It’s that time of year when Sixth Form students are writing personal statements to accompany university applications. University applications are a competitive minefield. For those applying to Oxbridge and other top ranking universities there is yet more to consider with a myriad of entrance exams such as UCAT, BMAT, MAT, STEP or AEA to be completed alongside their studies as well as competing with equally high-ability students. The acceptance ratio for competitive courses at top universities can be less than 1 in 15. Added to this, there’s the pressure of writing an 800-word personal statement with often little more to include than academic study over the previous two years.

In 2019 41% of students achieved A or A* in A Level Mathematics – almost 24,600 students – rising to 54% in Further Mathematics. With similar figures in German (41%) and French (37%) – students are increasingly reliant on entrance exams or admissions tests to mark themselves out from the crowd. Alongside this, many independent schools are offering the International Baccalaureate with its compulsory Creativity, Activity, Service elements adding an extra dimension. So for candidates studying traditional A levels volunteering can offer a vital boost.

Duke of Edinburgh’s Award

While it exists at three levels, Gold Award remains a popular choice, in particular for medical school applicants – more than 12,000 students completed it last year. The Gold Award takes 12-18 months to complete, often beginning in Year 12 to allow time to revise prior to the start of final exams. The scheme is split into four key areas: volunteering, physical, skills and a four-night expedition. Not for the faint-hearted, the scheme requires real commitment but for those who complete the award it imparts a new level of confidence, independence and teamwork skill. Candidates complete the award and the expedition as part of a small team – developing great communication, planning and interpersonal skills along the way. The range of activities completed over the duration of the award give the candidates plenty to talk about both in their personal statement and at interview, while developing life-long skills.

International Baccalaureate (IB) and Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS)

In the UK, 20 state schools and 87 independent currently offer the IB Diploma programme – equivalent to A levels. The IB is a rigorous academic programme featuring the compulsory CAS elements. Developing similar skills to the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, CAS aims to support students to develop self-confidence, maturity and open-mindedness alongside an ‘ethic of service’. IB students are encouraged to become life-long citizens of the world, developing a sense of community spirit throughout their studies.

Volunteer Uniformed Cadets

From St John Ambulance Cadets, the Combined Cadet Force to Volunteer Police Cadets and Fire Cadets, there’s a world of opportunity for young people interested in supporting the community while developing much needed life-skills. Many of the groups have received significant funding in recent months to boost the numbers of young people getting involved in uniformed cadet organisations – the London Fire Brigade received more than £1,000,000; it is a great time for young people to join. Like Duke of Edinburgh, volunteering as a cadet encourages young people to develop strong teamwork skills and confidence, while also instilling a strong sense of discipline. Most cadet organisations require weekly or twice-weekly attendance with optional activities, expeditions or courses during weekends and school holidays.

The organisations offer young people a chance to experience future careers and the workplace first hand while also giving back to their local community. Volunteer Police Cadets are able to assist with crowd management of large public events such as Notting Hill Carnival while St John Ambulance Cadets provide first aid to members of the public at similar large-scale events giving students plenty to write about when the time comes.

Embedding Service at School

Volunteering and fundraising at schools can be a great way to motivate less engaged students while raising money for vital causes. For example, whole schools can help support students in countries where access to education is limited by raising money to build schools and fund teacher training. Fundraising activities such as bake sales is a great way of motivating all learners while supporting good causes. Often activities can be student-led by School Council or student leaders, enabling young people to develop leadership, teamwork and time-management skills.

Volunteering is not just about filling up those 800 words or finding something to say at interview; it’s about students becoming life-long citizens with a strong sense of independence, community and confidence so they will thrive both at university and in the wider world.

This article is approximately the length of a UCAS personal statement!


This article was written by Sophia Harrison who is a Teacher of Mathematics at CATS College London and Volunteer with St John Ambulance