Preparing for the Russell Group

Written by: Nick Hull & Robin Barrs | Published:
Well prepared? The famous Radcliffe Camera at Oxford University, one of 24 Russell Group universities in the UK

Many schools will have students aiming to study at a Russell Group university. Drawing on some new and free resources for schools, Nick Hull and Robin Barrs advise on how we can best prepare them for the challenges that lie ahead

Studying at a Russell Group university can give your pupils a great education and experience, as well as a real boost to their career. They will be studying on a diverse campus, and Russell Group universities work hard to create the ideal learning environment for students to flourish. Students have access to world-class facilities and staff to support them in their studies.

However, applying to university can be a bit overwhelming, particularly if you’re the first in your family to attend, and so the Russell Group’s 24 members created Advancing Access, a set of free online resources to provide advice and guidance for teachers and careers advisors on how to support pupils through the process of applying to university. The resources – which include factsheets, webinars and guidebooks – are particularly targeted towards schools where students are less likely to apply.

Our resources, which were designed with the support of teachers, will be particularly useful for those providing advice and guidance to pupils making their key stage 4, key stage 5 and university choices.

They cover topics such as supporting learner decision-making, understanding university admissions and writing academic references.

Here are a few top tips to get you started in giving support to your students:

Never too early

It is never too early to have your pupils start thinking about their future – their choice of GCSEs may affect their chosen path to university. They should choose subjects that they enjoy but they must also make sure they are taking the subjects that will allow them to progress to the A level (or equivalent) courses they want to take.

For example, GCSE French is essential to go on to study at A level. If you are in doubt about the grades required for individual courses, contact the university admissions team who will be able to advise.

A level choices

Encourage students to think ahead when deciding on their A level (or other Level 3) choices – different universities may require different subjects to study on a specific course. Encourage your students to research the universities they may be interested in to see what is required for their course.

If your student isn’t sure what they want to do, it is sensible for them to take a mixture of subjects (known as facilitating subjects) to keep their options open. These include English literature, maths, sciences, history, geography or modern languages, for example. This is not an exhaustive list of the subjects accepted, so it is a good idea to check with individual universities.

You can find out more about this in Informed Choices – one of the Russell Group’s guides, which includes advice from admissions professionals on the best subject combinations for a wide range of university courses, as well as the best choices for students who want to keep their options open.

If your students want to take a vocational subject, or a mixture of vocational and academic, have them check whether universities accept it for the course they want to do.

Choosing a degree

When it comes to choosing their degree subject, get pupils to consider the job they may want to do – some jobs require specific knowledge and/or skills which they may or may not be able to gain through studying for a degree.

It is also worth considering other course options, such as joint honours, sandwich courses with study abroad or an integrated Master’s degree. Different universities have different options so encourage your pupils to investigate and decide what experience they want to get from their university.


Help your students to build the skills they need to study at university. Encourage your students to build their knowledge around their chosen subject. This could be through reading newspapers, listening to podcasts or taking free online courses. You can also suggest that they take summer schools or attend public lectures at their local university to get a feel for the experience.

Suggest that they may like to get work experience or do some volunteering. Not only does it give them transferable skills, it can also support their university application. They could also consider taking the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) as a way of exploring a subject in more detail.

The personal statement

Make sure that the student’s personal statement reflects their motivations and interests, as this is their opportunity to demonstrate that they are enthusiastic about their chosen subject.

Ensure that the statement is tailored to the course the student is applying for, and is unique to the student. Students must be telling the truth, as their statement forms part of a contract with the university – and it is best to avoid jokes as they can sometimes be misunderstood.

Academic references

The academic reference is the only opportunity for universities to get an informed assessment of a candidate from an education professional. It is valued by admissions staff as it provides them with important information about the applicant, but also about the school, such as its educational policy or its catchment area. You can discuss any disruption the pupil may have had in their studies and add context, so the admissions tutor can take this into account. You can use it to build a picture of a student and their capability in studying the subject.


Russell Group universities want to welcome all students who have the ability to study at a higher level. The more you understand the process of choosing a university and applying, the more confident you will feel in supporting and advising your students. This, in turn, will make them feel more comfortable choosing to apply to university, even if it is not something they previously considered. If you are unsure about a university’s specific requirements, then call the admissions office who will be able to help you.

  • Nick Hull is head of university admissions and assistant director at the University of Southampton and Robin Barrs is chair of the Advancing Access steering group.

Further information

  • You can get more advice and information by registering with Advancing Access on its website at
  • The Russell Group’s guide Informed Choices provides students with guidance about their post-16 subject choices:


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