University Application Strategy

Our tailored Extension Reading Series gives you the tools to critically engage with your subject

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Bonas MacFarlane’s Director of University Admissions, James Higgins, offers advice to GCSE and A Level students who are looking ahead to the next stage of their education. 

Choosing your degree

Choosing the right course for university can be a particularly stressful challenge for students. It is often the first time they are given control over what feels like a life-defining decision with an infinite number of choices – 37000+ to get somewhere close to the number of UK courses available. Lockdown offers a singular benefit: students now find themselves with a great deal of spare time. This time can be well spent if students make an effort to carefully consider all the possible options.

What lies at the heart of choosing the right course is finding an area of study that the student has a real interest in. As I put it, I want to find something that causes a reaction in them. Students often feel pressure to pick something related to a future career but this is only the correct way to pick a degree for a small number of professional fields. Let’s address this method first…

  • Future career… if that career is Medicine, Dentistry, Veterinary Science, Engineering (and possibly Architecture). 

There will be a few other instances where it is necessary to base your decision on career but the main ones are covered here. The reality is that most graduate jobs do not specify a particular degree that is required to apply to their organisations. Students need to look at The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers so that they can begin to understand this.

  • A Levels

Students may have a clear favourite subject that they are already studying or have studied. What I would urge them to do is to think a little more specifically about exactly what they do and don’t enjoy in each subject area. They may want to be a little more granular in their subject choice – so rather than studying English, a student might specialise in Literature, or Creative Writing, or Linguistics or Journalism… 

  • Heroes/Villains

This refers to my earlier point. We want to encourage students to notice what causes a reaction in them. This will get them to think outside the box to reveal subjects that they might not have considered for university before. 

Can they think of famous people that they admire and what that might inspire them to  study? Likewise, public figures that they dislike might also give rise to a course choice. I often use the example that thinking of Donald Trump might push me to consider a degree in Politics, Climate Change, Human Rights… what we want is a feeling to be caused in the student and for them to link that to a potential study area. 

  • Outside Interests

This is about getting students to reflect on how they spend their time when they’re not doing obligatory tasks. When they are not completing schoolwork, communicating with friends or doing chores, what are they up to? What kinds of documentaries do they watch, what sort of books do they read, what are they drawn to watch on Youtube, what do they do outside the house?

  •  Read, read, read, and read some more

It is no coincidence that the lexicon permits us to say “I’m going to Oxford to read Classics”, or to read Mathematics or to read Medicine. There is a lot of reading to be done at university no matter the discipline. If a student cannot engage in reading around their subject in the few months running up to application, they might need to reconsider studying the subject for three or four years during their degree. Students should read around the subject to check for genuine interest – the added benefit is that this is the single best way to become a strong applicant for the very best courses. 

A final note…

It is not easy for a student to pick their course and universities. Ultimately, they will begin to understand that they are not bound by this decision forevermore. Their life is unlikely to be linear and this should be embraced. There are many routes that they can take on this journey that may or may not lead to what they think is the destination. Students need to read and reflect on what holds their interest. 

How to approach the UCAS personal statement

The personal statement is the key part of the UK university application process. I’m not suggesting that grades aren’t important – grades allow the student to be part of the conversation. But it is the personal statement that will allow them to stand out from the crowd. 

It is perhaps the crucial nature of the personal statement that strikes most fear into a high number of applicants. However, if students have dedicated themselves to the process of reflecting on their interests and passions, they will find the drafting of their statement much easier. 

The Four Ideas to include in the Personal Statement

I write the four ideas rather than paragraphs because I don’t want to be too prescriptive with the way in which the student expresses themselves – after all it is a personal statement. But students must understand how it is personal. It is not in the sense that the university wants to hear all about their personality but rather about the student’s personal relationship with the subject to which they are applying.

1) Where does the interest come from? What was the spark?

This is usually the idea that students find most difficult to define. The advice here is that students do not have to attempt to make this more profound than it is. It could be that they’ve determined their degree choice through reading during the past 6 months – so they should describe that process. It might simply be that it’s the subject that’s captivated them most since their GCSEs. It might have been a cool science experiment in Year 8, reading an article about Steve Jobs or seeing Dippy the Dinosaur at the Natural History museum. We need to understand what prompted the student to want to explore it further. 

2) How have they demonstrated that interest?

Primarily this will be demonstrated through the student’s reading. We will want them to refer to specific texts and ideas and then to engage with those ideas critically. What do they have to say about an idea expounded by an author? What theories have they read that counter the idea? Finally, where do they come down on the issue?

3) Name a specific area of interest

Students should point to something specific (either taught in one of their current courses or discovered whilst reading) that they would like to learn more about. They can use this to grab the attention of a particular university. If, for example, Manchester focuses on a certain field that other universities are not so well renowned for and the student expresses that they have a desire to learn more about this topic, it could serve to pique the interest of Manchester. 

4) Extracurriculars

The personal statement and the application to apply to the UK’s most elite institutions is overwhelmingly an academic endeavour – as is the experience of studying at one of these famous institutions. 

If a student elects to write about an extracurricular interest, it would be advisable that this is closely related to the student’s chosen discipline or that it is, in some way, demonstrative of their academic prowess. It would have to be quite compelling if the activity or experience was not directly connected with the student’s field of study. 

And a word on style:

Precise language and concise expression should be the applicant’s goal. Students should be clear that they know the meaning of each word used in their personal statement and that each sentence communicates exactly the intended message. Students should also aim to be as economical with their use of language as possible. It will lead to a clearer and more impactful personal statement. 

What can GCSE and A Level students do to increase their chances of success?

  • Understand cognitive bias

Cognitive bias refers to you being able, in some small way, to still have an impact on your grades. Teachers are human (even though you’ve probably questioned it at points!) and their impression of you in the final weeks as they make their decisions on what grade you will be awarded will have some influence.  So keep working and sustain positive interactions with them whenever possible.

  • Pick up a new habit or discipline

Once it is clear that you have done as much as you can to positively influence your grades, forget about them and focus on what’s next for you. Add a new skill, habit or discipline to your daily routine. 

My key bit of advice here is to set the bar low in terms of the time you can commit to this each day. This will get you started and create momentum. 

Try to carry out the new discipline at the same time each day or attach it to a pre-existing habit – e.g. straight after lunch go for a fifteen minute walk, come back in and write a reflection on how your morning went and what your focus is for the afternoon. 

  • Receive your final grades and then deal with that reality

Results days remain the same:

GCSE – 20th August

A Level – 13th August

IB – 6th July

In most cases, I don’t think that students should consider sitting exams in the autumn or next summer.

GCSE students:

Your focus here is ensuring you get to your next step – for many of you that will be A Levels or IB. So long as you are accepted on to the courses you are aiming for that is probably enough. If you score less than 6/7s in English, Maths or subjects related to the degree that you want to study, then you might want to consider resits. 

A Level and IB students:

If things don’t go to plan, you will enter Clearing. The key message for Clearing is don’t panic! It is a fluid situation and remember, it is not a single one-day event.

Only accept an offer that you feel is right for you. If you’re not absolutely certain, take at least four or five days to look at different options as the picture changes each day. Suitable places do not necessarily become available on the first day of Clearing as it takes time for all students to go through the process of receiving grades and accepting their places. 

If you are interested in speaking with James or another member of Bonas MacFarlane’s Higher Education Team to gain further insight into university admissions, please contact us via our website: https://www.bonasmacfarlane.co.uk/en/universities

Plenty of reasons to send your children to Camp Bonas this summer

It’s screen-free!

With over half of all 10-year olds owning a smartphone, parents are finding screen time battles more and more of an issue, especially in the school holidays.

Camp Bonas is a brand new kids’ holiday camp offering a complete tech-free experience. This UK camp gives kids valuable time-out, allowing children to re-wild their minds whilst they learn through new hands-on experiences at this fantastic rural escape.

Camp Bonas is situated deep in the English countryside amidst seventy acres of rolling meadows and woodland in the Quantuck Hills. The retreat welcomes campers aged 8-13, where they’ll learn to look after themselves through real-life adventure.

Getting your kids outdoors

Whatever you do, don’t waste the summer in London! According to a recent study, 75% of UK children have less time outdoors than prison inmates.

Whilst the idea of using nature to improve mental and emotional wellbeing has existed for millennia, growing levels of research have confirmed how beneficial a natural environment is for the mind.

A new wave of therapy called eco-therapy has pushed research towards the mental health and educational benefits of immersing children in a rural setting. Being in the outdoors has been proven to reduce anger, fear, and stress, as well as boosting physical fitness, emotional wellbeing and academic performance.

Reconnecting with nature

According to new research by the RSPB, only 1 in 5 children have a ‘connection to nature’. It’s a sad fact that time spent playing outdoors has halved in just one generation. The great thing about camp is that it allows children to reconnect, and develop an interest in the great outdoors.

Camp Bonas makes sure all campers get the rest they need to be able to enjoy the week-long outdoor adventure. With cosy wooden lodges and the opportunity to camp under canvas towards the end of the week, your children will enjoy a complete back-to-nature experience.

The camps take place at a dedicated outdoor activity centre on Lydeard Farm, run by Colonel Michael Kingscote, an acclaimed provider of leadership and outward-bound training. Michael and his wife have been running courses for over 22 years. The farm has purpose-built cabins, a field kitchen, outdoor classroom and other facilities that allow the courses to continue whatever the weather.

Stargazing

In London and other urban areas, our views of the stars are obscured by artificial light, and believe it or not, some London children have never seen our own galaxy. Camp Bonas is set inside a dark-sky reserve, where the views of the milky-way are awe-inspiring. Stargazing while eating toasted marshmallows around the camp fire sounds like the perfect summer evening to us.

Getting children active

It can be a challenge for kids to engage in enough daily activity. This can be due to demands at school, a feeling among some kids that they aren’t good at sports, a lack of active role models, and busy working families.

Even when kids do have the time and the desire to be active, parents may not feel comfortable letting them freely roam within towns and cities. All of which limits their opportunities to lead fully active lifestyles.

Camp Bonas itinerary

The guys at Camp Bonas know that physically active kids are more likely to be motivated, focused, and successful in school. That’s why physical activity is at the heart of the camp’s itinerary, with a week jam-packed full of countryside adventure.

There are lessons in yoga, fire making, bushcraft and raft building, map and compass reading, as well as drama, poetry, and creative writing.

Health benefits of an active outdoor lifestyle

Mastering physical skills in an outdoor setting will help your child build confidence, as well as reaping huge health benefits.

Encouraging your child to develop a love for the outdoors will help them build strong muscles and bones, enjoy better sleep, and a positive outlook on life. Active children benefit from being a healthier weight, with a decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Harness the power of experiential learning

Camp Bonas harnesses the power of experiential learning (the process of learning through reflection on doing) in a way that no other camp does. Not only does their programme offer a huge range of new and hands-on activities, but built into the week are chances of creative reflection, journaling and story writing based upon the experience of the week.

The Camp Bonas programme has been inspired by popular children’s books. Using their surroundings to stimulate the imagination, campers can engage with professional instructors in creative writing, the performing arts, and outward-bound training, giving students their very own adventure stories.

Personal development, social skills and school life

Holiday camp is a time for discovery and making special life memories. It’s a truly unique opportunity to branch out on an adventure with other children.

Nurturing self-esteem, and developing confidence and independence with the chance to learn new skills is at the forefront of life at Camp Bonas. Your child will make new friendships and form special bonds while completing tasks, undertaking activities and working as a team. The social skills learned through camp life will help your child navigate their way through their teens and set them up for later life.

Reports show that it’s so important to work with children on their physical/emotional and social/intellectual well-being. For some campers, this will be the first time they have had an extended stay away from home, allowing them a perfect opportunity to test out boarding and develop independence vital for success at senior school.

Camp Bonas is a transformational experience. With a new peer group to muck in with, children will enjoy a perfect balance between having fun and being on the most exciting adventure, as well as building on their character and resilience. Their time at Camp Bonas will give them something fantastic to discuss at school interviews.

10 years of Bonas MacFarlane Art

Examples of students work

This year marks ten years since I attended a group interview in Notting Hill for a tuition position with Bonas MacFarlane. As the coronavirus lockdown enters another week and its grip brings out the nostalgic, contemplative side in us, it seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on my experience of working for Bonas MacFarlane and the emergence of ‘Bonas MacFarlane Art’.

My CV showed that my prior teaching experience had been primarily based in adult education. Teaching life drawing classes had led to me being recommended to Cubitt Arts, the renowned art studio complex in Islington. As a condition of their charitable status, Cubitt maintained an educational outreach programme delivering innovative art classes to local senior residents. My years in adult education were richly gratifying, showing people with a lifetime of experiences that through art there was always something new to be discovered. I still receive cards from Doug, a fine gentleman who had spent his career captaining large cargo ships, updating me with his latest watercolour paintings of boats and seascapes. It was in that environment that I learned how to structure classes, how to move between what was planned and what emerged spontaneously, how to be in turns encouraging and challenging, and how to communicate a project’s technical and conceptual aspects with clarity. It was also where it became clear to me how deeply education could affect a person’s sense of purpose and self-esteem, and that teaching art was rather more than ‘just a job’.

Despite those years of experience, it was the idea of teaching students in the early stages of their education on a one to one basis that gave rise to my curiosity that day in Notting Hill. I left the interview with a renewed resolve, and spurred on by their genuine passion for education and enthusiasm for looking into new ways of teaching art, I emailed them that very evening with a list of ideas for art tuition and events. Like many tutors I had approached several agencies, and like many art tutors I had been repeatedly told that they would keep my details on file but there wasn’t much demand for ‘art tutors’. Unlike the other agencies, Bonas Macfarlane were immediately encouraging and receptive to my ideas for finding and supporting more art clients rather than accepting that art was an overlooked subject. A few weeks later I would find myself on a train to Heathrow airport for a series of sessions in a hotel conference room with my first client, a student visiting from Jeddah preparing for art scholarship applications. And so began my work with Bonas MacFarlane.

There’s a very particular dynamic to working with someone one to one. Clearly you can’t talk non-stop with someone for two hours, and you can’t move your attention around the room as you can when teaching a group. Art needs to be instructive, but you also need to allow pockets of exploration and ‘doing’ to open up around your guidance so that the student can put your words into practice, and allow the materials to reveal their possibilities directly to the student. With their attention wholly focused on the end of their paintbrush you can’t simply sit back and watch, or provide a running commentary in the manner of a TV sports commentator. Those early years in tuition where all about developing a feel for the movement within a session between guidance, co-making, assisting, switching the focus to the ideas, then to the materials, knowing when to let the student be and when they needed a boost of energy or inspiration, and all the while maintaining an atmosphere conducive to being creative and playful, yet serious and focused. Visiting clients’ homes or hotels would take me the length and breadth of London and the surrounding counties and gave rise to an encyclopaedic knowledge of London’s art shop locations where materials could be picked up en-route at short notice (not to mention the best cafes to sit and collect your thoughts over a good coffee between sessions).

Every client has a completely unique story. Art and a person’s creativity are deeply woven into their personality, and helping young people discover the direction of their artistic journey continues to be an incredibly rewarding experience. From the initial consultation to seeing them burst with joy when they gain a place on their first choice course, there are many obstacles to overcome and discoveries to be made. UAL (University of the Arts London), just one of the many institutions our clients apply to annually, has over 70 degree specialisms. Within the area of fashion alone there are 30 degree choices. With the national curriculum in both UK and overseas schools being centred around fine art, graphic design or textiles, how can a young person begin to understand the vast array of options ahead of them and choose a course that will define their future careers and lives?

A couple of years into my work with Bonas MacFarlane I was invited by the Head of Mentoring to meet with a client who was experiencing personal problems that were adversely affecting their studies. Our work together went well, with the student gaining in confidence and making a successful application to the prestigious Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL). Rather than being solely focused on their art projects, our art mentoring programme has subsequently developed to include a schedule of open day, degree show and gallery visits, work experience, and a continuous dialogue parallel to the student’s studies aimed at exploring their relationship with art and their future educational options. The process is often revelatory, shining a light into hitherto unknown areas of art and design and leading to students making applications to courses they would never have previously considered.

The benefits of mentoring have been particularly clear during the current crisis as a means of emotional support, structure and continuity in the face of exams being cancelled and application responses being heavily delayed. Working online with our clients is something that we are already very familiar with, having successfully mentored and tutored overseas students this way for many years. At any one time we maintain an experienced team of tutors who have either graduated from, taught at or currently teach at some of the UK’s best known universities and art colleges. What better way to prepare an application to Central Saint Martins than be tutored by someone who has both studied and taught there? Every year the world’s leading institutions for art, design and architecture see increasing numbers of applications making the competition for places higher with each round of entries. It’s a process that constantly keeps us on our toes, updating our information and research, improving our team and refining our support skills to ensure our clients submit the very best applications possible.

Every year I attend the same open days, and the same foundation and degree shows at the same institutions, and every year something new is revealed. This is largely because the person accompanying me is different every time. Their questions and responses are different, and the ways in which they respond to the tasks my tutors and I set are always unique and surprising. From their personal statements to their sketchbooks and portfolios, art is a form of autobiography, and it is a unique privilege to be part of the formative chapters of these young artists’ lives.

Words by Darren Marshall, Head of Art at Bonas MacFarlane.

Why we think the Bonas MacFarlane Academic Assessment is so helpful?

Over the last few years there has been an interesting shift in thinking when it comes to parents seeking assessment for their children. In the past, families would usually seek the services of an educational psychologist or independent consultant when they were worried that something might be wrong. The role of assessment in identifying specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyspraxia can really help to turn around the fortunes of a student who is underperforming but who can’t seem to work out why.

This pattern has started to change, and to change significantly. More and more families find themselves wanting an independent measure of their child’s abilities that is not coloured by the subjective nature of national testing or the sometimes unpredictable trends in school entrance examinations. Furthermore, parents of more able children want to know about their children’s strengths in order to make sure that they are being nurtured and extended by their teachers. “Gifted and Talented” is a phrase that has proved divisive in the past, but it is an inescapable fact that a significant percentage of children within any school environment will be functioning at a level well above that of their peers. Their needs are every bit as worthy of attention as those of less able or learning-disabled students. The Department for Education recognises that many schools are good at spotting their talented students, as skills in music, sports and drama are regularly promoted and celebrated, but gifted students tend to receive less focussed attention, presumably because time-stretched teachers do not consider it a priority to tailor lessons and resources to students who are coping just fine with the mainstream curriculum. As any good senior manager will recognise, there should be as many pupils on a school’s Gifted and Talented register as there are on its list of those with additional needs. Most schools still have some way to go towards realising this vital aim.

And now families are discovering a whole new need for independent assessment. The closure of schools to control the spread of COVID-19 has led to an education lottery unlike anything the UK has ever experienced, with provision from school to school resembling a lucky dip where the odds are impossible to predict. Independent schools and academies appear to be leading the way, with online learning, interactive lessons and an ongoing requirement for students to submit work (that they hope may one day be marked). A quick trawl of Facebook groups reveals that most parents are crawling the walls as the schools have done little or nothing to support them in their unofficial new roles as home educators. Families find themselves in the unlikely situation where Joe Wicks is regarded as a national hero for making sure that P.E. doesn’t suffer, but the core skills of literacy and numeracy seem to be left in the hands of YouTube offerings from resting actors.

At this time more than any other, an independent assessment gives parents an incredibly detailed picture of where their child is at and, more importantly, offers a swathe of practical recommendations to keep them moving forward while their peers are treading water. Bonas MacFarlane began assessing students online long before this pandemic, helping to find places at British schools for children from all around the world. The last few weeks have seen their skilled assessors and educational psychologists working at a distance from those who are closer to home, and the gratitude of parents has been palpable. With mums and dads around the country suddenly finding themselves as headteachers of an understaffed school with very demanding pupils, an independent assessment provides them with tailor-made teaching notes, learning targets and lesson plans to keep the parents sane and the kids afloat.