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An Admissions Expert's Top Tips For Applying to University

Are you trying to figure out which university or degree path is the right one for you? If so, you’re not alone. One of the biggest decisions one can make is where to pursue their higher education, and what degree path to take. We recently sat down with Nick Gray, former admissions director of Education First, to talk about what goes into figuring out which school to attend, how to get in, and selecting your degree path. Here’s what Nick had to say about picking a university and how to go about getting in.

Sep 6, 2023
  • Student Tips
An Admissions Expert's Top Tips For Applying to University

What advice would you give to prospective students on how they can find universities and degrees?

There are a lot of good [college] fairs going on across the world, although COVID has stopped some of them. I would say most colleges now have a good presence online. There are companies such as Bachelorstudies, which is a good way of getting information about a lot of schools. I would say the key thing most students are looking to establish is the potential return on investment from their college experience. You’ll want to look at the ranking of the school, the reputation, and the cost, and weigh what those factors are. Having a good idea of what you want to study is a good place to start. Also, be realistic about the opportunities you have through finances and the challenges of getting into some of these best schools.

What factors do you think are important for prospective students to consider when applying to university?

Students need to consider whether or not they can get in. Then, it comes down to application advice. Ask yourself if you’re going to be an attractive student to this college, whether it's through your academic record, or something else, like sports, or if you have a proficiency in something that’s going to be interesting to them. That’s something a student needs to establish and there’s a lot of work that goes into that.

Other factors to consider are geography, and how challenging things like visas are. For example, if a student wants to go to the States or the UK, visas can be quite a big challenge and factor in the decision process. Cost is a big factor for students, and whether or not there are scholarships available through the college or through other means. Some countries have very nice scholarship opportunities and funding, such as Norway.

Ranking plays a big part, as you’ll want to know about the quality of the education you’re going to be getting. You can look around online, and find lots of information about universities and what they specialize in, and what the experience is going to be like for you.

What different funding options are available to students?

Parents are the number one source of funding for students worldwide. Depending on the country, there’s various different loan companies and banks that can lend money. There are also some scholarships available. I would add that students should investigate the scholarships before relying on it. They aren’t guaranteed a scholarship, and most aren’t a full ride, but rather a portion of the costs. They need to establish their living and tuition costs, then get an idea of what scholarships they could get before they make big decisions.

What would you say about the university experience in general, and the possibility of career achievements?

I think it depends on the individual and the school. It also depends on the overall experience compared to what you might achieve. I’m a huge believer in education. Specializing in subjects and deepening your knowledge in a field is valuable, even if it's not what they end up working in. It’s something they can carry forward, and the learnings from their field of study can be applied elsewhere. Even if you study something and don’t end up doing it, there’s great value there.

I do think there are sometimes challenges where people lack focus, they take a degree or opportunity because it’s there, then they don’t have focus or interest, motivation, and I don’t think there’s as much value in that. You don’t need to be completely certain, but have an understanding of what you’re interested in, and what sort of things will be something you can sustain motivation to study for.

A degree specializing in a field of study can help you get better opportunities in that field. For international students, to study in the US or the UK for example, will give you a headstart in working in those countries. If you already have a foothold there, you’ll have a better understanding and connection, possibly more networking as well. All of those factors play into those opportunities.

What do you see in your experience as an admissions expert are the main challenges prospective students see applying, and how they can overcome them?

It all boils down to if you’re going to be an interesting student to the university. The least prestigious universities in the world that aren’t as highly ranked and don’t have huge endowment funds, those universities are going to be grateful for whoever they get. The bar to get entry to those universities isn’t high, but you still need to be an attractive student. In those cases, the bar will be about the funding, and if you can improve the university’s chances of getting funding and help its reputation.

The highest ranked, most prestigious universities in the world have many, many people applying to a small number of spots. It becomes very selective, and very challenging to get in. Even if you’ve got a really good profile, it’s still incredibly important you present a compelling narrative for the university as to why you should be accepted there. The students applying to the most prestigious universities have done that, and made sure the narrative is really, really interesting. They’ve spent time and effort to also add in the extracurricular elements that might make them more interesting, such as theatre, drama, sports, and music.

Those kinds of things are all great additions to your profile, and obviously your essay writing is extremely important. Make sure the [application] essay is well thought-through and well written. Have it checked by people who know what they’re talking about so they can help you structure it properly.

There’s a lot that goes into it, but really in the end it boils down to are you going to be an interesting student to the university, and are you going to be more interesting than the other students applying. Many students applying don't feel they are that interesting, or have enough to offer. I used to meet students who felt they didn’t have enough to offer to the more prestigious schools. They’d say, “I’m just normal; I like video games.” As an example, I would say “If you're really into video games, try to think about how to make that interesting. If you are online playing a load of people on a video game, you’re collaborating; you are critically thinking to overcome tasks, talking across geographies in your headphones and honing your English skills, you’re hitting some of the key markers for educational experience for doing that, and bettering yourself. You could make an argument that that type of gaming is constructive, and use it to enhance your application.

When it comes to getting into that dream school, hard work, planning, and presentation are key. Make sure to take the time to research your prospective schools, as well as figure out what you have to offer them, and what they can offer you. Present yourself as a candidate who is interesting, well-rounded, and will make a great addition to their next cohort.

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Chelsea Castonguay


Chelsea is a Student Affairs expatriate, who now works as a freelance writer and editor. She homesteads in a small town in rural Maine, USA. She enjoys hiking, fishing, cooking, reading, all things Laura Ingalls Wilder, spending time with her family, and chasing her black lab puppy, Cash.

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