STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates are some of the most sought after by employers in the industrial and corporate world.
With the increasing popularity of STEM courses, university places are becoming more and more competitive. Here are 6 tips to help you get onto the STEM course you’re interested in:
1. Start Early
Start thinking about the STEM university course that you hope to aim for whilst choosing your A Levels/IB/Pre U. Often science subjects or Maths are mandatory for entry onto STEM degree courses. In addition, some universities like to see that you have stretched yourself with courses like Further Maths or a language, so it is vital that you know this well in advance of applications.
STEM courses can vary broadly between universities, with some offering joint honours or a year in industry. So as well as researching the obvious courses, (such as Physics, Chemistry or Maths) perhaps consider a lesser-known specialist course such as Radiotherapy, Marine Engineering or Medical Physics. Think about the sciences that you enjoy, the career you hope for after university, and the way in which you like to learn.
2. Get experience
There are tonnes of STEM-related opportunities you can get involved with, even from an early age. Trying them out now will help you to decide whether or not STEM is definitely for you, plus it will give you something interesting to include on your CV or Personal Statement later down the line. Here are a few ideas:
Interested in how to protect computer systems from damage to their hardware or software? Cyber Security’s main competitions programme involves online qualifiers and face-to-face semi-finals, culminating in the annual Masterclass grand finale where their champion of the year is crowned. Click here to get involved.
- Student robotics competition
Run by Southampton University, this is an annual robot building competition that requires competitors to work in small teams. Anyone 16-18 can compete, but the team leader needs to be 18 or older. You can also volunteer to help out at the event. Click here to find out how to compete.
If you're a girl or young woman interested in STEM, get involved with STEMettes. They run competitions, panel events, talks and networking events across the UK and they're all free. You can also download their app, which is packed full of useful advice. Click here to find out more.
It can be tricky to find relevant STEM work experience before you have a university degree, but it's definitely possible.
Start your search by asking family, friends, teachers and school alumni if they have any contacts with scientists working in industry or academia who you could shadow. Alternatively, you can search on industrial, science-based company websites to learn about their insight days and work placement opportunities. Siemens, for example, offer work experience placements across the country, covering a range of STEM fields. For more information, click here.
At your school or in your local community, you may find the opportunity to start a STEM study group, where you could tutor younger students, share your knowledge and learn from others about their interests in science. Demonstrating this initiative and motivation in a Personal Statement would be as impressive as finding work experience.
Examples ideas for STEM work experience:
- Water works, research and development department at a local factory, green energy, oil and gas company (Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Engineering)
- Pharmaceutical company, nursing home, hospital or GP (Medical Sciences and Human Biology)
- App development company, IT security company, school IT department (Computer Sciences)
- Local astronomy observation centres, automobile and aviation manufacturers (Maths, Physics and Astronomy)
- Local science museum, writing for a student science journal, shadowing a science teacher (All STEM).
3. Do your research
Alongside work experience, reading outside of your school studies will supplement your understanding and give you more of an insight into your chosen field. Follow STEM stories in the news or read the numerous blogs and online articles dedicated to STEM. There are a number of science magazines, such as New Scientist, that you can subscribe to or find at a library. In your local bookshop, you will often find a Popular Science section.
Tip: Science articles and books will often talk about subjects or experiments that you don’t understand. If you have time, perhaps look it up online to broaden your understanding. Most importantly, don’t panic. The reading for your subject shouldn’t become demanding or overly time consuming, so do not worry if there are a few points that you do not understand.
Extra reading should ideally be done well in advance of writing your Personal Statement so that you can take the time to learn about topics you enjoy and can avoid a rush when it comes to the deadline. At interview, it is likely that you will be asked about any books mentioned in your Personal Statement, so make sure that you are comfortable talking about what you have read.
There are also many ways to explore your subject aside from reading. The Infinite Monkey Cage, 60-Second Science and Radiolab are all podcasts available to download for free online. You could also watch documentaries or attend open lectures at universities.
Tip: Note down anything interesting that you find whilst conducting your independent research. Your observations could become discussion material for your Personal Statement or interview later on.
4. Nail the Personal Statement
Your Personal Statement should demonstrate your enthusiasm, love for your subject and motivation. It will include work experience, articles and extra curricular learning that have particularly taken your interest and have lead you to think deeper about your STEM subject. Look at your chosen university department websites and find out what they are looking for in incoming students - how can you tailor your Personal Statement to demonstrate these qualities?
Avoid listing your work experience or the books you’ve read. Instead demonstrate that you can be thoughtful by evaluating each experience. Draw links between different books, articles, lectures etc. to show you are able to process and apply what you’ve learnt.
Instead of: “I shadowed a GP for a week to learn more about medicine.”
Try: “Whilst shadowing a GP, I was fascinated to see how medical concepts were simplified and explained to members of the public. This lead me to read X book on the ethical role that doctors play when giving diagnoses.”
When writing about the STEM reading you have done, it is helpful to think about the following:
- How did reading about your subject make you feel?
- What was the most interesting thing you learned from your book/ article?
- As a result of reading this book/ article, what did you read next?
- What did you research about more as a result of your reading?
- What opinions do you have on the experiments that you read about?
Similarly, when writing about your work experience, it is helpful to think about the following:
- What did you observe whilst on your work experience?
- What did you learn that you didn’t know before?
- How did the experience build upon your pre-existing Sixth Form knowledge?
- What questions did you ask whilst at work experience?
If you have any extra-curricular activities mentioned in your Personal Statement, see if you can link them to your STEM interests. For example, when applying for a Mathematics degree, consider the way Maths features in Music and the music you play with your orchestra. Alternatively, if you are in your school hockey team, think about how human biology and chemistry is linked to your ability to play this sport.
5. Practice for your interview or admissions test
Once you have submitted your UCAS application, you might be invited to an interview or test, something that will have been indicated on the course webpage in advance.
For a test, it is a good idea to brush up on your Sixth Form subject knowledge and research the format of the test. If there are practice papers online, complete them under exam conditions and ask a teacher to mark them with you.
It is unlikely that a STEM admissions test will be solely based on your school work, so get used to working to a timer, making calculations under pressure and applying what knowledge you have imaginatively in a new context.
At interview, you are likely to be faced with a mixture of general questions about why you chose the course and your Personal Statement, plus questions that will test your STEM knowledge. Be prepared to talk about areas of the subject that you are interested in, science in the news and any reading you have mentioned in your Personal statement. Above all, stay relaxed, avoid rushing answers and be confident in your knowledge.
6. Get the best grades possible
Of course, it’s easier said than done. STEM courses are often some of the most competitive and sought after places. It’s crucial that your Personal Statement and application are backed up with strong grades to finally secure your desired university place. Often admissions tutors are looking for qualities such as precision and attention to detail in their STEM candidates and nothing says this like a strong set of grades.
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