top of page

How to Get Into a University



Many would-be students believe that going to a university will improve their future job prospects. But they don’t have an interest in studying any particular subject. They apply for the subject that seems to be the least objectionable. And they do so without knowing much about the subject in question, beyond what might have been covered in a high school curriculum. If this is you, and if you are applying for a low-ranking university, then your lack of subject-matter interest will not be relevant: there will be more course places available than there will be applicants, and so all you will need to do is to satisfy what are likely to be very modest examination entry criteria.

But should you hope to be accepted by a high-ranking university, it’s a very different matter: not only will such a university have stringent examination entry criteria but it will also have more applicants who meet these criteria than it has places available to accommodate them. Now you might think that in these circumstances a university would accept applicants based solely on their performance on the entrance examination, that they would start with the best performers and work downwards until all the available places had been filled. But the application this simple methodology is not the means by which a high-ranking university allocates its places – the methodology employed is more complex, nuanced, dependent on subjective judgements.  Examination performance, though very important, is not everything. The university will be looking for something else, for something extra. So if you gain an insight into its desiderata, if can satisfy its desiderata, then you may – nay will – be able to gain acceptance ahead of those with better examination results.

Written Submissions

Written Submissions

You’ll need to support your application by way of essay-style written submissions, material such as a personal statement or additional written work, material that illustrates your interests, highlights your aptitudes, boldly proclaims your long-term aspirations. Its content must be tailored to the course for which you are applying, and it must be very well written.

Put yourself in the position of the university faculty member who has been allocated the tiresome task of reading through hundreds upon hundreds of course applications. For your application to end up in the modestly sized stack of “maybes”, you need to make it stand out both in terms of its engaging content and its elegant presentation.

Don’t leave the preparation of a written submission until the last minute. Create a first draft at least several months before the submission date, and then reread it from time to time. If you do, you’ll discover that it has shortcomings: you’ll add material that you now realize to be relevant; you’ll edit and rearrange existing material to improve its presentation; and you’ll correct the language errors that you’ve previously overlooked.

When you can’t improve a written submission any further, get an independent third party to review what you’ve written, a third party who can confirm its strengths, who can, more importantly, highlight its weaknesses. And then rewrite the material, as may be required, based on the suggestions that you’ve received.



... Introduction


At a high-ranking university, the review of written submissions is only the first step in the application approval process – an exercise in filtering the number of applicants worthy of detailed consideration down to manageable proportions. It is followed by the selection process proper: the interview.

... Presentation and Content

Presentation and Content

Your presentation must be articulate, coherent, eloquent. The content of your answers must be apposite, considered, insightful. The occasional injection of passion, humour, or forcefulness into your responses – though not essential – will impress your interlocutors and will favourably influence their collective decision.

Length of Answers

... Length of Answers

It’s important to understand that an interview is not like a normal conversation. Consistently replying with one-sentence answers is not acceptable: a reply should typically equate to a paragraph, and often to several. Start your answer by making a statement; discuss its strengths and weaknesses; add qualifications and caveats; put forward the evidence for and against; illustrate your assertion by way of examples.

Responding effectively to a question at an interview is akin to delivering a brief speech, to recounting a short story – you’re an actor on a stage and you need consistently to engage, occasionally to entertain, and – if at all possible – to “wow” your audience.

Simulated Interviews

... Simulated Interviews

Are you experiencing that “sinking feeling”? The interview skills outlined above are not easily acquired – some private schools spend several years carefully preparing their students for “the university interview” by way of regular debates. If you haven’t received this form of education, then you’ll need to practise, particularly if you’re not fluent in English.

Ideally, you need a tutor who can play the parts of different members of the interviewing panel, someone who can throw one hard-hitting question at you after another. Together you can then analyse your responses, and decide where you have weaknesses that need to be improved.

Some of your weaknesses will be based on the content of your delivery, an issue that can be addressed by improving your knowledge of the material on which you are likely to be questioned.

But some other weaknesses will be based on the manner of your presentation: your responses may be hesitant, you may be lacking in confidence. The key reason for simulating the interview process is that while you may be able to think clearly and answer effortlessly when practising alone, when confronted by a questioner who disagrees with your answers you may well become flustered. For example, you’ve answered a question, and now your questioner barks at you in an irascible manner “That doesn’t make sense! What about X, Y, and Z?” It’s important to understand that the manner in which questions are asked may on occasion be deliberately provocative: the questioner may want to ascertain how confident you are in your position, how willing you are to defend it under pressure.

... Asking Questions

Asking Questions

Don’t be passive, meekly replying to one question after another. If your interlocutor isn’t clear, then ask for clarification: “Do you mean X, or do you mean Y?” Don’t be afraid to politely disagree with your questioner: “I don’t agree with the premise of your question”, “Your question seems to be misrepresenting the views of Z”.

Whereas the Confucian tradition in China invariably requires the student to show deference to, and respect for, the teacher, the approach in the West is more nuanced. There is no such deference, and as to respect: it is not assumed; it is earned. Where warranted, being critical of someone else’s point of view is not to be condemned; it is to be sanctioned, endorsed, encouraged. Where appropriate, politely challenging the questions you are asked demonstrates your strength of character; confirms the presence of a keen, honed, incisive mind; and evinces the very degree of intellectual sharpness that the interview panel is looking for in the successful applicant.

Anticipating Questions

... Anticipating Questions

The fundamental problem with preparing for an interview is that the questions are unknown in advance. To some questions you will most likely give poor answers, to some no answers at all. And each time this happens you will be marked down, with your chances of being accepted steadily slipping away.

So, a key factor to performing well at an interview is to be able to anticipate as many questions as possible. By doing so, you can prepare eloquent, discerning answers well in advance. What will the questions be about?


  • Expect those obvious questions that relate to what you want to study and where you want to study: “Why do you want to study computer science?”, “Why did you apply to Stanford?”

  • Expect the occasional question about world affairs, about what’s in the news, about current events. Universities, especially liberal arts universities, favour well-rounded applicants.

  • Expect to be drilled in detail on your knowledge of the subject you want to study, especially at a research-oriented university. You will be expected to demonstrate an understanding of that subject well beyond the contents of your high school curriculum.

  • Expect to be questioned about anything you have mentioned in your written submissions. So make very sure you can answers questions relating to this material. For example, if you stated that you like the novels of Jane Austen, then be prepared to answers questions about why you like them, and be prepared to illustrate your answers with reference to particular novels and particular characters. Never state in a written submission that you have experience of something or like something simply because you think it will impress those assessing your application – you may well be asked to speak about it at length!

Types of University

Types of University

When it comes to the contents of written submissions and when it comes to anticipating the questions you may be asked, it’s important to consider the type of university to which you are applying. Universities can be broadly divided into liberal arts universities and research-oriented universities. While at a postgraduate level both are research focused, at the undergraduate level they differ markedly. At the undergraduate level, the liberal arts university focuses on a broad multidisciplinary course of study, one that covers disparate subjects, one that is in many ways an extension of your high school curriculum. But the research-oriented university focuses instead on a very specific discipline – any other subjects that you may study will exist to support it, not to complement it. The liberal arts approach is more common in the US and the research-oriented approach is more common in the UK – an undergraduate degree at a UK university is often equivalent to a postgraduate degree at a US university in terms of the depth and specificity of its subject matter.

When applying for an undergraduate course at a high-ranking liberal arts university, your application will need to demonstrate that you are an all-rounder, that you have disparate skills, experiences, and interests – a miscellany that will be reflected in your course of study. But when applying for an undergraduate course at a high-ranking research-oriented university, you’ll need to demonstrate a detailed knowledge of the subject you intend to study, a knowledge that extends well beyond the contents of your high school curriculum.

Gaining an Advantage

Gaining an Advantage


... Introduction

You will always need to satisfy the stringent examination entry criteria mandated by a high-ranking university. But, assuming you can do so, your chances of being accepted will depend to a considerable extent on how much time and effort you are willing to put in by way of preparation – not just during the formal application process, but, more importantly, during the year or two that precedes it.

While complex and sophisticated approaches to application preparation yield the best results, I’ve found that even some of the simpler and less time-consuming approaches – as outlined in this section – can be effective.

News and World Affairs

... News and World Affairs

High-ranking universities like well-rounded students, irrespective of their courses of study – a preference that is particularly pronounced in the case of liberal arts universities. So at an interview, you might well be asked a few questions relating to world affairs, to what’s in the news, to current events.

By way of preparation, a good approach would be to listen to the news about once a day for a least a few months prior to attending an interview. Make some notes about the issues discussed. When a news item refers to an unfamiliar geographical location, look it up on a map; when it refers to an unfamiliar historical event, read a summary – in, say, Wikipedia.

It’s best to listen to the news using a national radio station based in the country where you intend to study. By doing so, you’ll also be improving your language skills, and you’ll obtain, as a bonus, some information about national events and domestic concerns – information that might prove useful in the future, even if no more than as an aid to conversational understanding.

You don’t need to acquire a detailed knowledge of world affairs, just a knowledge sufficient for you to be able to string together a few sentences on, say, the proxy war in Yemen or the Paris climate accord.

Subject-Specific Knowledge

... Subject-Specific Knowledge

If you are applying for an undergraduate course at a high-ranking research-oriented university, you’ll be expected to have a broad understanding of the subject you intend to study, an understanding well beyond that found in your high school curriculum.

For each university to which you intend to apply, search its website to see if you can find a subject-matter curriculum for the course of interest, or email the university’s admissions office. Search or ask specifically for the recommended reading list. Look up the table of contents for each recommended textbook and examine the titles of its chapters, sections, and subsections, and its index headings – you can probably extract this information online from a search of Google Books, without needing to purchase the textbook. Then search online for definitions and overviews of the various concepts and terms that you’ve encountered – using, for example, Wikipedia.

The objective is to obtain a rough understanding of how the subject of interest into divided into different specialities, to gain an insight into what the key terms and concepts mean and how they are interrelated – you need just enough of an understanding to be able to answer the broad-based subject-related questions that you can expect to be asked at an interview. You should include some of the information gained in your written submissions and you should use it to help guide your interview (see the next section).

Performing this reading ahead activity will yield benefits beyond that of increasing your chances of being accepted on the university course for which you are applying: when your course begins a new topic, you’ll already know roughly what it’s about and how it fits into the overall structure of the subject. First, having this knowledge will decrease the pressure when studying – you’ll have less work to do. Second, and more importantly, having this knowledge may lead to improved grades on personal assignments, as you’ll be able to relate what you are studying by way of an assignment to other aspects of the subject which have not yet been encountered on the course – being in possession of such a deep understanding may impress those marking your assignment, may lead to a better grade. And, finally, reading ahead will ensure that you know enough about the subject of interest to be sure that it’s a subject you actually want to study – for a subject not on the high school curriculum, it’s all too easy for students to misunderstand what studying that subject actually entails.

Guiding the Interview

... Guiding the Interview

You can only do so much when it comes to anticipating the questions that you’ll be asked at an interview. Is there any other approach that you can apply? Can you ensure that your interlocutors will ask you questions that you want to answer, questions to which you have excellent answers prepared well in advance? Yes, you can! And this ability to steer your interlocutors in the right direction is a key competency, one that can usefully be deployed during any interview.

It’s important to appreciate that those interviewing you will not have prepared a complete list of questions in advance. True, there will be some questions they ask all applicants, and there will be some questions that they will be keen to ask you based on your written submissions. However, for the most part, the interview process is fluid, and the questions asked will often be generated by the answers you have given to previous questions – your interlocutors will be seeking clarifications, will be asking you to expand on some interesting points already made. So you can take charge of the interview process, at least for a time: by dropping a carefully crafted “intellectual titbit” into an answer, you can – with a usefully high probability – dictate the contents of the next question you’ll be asked.

For example, you’re applying for a course in philosophy. You’ve been asked the anticipated introductory question as to why you like the subject. You give a general answer, but in doing so you mention in passing that among philosophical schools you like the Hellenists, particularly the Cynics. Intrigued, one of your questioners asks what it is you like about them. You mention that you are attracted to the views of philosophers belonging to the Cynics school, especially Diogenes, due to the school’s emphasis on rejecting worldly desires for wealth, power, and celebrity, due to its emphasis on living a simple life. Your questioner, now even more intrigued, asks what you like about Diogenes, and you reply that you find his philosophical stunts – such as that of carrying a lamp during the day while claiming to be looking for an honest man – to be amusing and insightful. While it might have taken you no more than fifteen minutes to acquire the information needed to answer these questions, you’ve suggested to the interview panel that you have an in-depth knowledge of this particular branch of philosophy. Your interlocutors will be tempted to assume – falsely – that you possess a similar in-depth knowledge of other branches of philosophy.

This approach to guiding the interview can be applied irrespective of the subject of interest. Identify about half a dozen narrow issues or topics (subject areas), and gain a broad understanding of each of them. Identify within each of these subject areas an even more specific issue or topic (a subject-area speciality), and then study it in more detail.

Your first strategy is to make references to the subject areas in your written submissions – doing so will increase the probability that you’ll be asked directly about one or more of them during the interview.

Your second strategy is to ensure that when answering a question during the interview you include a reference to a subject area – if relevant given the context.

Carefully prepare answers to questions about subject areas, and ensure that these answers include references to subject-area specialities, thereby increasing the chances that you will, in turn, be asked about them. As time is limited during an interview, your knowledge won’t be probed in equal depth across all aspects of the subject. And so by following the “subject area to subject-area speciality” route a number of times, you’ll give the impression that you already possess an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject that you intend to study.

As an added bonus, you can, on occasion, use a question relating to a subject area or subject-area speciality as a segue into asking your own question – such as, in the case of the example, “How much of the philosophy course is dedicated to the study of the Cynics?”

Research-Specific Expertise

... Research-Specific Expertise

It’s highly desirable before applying for a postgraduate course to gain some research-specific expertise – and doing so greatly enhances your chances of success when applying for an undergraduate course.

Let’s introduce this approach by way of an example. Let’s suppose that towards the end of your time at high school you’ve developed an interest in engineering – perhaps as a result of studying physics. Let’s suppose that you’ve followed the advice in the section above on subject-specific knowledge and that you now have a broad-brush understanding of the subject matter content of a typical undergraduate engineering degree. Let’s suppose that you’ve selected a number of subject areas and subject-area specialities within engineering as suggested above in the section on guiding the interview. Now select one of these narrowly focused, subject-area specialities, one in which you have a particular interest (if you’re pursuing a postgraduate degree then the subject-area speciality of interest will have emerged during the course of studying for your undergraduate degree). Let’s suppose that the subject-area speciality of interest is nanotechnology – the use of nanoscale structures, such as fibres, as components in various technological devices.

Now, when shortlisting universities, determine which ones have research expertise in the subject-area speciality of interest. For example, a search online would show you that the University of Cambridge boasts a nanotechnology research centre, The Nanoscience Centre. From its website you would gain an insight into the research that Cambridge is undertaking in nanotechnology. Then you would read the abstracts and quickly scan the contents of papers recently published by researchers associated with the Nanoscience Centre – obtained using a Google Scholar search.

If you took this approach for all the high-ranking universities with research expertise in nanotechnology, you would soon have a broad understanding of the latest developments in this niche field of engineering: you would then be very well placed to construct highly relevant written submissions; you would be well placed to answer very specific questions on the subject at interview – in short, you would be in a very good position to get an engineering placement at any university specializing in nanotechnology.

This approach can be used irrespective of your subject-area speciality, be it artificial intelligence, medieval poetry, or financial journalism. It is unusual for an applicant applying for a postgraduate degree – and very unusual for an applicant applying for an undergraduate degree – to possess such detailed research-specific expertise, to possess such a strong subject matter interest. Demonstrating such knowledge and interest during the application process will leave a very firm and favourable impression on the university faculty members reviewing your application. You’ll find that they will be particularly keen to push your application through, particularly keen to facilitate your course of study in other ways – by, for example, expediting access to financial aid or by helping you to circumvent administrative obstacles.

Research-Specific Contacts

... Research-Specific Contacts

If you want to improve still further your chances of gaining access to a high-ranking university, then at each of the universities of interest identify the faculty members who are performing research in the subject-area speciality that you’ve selected (for example, on the Cambridge Nanoscience Centre website you’ll find a list of researchers).

Your next step is to find a plausible reason to engage with some of the researchers that you’ve identified. For example, having read their research papers, you may want to ask them questions about their research. For example, having stated that you are very interested in pursuing a career in their subject-area speciality, you might ask them to recommend the undergraduate degree course that would be best to take as a prerequisite.

Establishing these contacts prior to making an application is advantageous. When asked on an application form, or at an undergraduate interview, as to why you want to study a particular course at a particular university, you could mention that you’ve already been in contact with the leading researchers working in the field – name-dropping as appropriate – and that they have recommended the course for which you are applying. In the case of a postgraduate course, the individuals who will be reviewing your application are likely to include those with whom you have already made contact – indeed, when engaging with these researchers, you may find that they actively encourage you to apply for a postgraduate course at their own research facility, and they are keen to assist you with the application process.

In addition, the research contacts that you make at other universities will prove valuable during postgraduate study: they will be the people you’ll meet at research conferences; they will be the people with whom you’ll engage during inter-university research collaborations.

Given the large numbers of Chinese researchers working overseas, you’re likely to find that some of the researchers working in your subject-area speciality are from China (for example, there are currently two such researchers at the Cambridge Nanoscience Centre). These individuals may be able to help you to adapt to some of the cultural changes that you’ll encounter when studying abroad.

bottom of page