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The Newsletter keeps teachers and HE advisers up-to-date on events, the latest admissions news, and resources for students. Regular feature articles explore admissions, the University, and current topics.

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Subject Exploration

Dr Sam Lucy, 8 July 2019

As the summer break is drawing near, it’s a good time to encourage your students to explore academic subjects over their vacation. It’s important for students to enjoy the course they choose at University – it should be one that suits their abilities and their interests (and interest in and suitability for the chosen course is one of our key selection criteria). Through subject exploration and “super-curricular” activities (i.e. academically related activities that lie outside the formal school curriculum) students can work out where their real interests lie and therefore make a more informed course choice when it comes to applying to University. If a student knows which course they wish to study, encourage them to explore it in more depth over the summer; if they haven’t yet decided, encourage them to explore several options so that they can narrow down their options.

It’s particularly important for students who have been fixed on a chosen path for a long time that they gain some understanding of what a subject involves academically (this is especially an issue for subjects such as Medicine and Law, where the end goal is often the attraction). Similarly, a student who is intending to apply for courses with the same name as their favourite A-level should be encouraged to think more broadly, to see if a less familiar course is a better fit for their interests.

Subject exploration is a good way for students to deepen their interests and practise independent learning.  As well as helping to confirm subject choice, it can give them a taste of University-level academic work. This will be a far more independent way of learning, and some practice of this in advance can help them develop important research skills as well as broadening their subject knowledge. There are extensive resources available to help students explore their subject both at school and outside of a classroom setting and they don’t need to cost any money.

When it comes to subject exploration there is no set idea or program and nothing is prescribed or required. Teachers can enable, encourage and support super-curricular activities through a variety of ways. The following ideas will help to provide a starting point for you and your students.

There are a substantial number of online resources available that help enable prospective applicants to explore subjects in depth outside of a classroom setting. Here are a few examples:

In addition to online resources, directed reading can be beneficial for a number of reasons, particularly for arts and humanities courses. You could recommend a student keeps a reading journal and encourage students to read critically and analytically, asking themselves what the argument is in a text, what the supporting evidence is, if there are flaws and what they think of it. It’s important to emphasise to students that it is not about the quantity of material they read but instead the quality of the effort they put into thinking about them. Reading a few articles in a focused manner is much more effective than reading lots of books distractedly.

Another idea is project work. Working towards a piece of work such as the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) helps students to focus their learning in an area they are particularly interested in. It is important to note that the EPQ is not required, but completing one is encouraged. They can also conduct their own studies in this way, without needing to complete the qualification if it is not offered in your school.

You could also encourage students to attend university taster sessions, like the Subject Masterclasses offered at Cambridge. Although they have a small cost, bursaries are available and these events are a great way for students to engage with other people also interested in the same subject. You may well find that your local university offers similar events, or allows public attendance at some lectures.

Although work experience is not generally expected or required for University, except in vocational subjects such as medicine, it can still be useful. In courses like medicine and veterinary medicine, work experience can help demonstrate commitment to the intended career and allow a greater understanding of the realities associated with the field.

Of course, not all super-curricular activity needs to be outside the classroom. Teachers can create opportunities for students to explore a subject they are passionate about at school too. Leading discussion groups, working through Webinars, entering students for academic competitions or encouraging them to enter essay prizes; these are all ways in which students can explore a subject at school. Teachers can also help by linking highly motivated students who share the same interests so that they can work through material or projects together collaboratively.

If your students do decide to explore subjects over the summer, there are many ways in which they can show that subject knowledge and understanding when they apply to university. Personal statements, admissions assessments and submitted work can all incorporate super-curricular activities; students who engage deeply with their subject will often have better academic records and predictions too. Moreover, students might have the opportunity to explain their subject engagement at interview. So, the deeper exploration that they do over the summer can be used next autumn when they begin applying to University, and will make that personal statement much easier to write!

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