The basics
STUDY ABROAD : Essentials - Must read

Essentials: University applications

Read our guide to completing a university application, including what you need to include and how to approach writing it.


Many students spend weeks, even months, working on their application and rightfully so; it might be the document which completely changes your life! After all, your application is the first thing which a university’s admissions department will use to learn about you before offering you a place, requesting an interview or passing on you.

There are several components to a university application. In our guide below, we run through all of them, while also providing some tips about how to approach completing your application the right way.


How to submit your application

Increasingly, university applications are submitted digitally online. There may be some institutions who’ll ask you to complete and send by post a paper version of your application; but generally most universities ask you to complete this online as it makes processing the thousands of applications they receive a lot easier.

How to approach your application

You should check the deadline for you application first. That way you can give yourself enough time to complete your application, check and submit it. Be warned: You won’t necessarily be able to complete your application in one go; there are a lot of parts to it and you’ll want to be as refreshed as possible throughout while completing it. Plus there will probably be things you’ll need to check with others or documents you’ll need to retrieve to complete this.

Work on your application when you are in a positive, upbeat mood as this will shine through in what you write. If you work on your application when you’re tired and grumpy, you won’t put in your best work; neither will you be able to present yourself properly for the person reading your application (remember, they don’t know who you are!).

Don’t use a tablet or mobile to complete your application. Use a laptop or desktop computer and make sure you’re comfortable. Always save your progress in case something goes wrong so you don’t lose your work.

Read our guide, ‘Applying online: Dos & Don’ts'.


What makes up a university application?

While applications will vary from one university to another in terms of format, phrasing or questions asked, you can expect most to follow a similar template and have the same purposes and requirements. A university application will include/ask the following:

Personal statement

What is a personal statement? A personal statement is your opportunity to talk about yourself and let the admissions officer find out about who you are. Your academic grades, which are important, are very matter-of-fact and can’t be argued with; but your personal statement allows you to create an idea of who you are for the admissions officer so they can distinguish you from the hundreds of other applicants they’ll be considering (applicants with similar grades to yours too).

Usually an application will provide prompts or mini questions which you should address in your personal statement to guide you. Make sure you read all the information provided so you know for sure what the admissions department are looking for so they can learn about you (if it helps, underline words in the questions or prompts so you always keep these in mind).

So what will you have to cover in your personal statement? Usually you’ll be asked to say why you deserve to study the course you’re applying to at that particular institution. Why do you want to study the course there rather than somewhere else? Is that institution regarded highly in your chosen field? Is there a professor or piece of research which is synonymous with that institution? Here you’ll have to demonstrate what you have done or achieved so far which has prepared you to study the course at a higher level. Don’t be so nervous when writing this; consider this an opportunity to “geek out” about your subject which you might not get to do with your friends (in a formal manner of course – no ‘OMGs’ please).

In a personal statement you should avoid being arrogant or too humble; instead be confident and proud of your achievements, experience and qualities, backing these up with evidence where relevant.

Avoid using words which are unnecessarily complicated. If you can say something in fewer words, do so rather than stretch it out which can be frustrating to read for the admissions officer (plus this will use up your word count and give you less space to promote yourself). Also try to abstain from words which every other applicant will use, as well as cliché phrases.

You should remain formal but friendly in your personal statement. Remember that you’re writing for a member of staff at a university!

Read our full guide to writing a personal statement.


Academic history

Every university and course will have entry grades which an applicant must satisfy in order to be considered for admission. Be prepared to give details about the academic qualifications you’ve achieved so far, as well as predicted grades for courses you’re currently taking. You MUST be honest here. You’ll have to provide copies of academic transcripts (translated from your local language into English by an accredited translator) to prove these. You won’t have to list every grade you’ve ever received but mainly just grades for key qualifications going back to secondary or high school level.


Work experience

Some admissions departments will want to know about your employment history. Don’t worry if you have minimal experience to put here or if you feel like it doesn’t apply to the course you want to study. Simply showing that you have had a part-time job around your school studies indicates that you have strong work ethic and can handle responsibility. Plus skills like using maths, working in a team and interacting with customers/clients are all favourable which you can use to your advantage.


Personal interests

Some admissions departments will not ask about your personal interests, instead choosing to focus on your academic qualities. However others may ask about these to paint a better picture of you as an individual. Again you can highlight some hobbies and interests which are relevant to the course here. However, consider how an admissions officer will perceive you based on these interests – as hard as it might be to understand, saying you’re a fan of a particular interest or genre might give off a less-than-satisfactory impression of you i.e. if you’re a fan of violent horror films, you might want to phrase this as ‘B movie film collector’ which sounds more appealing and yet still interesting.



Admissions departments won’t simply made a decision about your application based on your word. They’ll want to hear from individuals who know you, particularly those who know you in a professional or academic context (basically someone who doesn’t have a professional relationship with you). A teacher is a good choice as they know you in an academic context which is relevant here (often an application will state that one of your references must be an academic reference).

Find out who you can ask to be a reference, or read our guide to reference letters.


Additional documents

The one part of your application which can take longer to sort out is getting your hands on extra documentation which you might need to send off for or look for. These can include references and academic transcripts, which may need to be translated as well

For certain (creative) subjects, you may also have to provide a portfolio of your previous practical work so admissions staff can take a look at what you’re capable of and consider your potential e.g. applicants to journalism or art courses. This can take a while to put together so make sure you have enough time to do so.

Read our checklist of documents which you should have nearby when applying abroad.



Watch the following video clips featuring application tips:

'What makes a university application stand out?'


'What tips can you give for writing a university application?'


'What common mistakes do students make in their application?'


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About Author

Paul Ellett is the editor for Hotcourses Abroad. His role is to plan, produce and share editorial, videos, infographics, eBooks and any other content to inform prospective and current international students about their study abroad experience. When he's not thinking about student visas in Sweden and application deadlines, Paul is an avid fan of comedy podcasts and Nicolas Cage films.