Application to top UK universities is highly competitive. It is often not enough to simply have strong set of academic grades; admissions tutors will expect you to be able to communicate your enthusiasm and commitment to study your chosen subject at undergraduate level. This can be done most prominently in your personal statement, and also at interview, for those courses and institutions that do so.
One of the ways in which you can demonstrate that you are passionate about your subject is to explain how you have explored it beyond the curriculum you have been taught at school. This type of learning is often referred to as super-curricular learning.
What is super-curricular learning?
Super-curricular learning takes place outside of your directed teaching time at school and is independently led by you. It could include you building upon an area of interest developed as a part of your sixth form studies or you may wish to explore something entirely new.
The range of super-curricular learning activities is vast, for example:
- Academic Competitions: Many universities and organisations run academic competitions for school-aged students (a sample list can be found here)
- Courses: Pre-pandemic courses were commonly delivered in person and often offered by universities during the summer holidays. However, now there is a huge range of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) available online.
- Online Resources: The internet is home to wealth of other resources from online lectures to wider reading.
- Podcasts: Podcasts are possibly the most convenient method of engaging with super-curricular learning. You can listen to them anywhere at any time.
- Reading: Reading represents a great starting point for super-curricular learning. Gather reading recommendations is easier than you think; speak to your schoolteachers and consult university course pages as most will refer you specially prepared reading lists for prospective applicants.
Many of these activities are freely available and as such developing a passion in a subject does not have to be a costly business! Ultimately, when selecting super-curricular learning activities to pursue they should lead to you developing a deeper understanding of your chosen subject.
Why is super-curricular learning so important?
Super-curricular learning is not just about readying yourself to apply to selective universities it will also teach you invaluable skills, which will stand you in good stead at undergraduate level and in later life. University College at Oxford have explained the benefits in a useful video. In short, super-curricular learning activities can develop your ability to
- research independently,
- take on board new information,
- and think critically.
With regards to applying to university, taking part in super-curricular learning activities will allow you test the extent of your interest in your chosen subject. By exploring a subject in more detail, you will better understand your interest in it and crucially be in a stronger position to determine whether you would like to study it for at least 3 years at university!
Additionally, admissions tutors, especially those at the most selective universities, will want to be convinced of a student’s genuine passion for the subject they are applying for. Talking about the super-curricular learning you have engaged within your personal statement (and at interview should your course require one) will demonstrate the extent of your interest.
Should you do lots of different things or a few in more detail?
Keep in mind that admissions tutors do not count the number of academic enrichment tasks you have completed but instead focus on the extent to which you have engaged with those you have chosen to do. Importantly, they will be looking at how you are your super-curricular learning has influenced and shaped your thinking about your chosen subject as well as the skills you have developed. We would recommend that you try to explore a range of different types of super-curricular learning activity, as this will help to demonstrate the breadth of your research.
What should students be doing with the information (note taking etc)?
This is a must in our view! Keeping a record will encourage you to think about how each learning activity has influenced and developed your thinking or knowledge. You should also try to record how your skills have developed as a result of explore your chosen subject in this manner.
Without notes of this kind you will simply be left with a list of activities with little or no connection between them which will make it much harder to write or speak about them with confidence when it comes to writing your personal statement or being interviewed.
What are your top tips for getting the most out of your super-curricular learning?
- Start small: it can seem like an overwhelming challenge, but you could start by reading an introduction to your subject, such as Oxford University Press’ “Very short introductions”, to get a sense of what it might be like to pursue the subject beyond school.
- Make sure you are focused: You can engage with some super-curricular activities, such as podcasts, whilst doing other things. Try to minimize the distractions around you to ensure you are actively engaging with the activity.
- Take notes! Get into the habit of noting down key information, as this will provide you with a place to refer back to.
General resource suggestions:
Both Oxford and Cambridge provide prospective students with a wealth of information and suggestions when it comes to super-curricular learning.
- Cambridge University’s Super-curricular suggestions
- Oxford University’s Super-curricular suggestions
You will also find that some colleges at either institution also share recommendations (e.g. Hertford (Oxford) & King’s College (Cambridge))
- Durham University reading list
- King's College Cambridge reading lists
- Manchester University reading list
- Oxford University reading list (reading lists for each course are provided)
- LSE Player – London School of Economics Podcasts
- Mind over Chatter – Cambridge University’s Podcast
- Oxford University’s Podcasts
- The Naked Scientist – Science Podcasts and Radio Shows
- Alison: Offers a range of free online courses from the Arts to the Sciences.
- Coursera: Provides universal access to the world’s best education, partnering with top universities and organizations to offer courses online.
- Future Learn: A free online courses from top universities and specialist organisations.
- edX: An online learning destination offering high-quality courses from the world’s best universities and institutions to learners everywhere. Founded by Harvard University and MIT.
- Gresham’s College: A database of free public lectures.
- iDebate: The world’s leading provider of debate resources.
- My HE Plus: Created by Cambridge University, this website looks to help students explore subjects beyond their school curriculum.
- Oxplore: Created by Oxford University to engage students debates and ideas that go beyond what is covered in the classroom.
- Oxford Sparks: Oxford University’s portal for sharing research carried out by scientists at the university.
- Staircase 12: Created by Oxford University, this website helps students to explore their subject interests outside the curricula they learn at school.
- TED Talks: A great source of inspiring talks from leading experts.
- YouTube: A wonder bank of educational videos if you know where to look!
News and current affairs:
This is of particular importance for subjects that are fast-paced and have a high research output. For students interested in Business related courses, the Financial Times and The Economist would be worth subscribing to either in print or digitally. Or for those interested in STEM the New Scientist is highly recommended.
You can filter by topic on most major news outlets and it would be wise to check these regularly.
Research Councils and Societies:
Research councils are the funding bodies for academic research in the UK and their websites provide a wealth of information about existing research as well as upcoming reports and findings. The UKRI website has a list of all the research councils covering a range of academic areas.
There are many subject societies in the UK you can join, or attend talks and events. Hertford College have a list of these you can browse to find the relevant society for your degree course.