in the English-speaking world expect their candidates to have an excellent level of English. But please don’t freak out – this doesn’t mean you need to write and speak like a native, especially if you never really had a chance to have English as your language of instruction at school at any stage.

This article doesn’t discuss language requirements for GCSEs, International Baccalaureate (IB), or European Baccalaureate (EB). All these diplomas are not language certificates per se and are usually fully taught in English. For instance, if you studied at a British school or did an IB programme for at least 2 years prior to the start date of your university course, you wouldn’t be obliged to sit language certificates. In order to be sure about your language waiver, you should always double check specific language requirements on your chosen university’s website.

This article will give you a brief overview of the most popular language testing systems available: IELTS, TOEFL (in its online and paper forms), and Cambridge English exams (CAE and CPE). We also prepared a table of minimal requirements for English at the best universities in the UK and some study tips.



By and large, it is the most popular standardised test of English. IELTS stands for International English Language Testing System and is jointly run by the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia, and Cambridge English Language Assessment. There are two main types of IELTS: Academic and General Training. For those who apply for higher education the IELTS Academic exam is a must.

Format: IELTS is very straightforward. Total time is less than less than 4 hours. You sit in four main language parts: listening (4 recordings in 30 min), reading (40 questions in 60 min), writing (2 tasks in 60 min), and speaking (11-14 min with an examiner). In contrast to TOEFL, the speaking part is conducted face-to-face with a certified examiner.

Scoring: IELTS results are reported on a 9-band scale with 1 (which literally means no user of language) to 9 (an expert user of language, an equivalent of the C2 level).

Results: IELTS guarantees the evaluation within 13 days. You can view the results online.

Our advice: Please set up the exam dates in advance so you don’t miss a chance to sit the exam before or during the summer prior to the start of your course. We’d suggest not leaving it to the last minute. What if you missed your condition and have no other time to re-sit the exam?

Being a natural selection for students applying to UK universities, it is very likely you can enrol for the IELTS certificate with a local branch of British Council in your country. They organise IELTS examination dates a couple of times per year (depending on the branch).

For more details consult the IELTS website.


TOEFL is offered as an internet-based test (TOEFL IBT) taken in numerous centres all around the globe. It stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language. It is a trademark exam of a private non-profit from the US: Educational Testing Service (ETS).

Format: The exam takes approx. 4 hours and consists of 4 components (reading, listening, speaking, writing). During the whole test you only interact with a computer; you read and hear texts and respond to multiple-choice questions. In the speaking part, your voice is recorded and sent to a marker. There is also a paper version of the same test but the internet-based test is far more popular among students.

Scoring: Each of the 4 components is graded with up to 30 points. The total number of points is – Sherlock Holmes found it out for us – 120!

Results: It takes several weeks after the test for the results to arrive.

Our advice: TOEFL is more popular amongst those applying to the US colleges. EF, a company that specialises in language courses all around the globe, points out that TOEFL is a more logical option for students who want to pursue their studies in the US or Canada.

For more details consult the TOEFL website.



Both exams are organised by Cambridge English Language Assessment (formerly known as the University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations). The Certificate in Advanced English (CAE) is set at a high C1-C2 level (=IELTS 6.5-8.0). The Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE) is the most advanced exam and is ranked at C2 (well above the TOEFL scale and equivalent to IELTS >8.0). In contrast to many other certificates, the Cambridge certificates do not expire.

Format: The tests are structured in a similar way to IELTS and TOEFL: writing, listening, speaking, and reading, though an important aspect of these certificates is the use of English and a focus on grammar. The first (reading and use of English) and second parts (writing) take 1h 30 minutes each, listening lasts 40min, and speaking 15min. Interestingly, the updated speaking test is taken face to face, with 2 candidates and 2 examiners to make sure the conversation measures a natural ability of communicating in English.

Scoring: The scale illustrates performance across a wide range of language ability. In CAE and CPE, scoring between 200-210 refers to a grade A (C2 level). A candidate whose score is between 193 and 199 receives a grade B. A grade C (which is still considered as Level C1) is given to scores between 180 and 192.

Results: The statement is released online, approximately 4-6 weeks after the paper-based exam and 2-3 weeks for computer-based exams.

Our advice: Both tests are very well recognised and, unlike others, do not expire which makes them particularly prestigious qualifications. But you should rethink sitting these tests in case you don’t plan to apply for the UK, as these exams really require a lot of preparation of your side. Also, unless you feel very confident in your English (and we’re talking about close-to-native skills), you should not take CPE without serious preparation.


Minimum requirements at UK universities

We’ve gone through language requirements of the most competitive universities in the UK. The table below summarises the minimum requirements for non-native speakers of English. Please consult the chosen department as some courses might slightly differ. For instance, we expect that language requirements for studying English Literature or History are higher than Engineering.


Other universities might have similar or lower expectations. For your convenience we’ve attached the links to language requirements at some selected universities:

Michal Ratynski, 02 Mar 2017

When to start university applications

The most frequent question we get when doing workshops for high schoolers is: ‘when do I have to start working on my university application?’ The easy answer to this question is 3-6 months before the deadline. That’s approximately the time it takes to get an overview of the admissions process, find out what universities are looking for, write your personal essays/statements, prepare for tests, get references, etc. The right answer, however, is that thinking about this question as a matter of number of months is the wrong mindset.

It is definitely possible to “play” the admissions system; sign-up for a gazillion extra curricular activities if you are applying in the US, or play the ‘grades game’ to impress your high school teachers if you are applying to UK universities. Most students at the top universities have done this to some extent, but the fact remains that the best way to maximise your chances of getting into your dream universities is to dedicate time and effort to your academic passions.

Although there are many tedious aspects of university applications, the process becomes significantly easier if it follows naturally from being passionate about what you want to study. If you like maths, then don’t restrict yourself to textbooks. If you are interested in studying literature, then read (a lot of) books. It sounds almost banal, but the single most important element in your university application is to be truly curious and dedicated to becoming better at what you want to study.
What we’re getting at here is that creating a successful application to a top university does not consist (merely) of a set of robotic motions. It is about dedicating your time to becoming an applicant worthy of attending a top university – whether this means becoming really good at some extra curricular activity or being insightful about the subject you’re applying for. It also helps if you can find the school you really want to attend and start reading about the quirky, fun aspects of life there: personally, this made me extra motivated to spend that extra hour fine-tuning my personal statement. None of this starts some arbitrary number of months before the deadline, it starts as soon as you discover your passions.

What does this mean for you if you don’t know exactly what you want to study? If you’re 1-2 years away from applying, there’s a significant chance that you’re not quite sure yet. Don’t panic – but know that the best you thing you can do then is to start finding out. The best way to do find out what you really enjoy is to dive deep into the subjects that seem the most interesting. Watch TED Talks, read outside your school curriculum, find inspiration in your preferred university’s ‘pre-reading list’ for that course. Plunge into different subjects, be aware of how much you enjoy it. Follow the trails you find most interesting. Once you start reading something that your teacher doesn’t care if you read or not, it will be much clearer if you enjoy it or not. If you can’t focus for the length of a TED talk, there’s a good chance you won’t enjoy spending thousands of hours on it during university. If you really aren’t sure, US colleges may the be better choice for you because that way you don’t have to choose a major straight away.

If you do know what you want to study, get started. Work hard, but ensure you don’t burn out – many good students do nowadays. Spend your spare time in ways you truly enjoy but also make an attractive candidate. Have fun and don’t get too caught up in the “game” of admissions, where you try to model yourself to fit an admissions officer’s ideal candidate. If you are the type who brings psychology books on the Summer vacation with your parents, you will soon discover that this passion is what will really distinguish yourself from the other applicants.

Steven Yew, 18 May 2016