03 Mar Understanding UK University Admissions
Run by an ex-deputy headmistress, Charters Education Support is well placed to offer expert advice, both long-term and short-term on all aspects of UK university admissions. They help both UK and international students. Founder, Sarah Alakija talks to MumAbroad Life about why she loves helping students and the most important aspects of the admissions process.
Sarah, what made you decide to found Charters Education Support?
Before starting the business, my career in education had allowed me to explore many different areas within the school environment, but my greatest joy and satisfaction consistently came from being able to individually support and guide students on their journey.
It felt such a privilege to gain the trust of students and their families and to be in a position to help them, particularly during the tough final journey to university. As I moved in to senior leadership roles, these opportunities became fewer and fewer, to the point that after almost eight years as a Deputy, I was really missing UCAS advice! That’s when I decided to step away and build a business which would allow me to get back to helping students directly, focusing on bespoke guidance. It’s been a wonderful decision!
Can you give us a synopsis of your career path up until this point?
Armed with a Law degree, I went almost immediately in to education, starting in 1997 at an independent college which specialised in A Levels, and had a small GCSE school as well. As a Director of Studies, I was responsible for the academic progress and personal welfare of around 50 students, including guiding them on their university applications. I later became Head of the GCSE school and a few years after that, I became Deputy Head. During that time, I also wrote and edited four editions of the Trotman guide “Getting into Oxford and Cambridge” I left in 2016 to set up my business and have also worked as Head of Careers and UCAS on a part-time basis at a London independent girls’ school and as a consultant to schools on careers provision.
What services does Charters Education Support offer?
We offer bespoke advice and support for students applying to UK universities. This covers all aspects of the application process from that very first decision about which subject to study, all the way through until results day, when students may need help if they have not managed to achieve the required grades.
We can help with just the personal statement, or just a decision on subjects, but we also offer long-term full-service packages which start in the equivalent of UK Year 12, usually in term two. These allow time to guide the student’s reading and research in preparation for the application. We meet them regularly (online or in real life) to review the subject-based research which we have set them and to make sure they understand and enjoy it. This allows the student to build up a huge bank of knowledge and evidence around the subject, ready to write about the academic journey in their personal statement. In addition, on the long-term package, we stay with the student after the application is submitted and help with choosing between offers and are available to help with any results day issues too.
What is the most difficult part of the university applications process?
Most students would say that it’s the personal statement whereas I think that parents would say that choosing the right subject is the most challenging part. The moment when my students are the most stressed is in fact after the application is submitted and they have to wait for their offers, some of which can take months to come through.
What is a personal statement and how important is it?
The personal statement is a document required on the university central application form. It is an opportunity for students to explain why they are applying for their chosen subject and to evidence their interest in it. The best ones are highly academic and tell a compelling story of the research the student has undertaken in to the subject – this helps to reflect a genuine interest. The challenge is that it is a fairly short document, limited to 4000 characters (with spaces) and there is a lot to get in to this short space.
What advice would you give to students before applying to Oxford or Cambridge?
As with other competitive universities, I would advise that students start thinking about the application process very early in order to be able to evidence a strong interest in the subject. Ideally, this would all start in the second term of Year 12 (or equivalent) Particularly with Oxford and Cambridge, I would urge students to not be distracted by the romance of it all. It’s important that they love the subject for which they are applying, and, crucially, that they like the course at Oxford or Cambridge. Look at the websites thoroughly to be sure that the course offers what they expect.
What are the most common worries amongst students preparing for university?
In no particular order: choosing the right subject; having the right A Levels; having done enough work experience; writing the personal statement; preparing for Oxbridge admissions tests and interviews. A lot of students worry that they won’t have time to do the application well whilst they are working at their sixth-form studies in Year 13 (or equivalent) This is why I urge students to try and have the application complete by September/October in order to avoid this struggle.
It is teenagers who are making the applications to university but do you find you also need to help parents understand the process?
Absolutely. Having parents who understand what is happening really helps the students. If parents have at least an overview of the process, then they can support students even more effectively. With that in mind, I love to have parents present for the initial consultation so they can ask as many questions as necessary for their understanding.
You are based in the UK. How do you work with students who are living abroad?
I work with them through a mixture of email, Skype, Face time and What’sApp – audio or video. I think it’s important that the initial contact allows us all to see each other so I tend to use video for that initial consultation. That allows the students to see me and I find it helps me to get to know them. We can do the entire process through audio and video calls, and of course plenty of emailing.
What makes Charters Education Support stand out from other companies offering help with university admissions?
As well as ad hoc advice and personal statement guidance, we offer long-term, full service packages which many other companies don’t. We also offer years of direct and relevant experience of the application process itself, having done it in schools since 1997. That gives us a real insight into what universities are looking for. And no company has anyone who gets quite as excited about UCAS as our founder!
When students are applying to popular universities or popular courses how can they make their application stand out?
The most competitive courses will have applicants with great results and superb predictions, which means that the personal statement is an important place for a student to further stand out.
The best way is to show huge commitment via a diverse selection of research into the chosen subject. This includes not only reading books and journals, but can also involve listening to appropriate podcasts, watching documentaries, entering essay competitions, attending lectures and an array of other interesting and exciting things which reflect a person who researches outside of the school curriculum.
Universities also like to see project work such as the EPQ, which is an independent research project. It is a great opportunity to look in detail at any area of real interest and helps to develop the sort of skills which universities like to see. If a student is at a school which does not offer the EPQ qualification, students can still undertake their own research essay which can be looked at by a willing teacher. Failing that, essay competitions are a great alternative. We provide details of all these options to our students.
What do you love about your job?
I love helping them to achieve their dreams and take a step closer to a hopefully remarkable and happy future. It really is just the best job.