Blog 🍎 School 17th September 2023

Why Your Students Need A University Application Strategy (And How To Help Them Craft It)

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James Leach

James is senior content marketing manager at BridgeU. He writes and directs content for BridgeU's university partners and our community of international schools

Let’s play a quick game of word association.

If we said ‘university application’ then what’s the next word that comes into your head? Deadlines? Results? Outcomes? Success?

How about ‘strategy’?

We’re willing to bet that this isn’t the first word that your students will automatically associate with the university application process. Applying to university arguably takes a huge toll on a young person’s decision-making ability. How on earth are they supposed to design and build a strategy as well?

The notion of building a university application strategy may seem more intimidating than the application process itself. But in this blog post, we’re going to explain why a application strategy should come before deadlines, results and outcomes, and why it needs to be the cornerstone of every document sent and every essay submitted. Specifically we’ll look at:

  • Why students need a strategy in the run-up to university applications.
  • How a strategy can help students align their strengths with what universities are actually looking for.
  • Why different university destinations sometimes require a different strategy.

Why do my students need a university application strategy?

Think about it. We never undertake any project, business venture, or even trip abroad, without some kind of roadmap or itinerary, and the ability to think strategically is immensely valuable for your students when they enter the world of work.

But as we said at the beginning, the word ‘strategy’ isn’t always synonymous with the university application process. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • Students often think about their university applications only in terms of grades, chance of acceptance and academic ability.
  • It’s hard to think long-term when you’re younger (this is especially true of students who are in the earlier/middle years of secondary school).
  • External pressures and expectations from family members can sometimes affect a student’s perception of their future.

So why is a strategy important as your students start the university application process?

University fit is about more than grades

A student’s chance of acceptance to university is about more than just their academic ability. University admissions staff also judge a student’s suitability based on factors like their strength of character, their extracurricular activities, and what they can contribute to campus life.

Thinking long-term is essential

The definition of a strategy is “a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim”. And there’s nothing more long-term than planning a university and career path. A university application that isn’t truly strategic in its approach will increase the likelihood of your students dropping out, or switching courses halfway through their studies.  

Fact: Students dropping out of/failing to complete university continues to be a problem internationally. For example, a 2018 survey found that UK university dropout rates rose for the third year in a row in the academic year 2015/16.

Meanwhile a report published in the US found that just under half (45%) of students obtain a degree or certificate at the first institution they attend within six years of starting university.

By contrast, taking a strategic view means that:

  • Students are driven by realistic expectations of what they want from a university education, minimising the likelihood of dropping out/switching course.
  • They can get a good idea of their strengths and weaknesses, and where they can improve in order to really make their applications stand out. 

How should my students create a university application strategy?

We’ve used the word ‘strategy’ but perhaps another helpful word to get students started is ‘toolkit’.

In order for students to strategise their applications properly, they need a toolkit. This toolkit comprises all the strengths, experiences and personal attributes that can enable students to make their application truly strategic.

The skills and experiences that students need to demonstrate will differ slightly depending on the university they are applying to (more on this later). But broadly speaking, these are some of the things that your students might want to think about when assembling their strategy toolkit.

Formative interest in their subject

This is probably the most important factor to think about when devising a university strategy, as it will ultimately inform all the others we’re about to list. Many university application systems will want students to explain when, why and how they became interested in studying a particular subject or discipline.

Let’s put it another way. If you want your students to become university application superheroes, then this is their origin story!

By the time they reach their penultimate year of school, most students will hopefully already know how to answer this question. But you can get younger students thinking about this too.

For middle year students, this will mean thinking about more about what subjects they’re interested in, or academically gifted at.

Extra-curricular activities

This is another common component of an application that almost every university will ask for. From a strategy perspective, extra-curricular activities stand out for a few reasons and allow students to develop other skills and experiences that universities look for. These include:

  • Proof of subject interest outside of the classroom.
  • Showcasing a student’s softer skills – e.g. leadership, teamwork, entrepreneurial spirit.
  • Earning other qualifications/credentials outside of school life.

A good university application strategy involves students looking at their extra-curricular portfolio, and thinking about how this can link up with their academic pathway.

Example: Carol wants to study History at university. She’s fifteen, has amazing grades and test scores, but doesn’t get involved with many extra-curricular activities. This could mean she struggles to set herself apart from other applicants who do.

Some extracurricular activities she might want to think about include:

  • Joining a debating team/entering a public speaking competition (demonstrates critical thinking and teamwork ability)
  • Joining model United Nations  (this would demonstrate subject interest outside the classroom)
  • Writing for her student newspaper (this would demonstrate critical thinking and strong writing ability, both essential for an essay-based subjects like History).


This is another essential skill that most universities and courses will ask students to demonstrate. Many degrees will require some element of teamwork, or group-based assessments. Furthermore, teamwork and the ability to collaborate is highly valued in graduate life.

Examples: There are lots of ways for your students to demonstrate this ability. Almost any sports team, or after school club will involve students demonstrating teamwork. Doing community service or even having a part time job is also a great way to demonstrate this attribute.

Leadership/entrepreneurial skills

It’s worth bearing in mind that university is a very different learning environment to secondary school. Students are encouraged to take ownership of their own learning, and independent study is crucial (especially when studying towards humanities or social sciences courses).

In addition, the ability to lead a team is often a demonstration of other valuable skills such as critical thinking, decision making and even managing money. There are a whole host of degrees where this will make your student applicants excel!

Entrepreneurial spirit is even more invaluable. The ability to start a new project or venture from scratch demonstrates creative thinking and real ingenuity.

Example: Leadership skills, like teamwork, can be demonstrated in a whole host of ways. Again, any sports team or school club/society where your students have been placed in a position of responsibility is worth thinking about. If students don’t think they have much in the way of leadership skills, then ask them how they can set about getting some?

Formative experience/background

Remember that origin story we talked about?

Some universities don’t just want to know why a student is interested in a particular subject – they also want to know about a formative moment or experience in an applicant’s life that has informed the student’s ambitions and world-view.

These formative experiences don’t need to be something the applicant has done – they can even be something relating to a student’s family history, culture or ethnicity.

Like the other factors we’ve listed, formative experiences can be built on, especially if your students were to feel (wrongly) that they have no interesting stories to tell. Once again, encourage your students to think about extracurricular activities that will push them, challenge them or force them to re-examine their existing worldview or beliefs. There may even be a class, teacher or guidance counselor who has had a formative impact!

University fit

Many universities don’t just want to know why you are applying for a particular subject – they also want to know what draws you to study on their campus, and at their faculty.

Some university application essays will ask a student to reflect on their suitability for a particular course or campus. They want to know why an applicant is a good fit with that university’s culture, worldview or even historical traditions.

As we’ve discussed in some of our other articles, researching individual countries and universities is essential here. Your students need to know which institutions will be asking them to prove their compatibility, and what they need to include in specific application essays.

This will depend, at least partly, on which university systems your students are applying through. Knowing what different universities are looking for from their applicants is a core component of any strategy.

Which brings us to our final section…

Understanding what different universities are looking for

It’s worth closing by thinking about how an application strategy should be shaped and honed based on the universities and countries your students are looking at applying to. We can’t possibly cover every country or university system here. But when looking at different countries, it’s worth thinking about how your students’ strategies may be subject to change.

Applying to the university vs applying to the course

There’s a slight difference between applying to a university and applying to a course or programme. And slight though it may be, it’s a difference your students need to understand.

For example, the UK university system is a centralised system. All applications go through the same organisation – UCAS. Because UCAS allows students to filter and search for degree courses, as opposed to individual universities, a student must submit one UCAS Personal Statement to apply to multiple degree courses.

This means that a student’s UCAS Personal Statement must be focused on why they want to study a particular degree. Everything in their personal statement, from their formative interest in their subject, to their extra-curriculars, must serve this narrative. Other countries that have a more degree-focused application are Canada and many EU countries.

By contrast, most US applications will ask students to apply to a particular university. This is where our university fit is arguably most important. Students will be asked to talk about why they are a good fit for a university, its culture and its campus.

Specialists vs generalists

Some university systems encourage students to specialise in their chosen degree subject from the outset, while others will require them to generalise first, before specialising/majoring later in the degree programme. Again, this will have an impact on a student’s application strategy.

Examples: The UK offers students a choice of more specialised degrees. For more generalised systems, the USA sits at the other end of this spectrum. Other countries, such as the Canadian & Australian university systems, arguably sit somewhere in the middle.

Academic applications versus a more holistic application

We know what you’re thinking. Don’t all universities ask for proof of academic ability?

It’s true – grades, test scores and overall academic ability are something that every university wants to see evidence of.

But some universities will place the emphasis of their admissions criteria on academic ability and suitability, whilst other universities will want an understanding of the whole student, their background, their contribution to wider school life and their overall character.

For example:

As a (very) general guidepost, students applying to a particular programme of study are more likely to be asked about their academic ability and suitability to a course. (e.g. UK/Canada)

Meanwhile students applying to a university in the USA are more likely to be required to demonstrate a more holistic approach  – i.e. explaining why their personal attributes, ambitions and worldview makes them a good fit.

You may notice the US has cropped up a few times in the examples above. It’s arguably the most exceptional system in terms of devising a university strategy, so encourage students to think about this carefully before applying. 

How to help your students devise a university application strategy

As well as encouraging them to think about the factors we’ve outlined above, the most important quality that you can instil in your students is self-reflection. In order to build a an application strategy that works, they need to ask tough and honest questions of themselves.

For instance, one of our BridgeU guidance counsellors asks this of her students:

“What are you doing in the trenches of your community? What is that plus one feature that takes you beyond your grades and test scores?”

And that’s what your students need to ask themselves. What’s that ‘plus one’ feature, that ‘x’ factor, that will set them apart in a very competitive and globalised world? How can they turn that into a powerful university application? Academic ability and extracurriculars aren’t enough in isolation.

So it’s never too early to ask your students – “what’s your strategy?”

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