Dominic Fuge is an educationalist and entrepreneur. Currently based in Oxford, England, Dominic has taught in both private and state schools in the UK. He is particularly interested in university application strategy, student guidance, school leadership, and pedagogical theory. He holds qualifications from three Russell Group universities – the University of Cambridge; the University of Edinburgh; Durham University. His career in education started in a special educational needs department, before then teaching A-Level and GCSE Psychology. He has held various positions, including “Head of University Engagement and Alumni Relations” at the prestigious Oxford International College (at the time ranked no.1 in the UK for A-Level results). He is the Director of Relaxed Snail, as well as a careers and higher education adviser, with a background in teaching GCSE and A-Level students.
In an educational context the concept of making students ‘shine’ certainly takes a plethora of forms – whether it be academically, socially, personally, or even culturally. We support students in many ways. When I refer to shine, I am specifically thinking about high-quality and competitive university applications. Much of my educational experience in the sector has been in the shape of careers and higher education journeys for teenagers. In particular, home and international students aspiring to secure interesting degrees from institutions all over the world. In general, I am fascinated by self-marketing – how we do our best to sell ourselves for particular jobs and positions. In the case of students, this is selling themselves to colleges and universities. Moreover, I get a certain buzz created when achieving successful outcomes. For example, assessing data from groups of school leavers to see how many key performance indicators we have managed to obtain. I like to look at how many of the students I’ve worked with have joined their first choice university; how many went to a Russell Group, Ivy League, or Go8 institution; what portion of students were successful in securing a scholarship; out of the global cap on places in UK medical schools, what percentage of that small cohort was made up from the students I have recently supported? Of course, finally, it is not just for the semi-self-indulgent congratulatory pat on the back but knowing that one has played a role in helping a student to stretch their abilities and find their most competitive university options perhaps affords the greatest feeling of all.
In this article, what I hope to do is demystify the term “super-curricular” and offer some suggestions for how to use super-curricular profile building as a tool to ensure that your students’ applications have what they require to stand out from the crowd. See my top three suggestions below!
Any activity a student does outside the confines of a traditional classroom setting is considered what one may call “co-curricular”. Underneath that co-curricular umbrella term, there are two branches. One branch is known as “extra-curricular” and the other branch is “super-curricular”. Extra-curricular, the more well-known term of the two, represents non-academic interests (e.g. sports, music, hobbies). Super-curricular, on the other hand, represents the academic. There are numerous examples of super-curricular activities. For instance: essay competitions; wider reading; lectures, conferences, and webinars; online courses (MOOCs); museums and exhibition visits; work experience and internships; membership of academic institutions; half-term programs and summer schools; and independent projects. Moreover, specifically, to be a super-curricular activity, this has to be something related to the student’s future university aspirations. For example, an aspiring medic may attend a lecture on cardiology.
Suggestion #1 Establish university aspirations early
Now that we have cultivated a definition of super-curricular, you may be wondering how many super-curricular activities should be recommended per student. The number of recommended super-curricular activities, from a university application strategy perspective, very much depends on where the student would like to study. For example, generally in the UK students apply to a specific degree subject and start this subject from the first day. Whether it be Engineering BEng, Architecture BSc, History BA, or Law LLB, the modules/courses within degree programs are tailored to that subject with only some small flexibility. Conversely, in an educational context such as the USA, a bachelor’s degree involves students studying a broad range of subjects before later specialising in majors and minors. Therefore, the number of relevant super-curriculars suggested varies based on the extent to which an early academic passion and curiosity for specific subjects are required. In places such as the UK, where specialisation for degree subjects happens early in the academic journey, there should be more super-curricular involvement. Having often quizzed competitive UK universities, at all possible opportunities, I have come up with a figure that 70-80% of a 4,000-character UCAS personal statement should be super-curricular content. A sensible number is around eight different super-curricular activities. For destinations where early specialisation is less valuable, I would recommend at least three or four super-curricular activities. This has the benefit of highlighting the student’s general capacity for intellectual interests and pursuits, which is still essential to demonstrate. Keeping in mind that super-curricular activities are subject-specific (e.g. a book on a historic event for aspiring History students or an online course learning a coding language for those aiming for Computer Science), it is important to establish the student’s university aspirations early. Knowing the degree subject and university location will help give you the time to suggest relevant super-curricular opportunities. Moreover, it’ll also allow enough time for students to do their own research and also be able to complete these rewarding opportunities, and reflect on what they’ve learned before writing (or talking) about this during the university application process.
Suggestion #2 Variety is the spice of life (…and application strategy)
There have been a lot of applications where students may have a good number of super-curricular activities although the problem is that there’s not enough variety. Often aspiring medics will write about work experience, historians on relevant books and business students refer to podcasts illustrating the journey of relevant entrepreneurs. All of these are great. However, as part of this self-marketing and promotion, variety helps to keep things interesting. Variety in super-curricular experiences highlights to the university admissions tutor that the student has explored their subject of interest through a variety of lenses. Thus, this further amplifies the student’s insatiable thirst to learn more, a wide range of knowledge, and also impeccable time management to pursue all of these opportunities in the first place. Therefore, choose the main subject area of interest and then identify a range of super-curricular opportunities to pursue!
Suggestion #3 Managing time and expectations
The essence of “co-curricular” is to take part in super-curricular activities simultaneously with the usual school timetable. There is a need to work in parallel – find (and then maintain) the delicate balance between doing enough activities whilst also ensuring that the student is able to perform at the best of their academic abilities to complete their high school exams. Naturally, this is easier said than done and perhaps the best technique is simply to check in – compare what super-curricular activities the student is doing and match this with academic performance through checking regular internal exam data. If exam results are wavering slightly, then consider decreasing the super-curricular. If exam results are on track, then continue with ensuring that the student is shaping a healthy super-curricular profile. The key is that both are happening (studying effectively and also managing time for super-curricular commitments). These need to go hand-in-hand and a student that is able to master this may be best placed to shine through super-curricular profile building.
Completing super-curricular activities is a very enjoyable process. From the student’s perspective, what could be more exciting or enthralling than engaging with their true subject passion? From the perspective of the counselor/school staff, helping find such experiences is a key way to help the students you work with stand out from the crowd and thus be more memorable in their university applications. A prospect equally rewarding!