Course Guidance: So you really want to join us?: Try to sound clear, concise and confident when discussing your future with admissions tutors on the phone - and prepare well, says Karen Gold

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The Independent Online
'I DON'T WANT to hear about their hockey and badminton. I want to know what they know about psychology and why they want this particular degree.' So says Yvette Ahmad, admissions tutor for the psychology degree at Sheffield Hallam University, which generally receives 2,000 applications for its 30 places.

Sheffield is unlikely to have psychology places in clearing. But if it does, says Ms Ahmad, the conversation between tutor and applicant on the phone or face to face will be crucial.

'If people show they've really put some effort into finding out about the psychology degree at Sheffield, that's going to put them in a better position. If they know that it emphasises social and developmental psychology and doesn't do much artificial intelligence, and that's what they want, then that shows they're serious.

'Some people say, 'I'm interested in people's minds and how they tick,' but that obviously isn't enough. I want to know that they understand you need statistics and concepts, that they know something about the different theories and therapies, not just that they're interested in people's behaviour.'

The first rule of a good interview is to know what you are talking about. The second is not to pretend you do, if you don't. So now that the first rush of checking out vacancies is over, and the chance of discussing your future with an admissions tutor is increasing, make sure that you are well prepared.

On every phone call the first thing a university will want to know is your Ucca or Peas clearing numbers and your A-level and GCSE results. Have them written down: after the third or fourth time of repeating them they can become tangled and give a poor impression.

If you write down what you want to say to a tutor - not word for word but in note form - that can be a useful prompt not only to help you remember the strong points in your cases but also to leave out the weak ones.

Tutors love their subjects and - since they have often been involved in designing the courses they teach - they usually think highly of their own university's approach to them. The last thing tutors want to hear is that applicants are less enthusiastic.

'I'm really put off if someone says they chose psychology because they didn't get on to a sociology degree. I've had someone say that]' says Yvette Ahmad. 'I've also had someone say, 'I didn't get in anywhere else for a communications degree, have you got a place in psychology?'

Make a list of the points that interest you in the course you want, and any questions you need to ask. Try to sound clear, concise and confident - standing up often helps you sound as though this is the first, energetic phone call of the day.

If you cannot help being nervous, then say so, suggests Ms Ahmad: 'We do recognise that people are nervous, and we try to relax them a bit by saying 'Tell me about yourself and what you have been doing.'

'If people say, 'I'm really nervous about talking to you and I'm quite anxious about getting on the course', then I'll usually suggest they put something in writing, if they think they can't present themselves well on the phone. That wouldn't count against them.'

Universities quite often ask for a piece of writing to support a clearing application; applicants for Brighton University's humanities course are asked to write a letter explaining why they have chosen that particular course, and no one is accepted through clearing until all the letters have been considered.

But writing a letter should not stop you visiting anywhere you are seriously considering. Colleges in quaint old towns can be over-crowded or hideous; universities in the most unglamorous inner city can turn out to be attractive lively institutions. The only way to make sound judgements on your environment and tutors for the next three years is to inspect them.

So, if no one suggests you visit before agreeing a place, suggest it yourself. Ask when tutors can spare 10 minutes to see you. Have a look at the accomodation, the student facilities, some of the course handbooks. This is not a waste of a day if it prevents you wasting a year.

As David Jacklin, engineering courses director at Cardiff Institute of Higher Education, points out: 'What we're looking for in a student is commitment - if they really want to do the course and they're prepared to get on with it. What we don't want is for people to do it as an insurance - to start the course because that's the only thing they've got and then give up at Christmas time. Because that's taking up someone elese's place.'