Extra-curricular interests can help you land that dream course

While you're working through Years 12 and 13, find time to cast your mind ahead. What you'll be doing this time next year, the year after and the year after that is not just fantasy: it's something you need to plan. Before you know it, it will be time to submit your UCAS application. You'll need to form a clear idea of what you want to study and where before deadline day.

At the moment, your personal statement is probably the last thing on your mind. It's just a quick list of hobbies, you may think. You watch Match of the Day, you check out the film releases, and you enjoy spending time with your mates - so "sports, films and socialising" should just about cover it - right? No. With more than half a million people applying to universities and colleges each year, today's over-worked admissions tutors are looking for a whole lot more.

Andrew Hughes, Durham University's admissions tutor for chemistry, received 600 applications for 350 places last year, so he can afford to be choosy. "We don't want someone who has a boring personal statement," he says. What sets you apart from the thousands of other students applying for the same place? According to Hughes, it often boils down to your outside interests. "We want students who are able to interact socially. Those who do extra-curricular activities are more likely to have developed social skills," he explains.

A few lines about the dance class you took when you were 12 and the brief attempt you made at learning guitar aren't likely to impress anyone - especially when you're competing against students like English and music undergraduate Rachael Pickup. During Years 12 and 13, Pickup played for the Hampshire Youth Jazz Orchestra, worked with the Young Enterprise Company and Model United Nations, went on a residential "sound inventors" course, regularly went swimming, and took on a Saturday job at the local library in her spare time.

That said, try not to worry too much. Admissions tutors aren't looking for an essay on the five summer schools you joined last year, your cabinet full of sports trophies and your vast array of work experience. They just want to know you're a rounded person. One or two outside interests and your passion for them, should give you the edge. "If there's a choice between two people with the same predicted grades, their extra-curricular activities will be really important," says Pickup.

If you think about how many hours you waste trying to get the next level of Shadow of the Colossus on your PS2, you should be able to work out how you can fit in something new. Whether you're interested in fashion, car mechanics, refereeing or first aid, there's a course or group that you will enjoy.

"Finding the right balance is a challenge," says Pickup. "But all my extra-curricular activities helped me learn how to time-keep, which is really important, especially if you end up doing a joint honours degree like me."

Pickup's extra-curricular activities also helped her to decide which course she wanted to take: her time with the orchestra and at the library made her realise that music and English were for her.

Work experience can also help. If you have always wanted to be a primary teacher, for example, a few weeks at an infant school could be a real eye-opener. When the naughtiest kid in the class throws glue on your favourite trainers, you might decide it isn't for you after all. Admissions tutors say that students who have hands-on experience of their chosen subject are less likely to drop out. If you miss out on your required grades, or aren't taking one of the A-levels required by your chosen course, this could be especially important.

Rachael Pickup has kept up her extra-curricular activities at uni, which have helped her with a second application form, this time to study in America next year. Her hobbies and interests really made her stand out. Now, who knows what she'll get involved with Stateside...

Open days will open your eyes

Make sure that you check out universities and colleges first hand before you make your choice, says Kate Hilpern

"Open days give you the chance to question staff," says Dorothy Fawcett, a careers adviser. "You also get the opportunity to meet students and tour the campus, and find out about the course, the institution and the place. There's every chance you'll go home with a 'feel' for whether it's right for you."

When choosing where to study, make a list of universities and colleges you like. Does the course they're offering appeal? Does the content sound like it will hold your interest for at least three years? "Consider things like whether you want to live at home or move away," says Mandy Williams, a psychologist. "But don't get caught up worrying about where your friends are going. You'll make new ones and your old ones can always visit."

Do you prefer the idea of studying in a city centre or in a rural setting? Do you like the sound of the institution and the area?

Read the official prospectus - and the unofficial views at www.unofficial-guides.com. But don't forget these are other people's perceptions. You'll need to find out for yourself too.

Go to as many open days on your list as you can. "You're going to be spending a lot of time there, so you want to get it right," says Fawcett.

If possible, take a friend or a family member, suggests Laura Sherman, an undergraduate. "Taking my best friend made me feel more confident and she was able to offer objective opinions."

Make a list of questions about the course, the institution and the area in advance, she adds. It's important to ask what sort of grades students get in your subject, what jobs they have gone into, what the staff/student ratio is, and what support you will get, by way of personal tutors and one-to-one tutorials.

Don't forget about your social life. You'll need to check out what clubs and societies exist and if there are facilities for your hobbies and interests.

Which Course magazine is now available online at whichcourse.epagesmarketing.com. Contact Joshua Gilbert - tel: 020 7005 2283; fax: 020 7005 2292.