Are you looking for the best super curricular ideas for applying to Oxford or Cambridge? Or perhaps wondering what even are super curriculars, and why do they matter to students in Year 12?
The second part of that sentence is a question I have been asking a lot, since Flea started thinking seriously about her university applications.
I’ll be honest. I was the parent saying, “You just need to be a rounded person. Universities want you to do sport and travel and be an interesting person,” while Flea rolled her eyes and told me I was wrong.
And it turned out I was completely wrong. After three webinars with three different university admissions directors, I can confirm that universities consider sport and hobbies and charity volunteering to be (and I quote) “pretty irrelevant”.
If that’s surprising to you, like it was to me, here’s what you need to know.
What are super curriculars and extra curriculars?
Anything that a student does outside of school that is separate to their studies is known as extra-curricular activity. This might include volunteering, taking part in sport, DofE activities, playing video games or being a member of the Scouts.
However, anything a student does outside of their lessons that extends and develops their knowledge of a subject is known as a super curricular activity. They help students to build a wider knowledge of their chosen subject and demonstrate their “passion” for learning.
Are extra curriculars important when applying to university?
If students are applying for a competitive course or competitive university, then the inconvenient truth is that admissions departments consider extra curricular activities to be fairly uninteresting. Don’t believe me? Here’s what admissions tutors at Cambridge Uni think:
In 2022, most kids play sport or have a part-time job or do the DofE. It’s unlikely to help a child stand out when they’re applying to a competitive course. I’ve heard over and over from teachers and admissions tutors that unless an extra-curricular activity helps a student to build skills that are specifically relevant to the course they’re applying for – they’re not worth mentioning on the UCAS form.
What’s more – as one admissions tutor said – if you ARE going to say that an extra curricular activity helped you build skills PLEASE don’t say it helped you build teamwork, communication and resilience because this is what literally EVERY student who mentions their football team or DofE expedition will say.
The best extra curricular activity for most university applications is a part-time job because it shows that a student is independent, motivated, and can manage their time effectively.
Are super curriculars important when applying to university?
What’s going to make an applicant really stand out is the quality and relevance of their super curricular activities.
What universities want to see is evidence that an applicant is genuinely interested in, and engaged with learning about the subject they’re applying to study. This is the best way to stand out when you’re applying for a popular university or course where ALL the students will likely have amazing grades, a Gold DofE certificate, EPQ and sterling academic references.
If you’re now thinking, “How the heck does a 16 year old demonstrate a passion for maths/french/law?” well, you’re not alone. So today I’m sharing the fruits of our research and below you’ll find 50+ ideas for the best super curricular activities that will help support UCAS applications for some of the most popular courses.
While you’re here:
- Don’t miss our guide to Summer Schools for Year 12 students, and
- Admission Tips for Oxford and Cambridge University
What are the best super curriculars?
It isn’t always easy to find out what are the best super curriculars to support your UCAS application. We’ve spent the last couple of months identifying and helping our teen to sign up for relevant super curriculars and in the process, we’ve found some great opportunities for Year 12 kids looking for good super curricular activities.
Universities don’t expect you to have to pay to do super-curricular activities, so don’t think you need to go and pay for extensive tutoring or expensive out of school courses.
In general, the best super curricular activities include things like
- Wider reading – reading around the subject with important books and journals
- Academic competitions – this might be a relevant academic olympiad or essay competition
- Podcasts and magazines – subscribe to a relevant magazine or podcast about your subject
- Taster lectures and public lectures – usually free and hosted in person or online by universities
- Summer schools and residential university experiences (check out guide to summer schools here)
- Belonging to subject-specific school clubs, in-school mentoring, inter-school debates etc. This is ideal if you’re short of time because these are often activities done within school/college hours
This article doesn’t include residential, on-site taster days and summer schools, which are important super curriculars. To find out more about summer school opportunities, check out our guide here.
Looking for things to do independently? Read on for examples of popular super curricular activities for Year 12 students for a range of the most popular subjects.
The Importance of Wider Reading
The most important and valuable super curricular activity (for most subjects) is wider reading. This shows admissions teams that you’ve explored your subject beyond the classroom, and showed an interest in having a deeper understanding of your chosen area of study.
If you’re struggling to decide WHAT constitutes wider reading, check out the reading lists and resources from a couple of university courses. But it’s not so important what you read – it just needs to be something you’re interested in. Whatever wider reading you do, ensure you think critically about the arguments, assumptions and evidence provided by the author. What did you learn from this book? How did it build upon your classroom learning? What do you agree with, and what do you challenge?
Ideas for English Students
It makes sense that the best super curricular activities if you’re applying to do English at university is to do loads of reading outside your course.
Wider Reading: A good book to start with (if you don’t have it already) is Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction. You’re probably studying Shakespeare, and you can extend your reading with something like Paterson’s Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary. If you are studying renaissance poetry or plays, then Lewis’ The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature is an excellent book to study.
Magazines and Journals: Getting a subscription to the London Review of Books, Literary Review or even The New Yorker is a great way to build wider knowledge about literature, and identify books and ideas you might be interested in reading or discussing.
Online Resources: There are absolutely tons of great online lectures, reviews, and resources for potential English students. For starters, check out the Cambridge HE English website for some general audio and video resources. Cambridge also has a virtual classroom with lectures on various English-related topics. Check out the archive of essays from the TLS here,
Competitions: I think one of the best super curricular activities has to be writing essays and entering competitions. Especially if you don’t do an EPQ, it’s often a chance to explore a new idea in depth, and do independent research. There are a range of essay competitions for English students. Winning them or being highlighted as a good entry doesn’t hurt and you might get some cash! You can find loads of competitions online but good places to start include the Gould Prize (closes August 22), run by Trinity College Cambridge, which offers a £600 prize and the chance to visit the college if you win. Also check out the Robinson Essay prize, the Keats-Shelley prize (closed for 2022) and the John Locke Institute (closing 30 June).
Taster Lectures: Loads of universities offer free taster lectures to potential students. My teen has already attended free lectures run by professors of Literature at Sheffield and Lancaster University and is hoping to attend a third with Cambridge. The lectures are a great opportunity to see what university-level teaching in a subject is like, but also to discuss ideas with professors and answer questions. To find lectures, I suggest Googling your chosen university and “taster lecture” to see what’s available, or emailing the admissions team directly.
Ideas for Science Students
Wider Reading: Assume that 99% of the people applying for a biology or science course will have read Richard Dawkins, so don’t just follow the herd. Aim to read something that will make your application stand out. You could read titles like How to Teach Quantum Physics to your Dog, Perplexing Problems, which is a great collection of maths puzzles for pre-u students, or A Cavendish Quantum Mechanics Primer or The Second Creation.
Online Resources: Recommended websites to bookmark include Things We Don’t Know (lots of articles about science and current thinking), CERN Resources (great for physics) and the Royal Society for Biology website. If audio is convenient for you, then try the Radio 4 In Our Time podcast, or the Periodic Table podcast.
Competitions: The Oxford Scientist runs a science writing competition, while the CREST award offers a range of challenges including the Gold Award, which is designed for students looking to build experience for their UCAS application.
Taster Lectures: If you’re hoping to pick up super curricular activities for biology, chemistry or another STEM subject, Google your chosen university for taster lectures during the Spring term (usually) and don’t forget to check out the Sutton Trust summer schools.
Ideas for Maths Students
I was chatting with a maths student this week who was stuck for ideas for super curriculars to support a maths application. There is certainly an idea that you are either good at maths or not, and that’s all that affects your university application. However, there are things you can do to help your maths application stand out. Some super curriculars to consider include:
Wider Reading: Check out the first year recommended reading list for your chosen course, or consider reading books like How to Think about Analysis, The Emperor’s New Mind, and Fermat’s Last Theorem. Consider also Plus magazine, which covers the world of maths.
Websites: The Cambridge HE website has a virtual maths classroom with resources to access advanced maths (ideal if you aren’t able to study further maths at your school), and you can also try your hand at these videos showing a range of maths olympiad questions.
Competition: Want to showcase your maths credentials? The international Olympiad is the gold standard of maths competitions, but there are also competitions run by the UK maths trust, The Libra Trust runs a maths essay competition while Teddy Rocks has teamed up with Oxford University to run a new annual maths essay contest.
Ideas for Medicine Students
Wider Reading: If you’re hoping to apply to medicine, then a good place to start your wider reading is the Oxford Required Reading List. On this website you can download a recommended introductory reading list for medicine students.
Magazines and Journals: One of the most important super curriculars for medicine applicants is probably reading journals – these cover current issues and new developments in medicine, which you may well be asked to discuss in an interview. The best journals to start with are probably New Scientist, The BMJ and The Lancet.
Online resources: Again the Cambridge HE website has some great super curricular content for medicine applicants, including lectures and essays. You can get free BMAT resources here to help you prepare for taking the BMAT, and also check out this guide to gaining work experience before applying to university, created by the Medical Schools Council. Lastly, you can watch some mock medicine interviews on YouTube.
Volunteering: This NHS site explains how to find volunteering opportunities in healthcare.
Ideas for Law Students
Law is another area where it can be tricky to find the right super curriculars that will make your UCAS application shine. After all, it’s not like you can go and volunteer to be a lawyer! But there are some decent ideas around, including:
Wider Reading: Start with the utterly brilliant Is Eating People is Wrong?, then maybe What about Law, The Law Machine, The Rule of Law, Letters to a Law Student and Learning the Law. For journals, try Counsel Magazine and the Law section of the Guardian.
Online resources: The great news is there are a ton of online websites and resources that provide super curricular activities for potential law students. The lawyer portal has hundreds of resources for potential lawyers, there’s My HE Plus Law, and a video Q&A about Cambridge University’s law admissions process.
Real World Experience: Check out this website to find out how you can visit a court near you to see cases in action.
Competitions: Grays Inn is currently running a law essay competition with a prize of £1,000 and a two week internship. You could also consider the Robert Walker prize, Golding Prize (closed for 2022) and the UK Centre for Animal Law essay competition which has a £150 prize and closes in September.
Ideas for History Students
If you’re looking for the best super curricular activities for history applicants, then reading is the obvious place to start. But remember that history can also be found in the real world – if you’re applying for history, then consider visiting museums and exhibitions, walking around historical sites and finding out more about your own local history.
Wider reading: Good books to read if you’re looking for super curricular ideas for history could include A Mad, Bad and Dangerous People, The Whig Interpretation of History, The Landscape of History, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet and A Concise Companion to History.
Online Resources: Check out the website for the Royal Historical Society, the Historical Association and of course the Cambridge HE Plus History guide, which has videos, audio and other resources for potential history students. Consider watching the Gresham Lectures online, which offer some great discussion talking points. Yale also offers a range of open history courses that can be taken freely online.