In order to get a place on the STEM course of your dreams, you’ll need to demonstrate the right skills. Use this guide to find out how.
1. Start early
Start thinking about the STEM university course you want to study before choosing your Level 3 qualifications (e.g. A-Levels, BTECs or IB). Often science subjects or Maths are mandatory for entry onto STEM courses, and some universities also like to see that you’ve stretched yourself with subjects like Further Maths.
2. Think widely
STEM courses can vary a lot between universities, with some offering joint honours programmes or a year in industry.
As well as researching the obvious courses (like Physics, Chemistry and Maths), it’s worth considering lesser-known courses such as Radiotherapy, Marine Engineering and Medical Physics. Think about the sciences that you enjoy, the career you hope for after university, and whether you’d like to keep your focus broad, or narrow it.
Useful tip: Unifrog’s UK Universities tool will suggest ‘subjects you might like’ and ‘related subjects’ when you begin your search, which is a great way to see what else is out there. If you search for ‘Biology’, for example, the tool will suggest Animal Biology, Molecular Biology and Forensic Biology (amongst others) for ‘subjects you might like’. You could also use the Subjects library to search by school subject (such as ‘Mathematics’) or by subject area (such as ‘Mathematical sciences’).
3. 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 on 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.
- 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.
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.
It can be tricky to find relevant STEM work experience before you have a university degree, but it's definitely possible.
Begin your search by asking family, friends, teachers and school alumni if they know any scientists working in industry or academia who you could shadow. Alternatively, you could search on industrial, science-based company websites to learn about their insight days and work placement opportunities. Siemens, for example, offers work experience placements across the UK, covering a range of STEM fields.
At your school or in your local community, you might 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.
Here are some other organisations and groups you could approach for STEM work experience:
Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Engineering
- water works companies, eg Thames Water
- research and development department at a local factory
- green energy, oil and gas company
Medical Sciences and Human Biology
- pharmaceutical company
- nursing home
- hospital or GP
- app development company
- IT security company
- school IT department
Maths, Physics and Astronomy
- local astronomy observation centre
- automobile and aviation manufacturer
- local science museum
- student science journal
- science teacher (for shadowing)
4. 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 most bookshops 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, do background research online to broaden your understanding. Most importantly, don’t panic - the reading for your subject shouldn’t become demanding or overly time-consuming, so don’t worry if there are a few points that you don’t understand.
Wider 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 avoid a rush when it comes to the deadline. If you’re invited to a university interview, it’s likely that you’ll 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.
5. Nail the Personal Statement
Your Personal Statement should demonstrate your enthusiasm, love for your subject and motivation. It should detail work experience, articles and extra-curricular learning that has led you to think more deeply about your STEM subject.
Look at your chosen university departments’ websites and find out what they are looking for in applicants - 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 led me to read X book on the ethical role that doctors play when giving diagnoses.”
When writing about the STEM reading you have done, 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, 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, if you play an instrument, when applying for a Mathematics degree, consider the way maths features in music.
6. Practise 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.
For an admissions test, it’s really important to research the format and content of the test. If there are practice papers online, do some 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 imaginatively in a new context your existing knowledge.
At the 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.
7. Get the best grades possible
Of course this is easier said than done. Places on STEM courses are often some of the most competitive. To secure your desired university place it’s crucial that your Personal Statement and application are backed up with strong grades. Admissions tutors are looking for qualities such as precision and attention to detail, and nothing says this like a strong set of grades.