4 Are you really takiNG this seriously?

How much reading do you do?

Are you applying to university to study Economics? Do you read The Economist?

No? Why not?

I’m not telling you off. I’m asking you to consider why you’re applying to spend three years studying a subject when you’re not even sufficiently interested in it to spend an hour a week reading a magazine.

There are lots of good reasons to go to university, but one of them is to immerse yourself in one of your (academic) passions. You’re really missing out if you don’t take advantage of that. You’ll probably never have the opportunity to do so again. So if you think The Economist is boring, don’t apply to study Economics.

No doubt the scientists amongst you are feeling rather smug. You all read New Scientist and Scientific American, right? Ever taken a look at On the Origin of Species? (And I don’t mean the two paragraphs quoted in your textbook. I mean the whole thing.) Or Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica? (It gets 4.2 stars out of 5 on Amazon, so it must be pretty good.)

Some of you might be complaining that the Principia is in Latin. But Feynman’s Lectures on Physics are in English and they are widely regarded as some of the best writing ever on physics. (OK, they’re over £100 on Amazon. But they get 4.9 stars out of 5. Maybe your school library has them. If it hasn’t, bully the school into buying them. Or get a job at Asda and save up: now you’ve got two impressive things to boast about on your UCAS form.)

Want to read English? How many of Shakespeare’s plays have you read? Just the one that’s on the specification? There are thirty-six to choose from in the First Folio. Why not pick one of the ones no-one’s heard of. That’ll make you stand out.

Back to you Economists. I assume you’ve read On the Wealth of Nations. It’s 99p on Amazon kindle. (The Biologists will be pleased to hear that On the Origin of Species is free.)

But OK: I’m not being entirely fair. I wonder how many university lecturers have read the seminal works in their subjects, cover-to-cover. But you could give it a try – the experience (good or bad) will certainly give you something to talk about on your personal statement:

I have to admit I found Descartes ‘Discourse’ incredibly hard-going. But it hasn’t put me off Philosophy – indeed, it’s why I want to study the subject at university so I can learn how to understand it.

No-one’s going to judge you for finding Descartes difficult. Everyone does. Besides, you’re only 17 and can probably barely spell your own name, let alone understand “cogito ergo sum”. But you’ll score points for giving it a try. (It gets 4.5 stars on Amazon. I won’t even make you read it in French. Here’s a translation.)

Here’s some good news for the physicists: Feynman cherry-picked sections from his three volumes of Lectures to produce the appropriately named Six Easy Pieces. That gets 4.4 stars out of 5 on Amazon, so it’s even better than Newton’s Principia. Fenyman followed it up with Six Not-So-Easy Pieces, which only gets 4.1 stars out of 5. I guess many people don’t like hard books. I hope you’re not one of them.

Applying to read Law? Presumably you’ve visited your local court? The Guardian certainly thinks you should.

You see, I’ve seen students who have tried to lie and cheat their way into universities. I don’t necessarily mean that literally. One was falling behind with his schoolwork and I asked him why. He said he was frantically reading a book he’d claimed he’d read on his personal statement in case he was asked about it in his upcoming interview. What on earth is the point of that? At some point that kind of approach is going to go blow up in your face. An initial sense of victory and achievement in getting in to university may well be followed with the misery and disaster of failing or dropping out. You should read books because you want to read them, not because somebody tells you to, or because you think you should, especially if you’re only trying to impress someone.

Studying at university used to be called “reading” as in “I’m reading Biology at Nottingham”. It’s one of the real pleasures of being at university. It’s also one of the realities of being at university. You should really already have started reading your subject. Admissions tutors will be looking at your personal statement for evidence that you have.

If you haven’t, you should ask yourself why. Perhaps the subject you’ve chosen isn’t right for you.

Because if it is right for you, it shouldn’t be hard to get you to talk about it.

Indeed, your personal statement should pretty much write itself.

NEXT: 5 Your personal statement should write itself