University application as a mature student - what to say?
January 28, 2019 6:18 AM   Subscribe

I wrote a question not long ago regarding applying for university. Having thought it over, I've made the decision to apply and now I have more questions! Specifically, I'm applying as a mature student (age 33) for a degree with a foundation year in England. Does anyone have tips for writing a good application for someone who has been out of education for some time and has been mainly focused on survival?

I have one specific course and university in mind for a couple of reasons:
  • It is the only place within my region that does an undergraduate degree with the specific combination of modules that I am interested in
  • Instead of throwing you onto the first year of a degree course, they start with a Foundation Year specifically designed for older students who have been out of education for a while, which I think would be super helpful for me
My life for the past few years has consisted largely of surviving financially without having a great deal of time or spare cash for the kind of impressive extra-curricular activities beloved of university admissions people. Instead, I have been running my own small business with mixed success and bouncing around entry-level temp jobs to top up and keep my bank account above zero. (Which is partly why I'm wanting to make this big change and study at university!)

What sort of thing are admissions people looking for from people in my situation? It's a given that I have a deep interest in the subject of the course I'm applying for, so mentioning it feels redundant, as does the overused word 'passionate'. I wouldn't be applying for a degree if I wasn't interested and - dare I say - passionate. I have a specific career goal in mind at the end of the course - is that good or bad?

Am I over-thinking and over-worrying this, or am I going to get my application thrown in the bin because I didn't spend three months last year building a school in Tanzania? I'm involved with a political party locally, and with a walking group, and a local amateur radio club, but those are just ordinary things.

Applications for this specific course with the foundation year are only accepted from people over 21 who've been out of education for a while, so I'm not competing against a lot of 18-year-olds out of school. The institution in question says that they "particularly welcome applications from mature students with non-standard qualifications" which feels encouraging, but how do I stand out?

It's the first time in my life that I've been in a financial position to go to university and also had a really clear idea of what I want to do and where I see myself in a few years, so I'm really terrified of getting rejected.
posted by winterhill to Education (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You write beautifully and that's the first thing they're going to notice. I don't know how different things are over there but here in the US I've worked with scads of university students who cannot write a clear sentence.

Explain how you got interested in the subject you want to study. If you've chosen the field because it will pay you more do not say that!

Don't waste too much time describing the work you've done so far unless it is related to your chosen field of study, just summarize. Ditto for the extracurriculars. And hobbies.

Is there any way you can do some volunteering in the area you want to study. If so, do it, and not just because it will look good on your application but also because it will give you a better understanding of the field.

Don't overthink it. And if, by some chance, they do not accept you this year try again next year. There's a highly competitive small program at my (small rural public) university and students sometimes try two or three times to get in.

Best of luck to you.
posted by mareli at 6:32 AM on January 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you've chosen the field because it will pay you more do not say that!
It will pay more than entry-level temping, but that's not why I'm interested. It's something I've always been interested in.

I should add that there's a 4,000-character limit for a personal statement on English university applications. I can't quite picture 4,000 characters, I'd have preferred a word limit, but I'm guessing it's around 800 words. That feels a little short to me to explain everything!
posted by winterhill at 6:42 AM on January 28, 2019

You are underselling yourself and definitely overthinking to the point that you might self-sabotage.

Of course it's a given that you are interested in the course, but the institution will absolutely want to hear you explain why. It is not redundant! They will also want to hear your career goals and where you see the degree taking you. They'll be especially pleased to hear you talk about specific modules and reasons for choosing this course at this university. Honestly, if you write up the things you've dismissed here as un-impressive and basic, you will have a strong application.

Running a small business as well as working part time and partaking in your three hobbies/groups are NOT "ordinary things". Make the most of them. Talk about the skills they've given you and the drive they've given you to do this course. Talk about your dreams, ambition and goals. These are all things which make your application strong.

Compared to the average boneheaded 18 year old who has decided to go to university because that's what everyone does, trust me, you have masses going for you. Especially as the course seems very suited to your position in life.

Best of luck and please believe you are in a strong position with a lot of assets on your side. I am sure that if you write this well, but with a positive rather than a dismissive stance, you will have a strong application. And as mareli says, keep trying if, for some reason, you don't succeed this time. It doesn't mean you're not suited to uni or that your dreams are too ambitious. Good luck! I believe in you and you should believe in yourself.

The short word limit should give you an idea that this is not a "trick" task. They're not asking you to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are the perfect student. They want to see why you want to do the course and why you are suited to it, and what you've done in your life that contributes to your application. It's not rocket science or trying to catch you out.
posted by mymbleth at 6:43 AM on January 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

I did my BA at the regular time, but applied to med school at 36. This may sound unhelpful, but I wouldn't be shy about just telling your story in (almost) the way you'd tell a friend. Maybe a third interest in the field, a third explaining what you've been up to, and a third future plans?
posted by 8603 at 7:37 AM on January 28, 2019

You don't need to stand out in the way you think you do. Applying as a mature student, particularly for foundation years, is not about amazing extra-curriculars. It is about thoughtfully conveying your interest in this specific programme, and the possibilities a degree in the specific area would offer you.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:04 AM on January 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

Winterhill. You got this. You have everything you need already. You are a great candidate and what you have to do is make the clearly laid out rationale. 4000 characters is a good solid succinctly structured five paragraphs.

First paragraph:
- I am thrilled to apply for this program. It is the perfect intersection to advance my plans.
- [It is a given that you are interested or you wouldn't apply. But where does this interest come from?] Reading ____ article or book five years ago / encountering ____ person / having ____ experience sparked my interest in ____.
- Subsequent experiences / reading / study on my own of ____ have deepened or broadened or opened my eyes to other aspects of ____ and helped me realize that what I really want to learn and do is ____.

Second paragraph:
- I am excited and ready [not to make more money than temping but] to bring my background and experiences together and take this opportunity to use this compelling program to study ____ deeply, develop a _____ practice, and launch me towards Specific Career I have in mind.
- I would like to _____.
- This module will help me ____. That module will help me ____. The combination in particular appeals to me because I want to ____.
- I believe that ____ is really important, especially in today's ____ world.

Third paragraph:
- Over the past few years I have developed an interest in X through running my small business.
- I launched it with ____ goals and did it while maintaining day jobs in ___.
- Doing both things at once taught me ____.
- One early business setback taught me ____.
- Another setback taught me ____.
- One success I had made me realize that I was actually really good at ____, or that I wanted to do _____ all the time.
- And that the way to do it was through learning ____, more ____ and skills in ____.

Fourth paragraph:
- I've enjoyed getting involved with my local political party initially because ____ but over time now really appreciate the ____ / ____.
- Through projects and initiatives and campaigns like ____ I have developed skills / connections / insight into ______. One time, ______.
- I believe getting involved at the grassroots level has helped me ____ which will be useful / give me personal meaning and satisfaction both in my studies and afterwards.
- Walking group and local amateur radio club: Communications, exploring, connecting and collaborating with others - also useful / personally significant in my studies and afterwards.

Fifth paragraph:
- I took an indirect path to get here, but I am now ready and prepared to take my studies and ambitions to the next level.
- And along the way have developed ____ qualities / personal strengths that I think will make me a smarter, more thoughtful student: ____, ___ and ___.
- I don't think I would have been in this position earlier in my life, but _______ now.

posted by sestaaak at 8:25 AM on January 28, 2019 [9 favorites]

I am a US person who applied to a UK university as a mature student at 31, having been a stay at home parent for several years, without A levels, and without the strong science background suggested for my course. My uni had a mature students liaison at that time (not sure about now...) and I emailed her with all my angst and she wrote back: 'Dear verb: Go for it!' And she went on to tell me that what they're looking for is evidence that I will succeed on the course. She included specific comments from someone in my department saying that as long as someone is motivated, they want them. She gave me suggestions for addressing how my experience as a parent had given me demonstrated skills in multitasking, prioritising, and time management. I gave examples of how I'd spent my time exploring my interest in the subject (unpaid work, specific examples of seminars or classes I'd attented, or reading I'd done) and gave specific examples of what led me to wanting to do a formal course in the subject at that time and what I wanted to do in the field in the future. (If you have particular personal experience or a personal reason that has drawn you to the field, also mention that.) I got an unconditional offer directly onto the course, no foundation year required.

As you point out, it's not a lot of space to make a case for yourself - but that's intentional. I was able to cram in what I needed to. It might have been something like 5 sentences. It was crazy compact. From my perspective, UK universities value mature students. You're not begging, you're not in a weak position here - you're a strong candidate as a mature student, they value your experience, there's a baseline assumption that you know what you want to do and you're more likely to succeed on the course than a recent leaver, and they just want some additional information confirming that you've got the skills, interest and motivation to succeed on the course.
posted by you must supply a verb at 9:29 AM on January 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

Don't focus on why you want them, focus on why they want you. You're selling yourself.

So think of character traits that you have that will take you far, and then tell an anecdote illustrating those traits. Like maybe you're a leader, you're a problem-solver, you're resourceful -- and you know that because your response to XYZ event/opportunity was to successfully launch and run your business. Or maybe there was a crisis that you overcame by tapping into those qualities. Etc. Basically, an uplifting and happy story that shines a light on you as someone with great potential. Make sure your storytelling is engaging, too -- give the reader a good hook, establish what's at stake, use a simplified three-act structure (Problem/Response/Conclusion), end the anecdote with an interesting "takeaway," etc. You're clearly a good writer, so I'm sure you can do this well. And you have TONS more material to work with than a 21-year-old, so I'm sure that you can find something to spin a yarn about :) Also make sure that whatever the obstacle was that you faced, you OVERCAME IT. People will often try to write essays like this about obstacles that they're still facing, but that puts them in an odd or unflattering light. Make sure that in this narrative, you're triumphant, just like -- with the help of your degree at [School Name] -- you'll be triumphant when you [insert your grandest aspirations here].

Then, wrap up by telling them what you aspire to do, and make it sound like you're going to be a successful and well-respected person -- just the sort of person that the school will be proud to have as an alumni (and who they might be able to hit up for $ or connections after graduation). That's also when you mention anything about the specific courses of study that the school has that will take you there.

For me, that's been a successful formula; however, the tone that I've used for my app essays might sound too "American" for your audience, so adjust as necessary. But really, schools are looking for people who will be helpful to the school by being part of the cohort and/or after graduation. So focus on how you're a good bet for meeting the school's needs, just like you would focus on the needs of the "customers" that you're meeting whenever you need to sell yourself.
posted by rue72 at 9:32 AM on January 28, 2019

The reason kids go off to build schools in Tanzania before applying to uni is because they have zero life experience and so have to magic some up super-quick to try and make themselves stand out (I mean, I’m sure also because it’s interesting, character-building etc.)

You don’t have to do that because you have heaps of life experience. I agree with everyone who says that those things you dismiss as “just ordinary” are not - they’re only ordinary for you. They show you are self-motivated, curious, interested in people and the world around you, and don’t spend all your leisure time sitting on the sofa.
posted by penguin pie at 12:02 PM on January 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don't have much to say other than you rock! Go for it. There are actually places that you can get credits for 'life experience' so never downplay your real world hard-won knowledge. Sestaaak nailed it--talk about your passion, but think of your essay as an application for a job. You bring multiple skills and experience to the table. Sell yourself.

As a late returning student--mumble mumble 50+--I was pretty intimated at first, but as an adult student, the professors will love you. You're motivated, you will do your homework, you participate in class, you understand what a group project is, and you can bring life experience into the classroom. I lived through Viet Nam and Watergate, have actually driven and plowed with a team of horses, and have slaughtered cattle--there were some interesting discussions in my poli-sci and medieval history classes because I knew my shit.

Also, within your classes, there are plenty of students that may look to you as a mentor, and usually folks wanting a study group will gravitate into your group, because your group does--you know--actually study. The rest are in school to party and already know everything anyway, so you won't get any respect because you're one of the 'olds'--but whateves.

I love to learn and take classes, and I always enjoyed my teachers. I feel learning is never a waste of time, and I hope you can enjoy your core classes, even though you're going to be focused on the degree and the eventual job. I used to be totally disgusted with students that would bitch about an English, ethics, logic, or humanities class--'how's this going to get me a job?' (IMO, they're the one that really need this, kiddies! Education means learning about being a human being.)

You probably won't need the Foundation Year, because you know how to work and apply yourself, but it would be a nice entry to university life. I took as many intro courses as I could, just 'cause. One of them was a course on How to Use the University Library. Much of it was review, but it made me faster in my referencing, introduced me to the librarians--so I had an "in" with the right people, and eventually I got a part-time position partially because of it, which gave me a few extra bucks and a warm place to study when we weren't busy. I found out through another intro that I was eligible to upgrade any course to an honors course, depending on what the requirements were. Profs were tickled that I really was interested in what they were teaching! Most H-appends on the grade were easy to get--an extra research paper, maybe a speech, etc. I was 2 credits short of graduating with enough honors credits to have it noted on my diploma, but I sometimes used to gently mention that I had 28 HC credits when I applied for jobs. (Why, yes, I am an over-achiever.)

I wondered where your first question was going to lead you, happy you posted this, and glad that you are going back.
posted by BlueHorse at 1:20 PM on January 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

I've done a little bit of application processing at a UK university, and the one thing that sprang out was you mentioned they might assume you had interest in the subject. Don't assume that, it's one of the things we specifically look for. I agree with the suggestion above that it should be at least a third of the application. Tell them where that interest comes from, how you've pursued it, areas you're particularly interested in, what you'd like to do with it careerwise. Don't worry about appearing too keen, you're applying to a department full of people so keen they've made an academic career of it.

For the mature student aspect cover your work, interests, life in general and use it to illustrate the skills you have. I'll guess you have strong organisational skills if you're running a business, be used to self motivating and working independently, gathering information/research, meeting deadlines, working in teams, you clearly have strong writing skills. All sorts of useful things.

Leave them with the impression you are keen on this subject, you have plans for what to do with it, and you're the kind of person who will put in the work to achieve them.

Two disclaimers. I work for a university with no foundation years or particular provision for mature students so I'm fuzzier on that aspect, and also I'm not an admissions officer, I just get to help out in the busy season.
posted by SometimeNextMonth at 4:53 PM on January 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

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