Applying to a Brand New Subject at University: My Politics Journey

Exams are finally over! Researching courses and collecting preliminary ideas this summer before you enter Year 13 leaves you with enough time to fill any gaps with experiences and reading before you actually have to apply to further education. The closest A-level I did to my politics degree was history, which isn’t too outlandish, but it still took me ages to write my personal statement.

No matter how much research I did, I still felt somewhat unsure as to what would be expected. No, I didn’t take my own advice and write my personal statement far in advance of the deadline (at all), but with the help of an awesome tutor, I still got into all the unis for which I applied. Some tips on that are below.

Tip 1: Use what you do study at A-Level

Focus on your academic strengths and link them to the degree. A good starting point for politics specifically is to brainstorm any favourite themes in your current subjects and then see if any of them are political. Trust me, anything can be linked to politics, especially with deliberate phrasing. But this applies to any subject: use what you know, make a mind map or list, and find the links! 

As an example, some good A-Levels to discuss for politics:

  • Any humanities: like history or geography – many themes you study (Nationalism. War. Source analysis. Migration. Global warming. Population growth.) are inherently political. Pick out what fascinates you and show how it inspired you to read outside the syllabus.
  • Classics, Latin etc.: that’s where a lot of modern political theory (my personal favourite) originated!
  • Social sciences: like sociology, or psychology – they share a lot of their concepts and methodology with politics.
  • Modern foreign languages: comparative politics and international relations both require an understanding of how political systems and societies operate in other countries, and learning about another culture can really help you understand a government’s historic and cultural roots.
  • Maths and sciences: it’s counterintuitive, but quantitative research and statistics are really important in the social sciences – they’re not always mandatory at undergraduate level, but can make you stand out by showcasing not only that you have thought carefully about your application, but also about future career paths and employability.

Honestly, you could link any subject, as anything can be political. Even art (Banksy, Picasso, Ai Weiwei?), music (look how the Beatles or Bob Marley inspired generations) and photography (Don McCullin is a particular favourite of mine) can be very relevant to your application.

An EPQ is an obvious one for any subject, as you have free choice of your area of study, and it shows you to be an independent researcher and I admittedly had to think about that one. If I were doing computer sciences and applying for politics, I would talk about human rights linked to technology (right to privacy, right to the internet etc.), the influence of social media in politics, and computational politics (I know little about this, but comp sci can do a lot when it comes to analysing language in political speeches; there’s an AI element, and obviously everything can be linked back to statistics; Google is your friend here).

I’ve made my point. Whatever topics/subfields inspire you personally are what will convince a university that you will become a passionate and committed student with them. I won’t deny that it’s easier to find connections for politics than for other subjects (everything IS political), but there will be a way, and it might even feel like a fun challenge to discover the links to your new subject (it always does for me).

Tip 2: Think about extracurriculars, visits, and interests

Universities want to see you go out of your way to engage with your chosen subject and what motivates your university choice. However, don’t forget that UCAS advises prospective students to use twenty percent or less of their personal statement for extracurriculars (not everything I mention in this tip has to go into extracurriculars). How to make those twenty percent count?

A little goes a long way. You don’t have time, experience, money, health, or energy (all valid) for a three-month summer work placement in London to make your application really stand out? No worries! You might already be doing extracurricular activities that fit your chosen subject. Obvious ones for politics: Model UN, debate club, prefect roles (political representation!). But even skills from sports/volunteering/creative writing apply.

Politics students need solid writing skills, the ability to form your own opinions and support your claims with examples, and (though this one is my personal opinion) a curiosity about what is right and what is wrong in the world around you. Maybe you were shortlisted in a short story award which shows you to be excellent at structuring a narrative (and essays do have a narrative, no matter how scientific they may be), or you volunteered with disabled people and thus got interested in their political representation?

My point remains: anything can be political, and this is a massive advantage for your application. My expertise lies with politics, but this definitely applies to other subjects too. The most important aspects here are to highlight your passion and find a clear link to the degree. Use the examples for politics above and have a think about how they resemble your situation.

If you can’t do much at the moment (again, all reasons are valid, don’t beat yourself up), consider that the way a seemingly more trivial experience impacted you and how you discuss it can be more important than its actual length or grandeur. Maybe you just went to a history museum with your family, or maybe a Saturday morning workshop at your local council inspired you? Provide concise details.

I’ve personally done months of work experience abroad and visited multiple parliaments in various countries, but none of this impacted me as much as seeing the actual 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty in a small museum during a simple (and cheap!) London day trip (see photo) with my wonderful former flatmate, and I would write about that experience far more passionately and eloquently than the more “impressive” ones above. Obviously, it’s important to tick the boxes. But personal statements are written texts instead of CVs for a reason.

Why this subject? Do a mind map, or a simple list, but make sure it’s written down somewhere. What makes you passionate about the subject is what will show universities your potential as a future student of your dream degree.

Tip 3: Is the course right for you?

I urge you to thoroughly research your dream course and its individual modules (the ‘programme structure’ tab on the course page is your friend). Particular politics subfields to look out for and research specifically are comparative politics, international relations, and political theory, as these are what a lot of first-year units (and really whole undergraduate degrees) are structured around.

Universities will advise you that individual units are subject to change, but the programme structure as a whole is normally unlikely to drastically change from one year to the next. In other words, don’t apply to a university for one specific unit or lecturer, but take the programme catalogue as an indicator of the department’s strengths and focus. Questions to consider:

  • How many optional modules are there and how much choice will I actually have in each year? This differs widely between programmes and can also depend on Joint versus Single Honours, but is a key criterion in my opinion. Social sciences, arts, and humanities (like politics, philosophy, or languages) tend to have more options and variety (and therefore a greater difference between universities) than, say, chemistry, maths, or engineering. Take this into account.
  • How theoretical is the course? As a rule of thumb, politics courses higher up the ranking can include a bit more theory than others, but this can apply to e.g. language degrees too. But it really depends on the university and your own preferences. I personally adore (political) theory and it’s the only thing I want to study all day, but that certainly doesn’t apply to the majority of people in my experience. Do some reading and make sure the course is in line with your expectations.
  • What does the website say about the department’s focus? Some departments will have a specialty, be it a subfield, an approach, or even a country (in case of politics, anthropology, the likes), with relevant research groups often signposted on the department website. If you find a specific specialty that fascinates you, it could be relevant to your decision, but also useful to mention in your personal statement. Nobody will force you to stick with it if you arrive in September and end up hating whatever first drew you to politics. There are many options open to you.

There are a million more reasons for your choice of uni… ranking, city vs campus, location, price, scholarships/funding, university culture, grades, academic pressure… but I have always found the actual course content to matter most, even accepting a ‘less prestigious’ offer for my master’s because I preferred the content. However, any criteria you use are valid! Don’t let anybody else make this important decision for you.

When you have determined your dream course, make sure to highlight what you value in a good (insert subject here) programme in your personal statement (obviously without naming any institutions if you’re applying to multiple) so that the universities can see that you have done your research and know what to expect from an (insert subject again) degree.

Tip 4: Further reading

Further reading is twofold. On one hand, it’s important to research what you will be studying, so you understand if that degree at that university really is the right choice for you, what subfields interest you, and how to link your specific interests to the things that make that university stand out.

They want to see that you’ve done your research on the programme and what makes their department special. On the other hand, any further reading you find will show you to be proactive and well-informed on the discipline despite your lack of prior teaching therein. 

Often a university will have some indicated reading for prospective students on their website, especially for the arts, humanities, and social sciences, but even if your dream uni doesn’t, nobody is keeping you from checking out other university websites, especially higher-ranked ones.

During your first year there will be a lot of similarities between courses at different unis, with similar mandatory courses, and you can always check how any reading you find relates to modules at your dream university. Your A-Level teachers might also be able to help. Even if it’s just a textbook, it will make you aware of different approaches to the field and (…further…) further reading you can use in your application!

Tip 5: Don’t forget to link your previous experience back

This is the most important tip, and the through-line to all my previous tips: try to find your dream subject in all your previous achievements, studies, and interests! It will look awesome on your application if you’re highly engaged with your subject of choice despite it not appearing on your formal timetable. More importantly, however, it will train your mind to think like an (insert subject just once more) student.

Looking at our case study: everything can be political; politics is not limited to institutions (there are academics who would argue otherwise, but for the sake of your application I urge you to consider my perspective for the time being) but exists all around us. And in my (fully un-biased, I know) opinion, that’s what makes it the best subject in the whole world. But you should do whatever subject makes you that giddy, so go ahead and get started on applying to your dream course!

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Passionate, curious, kind, 2+ years of online tutoring experience specialising in languages, politics and history

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