Riviera Tutors

The Road to University

Exam markers love quotes, and here’s one from the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu – ‘The longest journey begins with a single step.’ So it is with the road to university.

But where does this first step begin? The last year of school? After IGCSEs? The start of secondary school? The womb? At Riviera Tutors we prefer not to see it just as a road to get into a certain institution, but a quest to make the most of our students’ potential – not only does this normally result in academic success, but also it makes the journey more enjoyable for all. It’s a positive cycle – a student that is fulfilling their potential is a happy student, and a happy student is a productive student, and a productive student means happy parents. Let’s get the map out:

The most important things a young child can do are to: indulge their curiosity in the world around them, develop an appreciation for reading (any book will do), and learn not to be afraid of new things. The way they achieve this, frankly, does not matter – there’s plenty of time for work later. There is, however, no substitute for a good reading habit, and it develops transferable skills that will be invaluable later in the journey.

Although secondary school is still far away, it starts to appear on the horizon like a distant mountain range. The long term planning begins, and competitiveness starts to sprout between pupils. Riviera Tutors thinks competitiveness is great, when seen in the right way. It’s great to celebrate excellence, it’s great to pit your best against your classmates, it’s great to do well. In our opinion, however, it’s dangerous to label yourself – either as ‘bright’ or ‘stupid’. Both have their pitfalls.


The danger of labels.


For a pupil to decide they are ‘not academic’ or that they ‘just can’t do Maths’, for example, is one of the greatest mistakes they can make. Firstly, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – saying you’re bad at something is a sure way to become bad at something. Secondly, it’s not true. Riviera Tutors firmly believes that the vast majority of students have the raw intellectual capacity to succeed at most subjects. The secret lies in communication. Some pupils may need something explaining more slowly than is possible in the classroom, but that doesn’t mean they can never understand it. Time and time again we meet students who, for years, have convinced themselves of their own lack of ability, only to find their assumptions totally misplaced. Instilling a positive mindset, and a degree of academic self-belief, early on in a student’s career is the most effective (and cheapest) key to future academic success.

On the other hand, there are students who pick things up very quickly in the classroom, and this can lead to an equally misplaced sense of their own brilliance, a fertile breeding ground for sloppiness and laziness. History is littered with characters that have succeeded early on at school, only to find they lack the rigor and discipline to really succeed. You won’t have heard of them. In these cases it is the job of a good teacher to rein in the ego and remind the student that success in exams, all the way through the academic system, is more to do with methodical preparation than anything else. Belief that one’s brightness is enough to get the highest grades is a hindrance to success.

It is the job of a good teacher, therefore, to counteract the natural leanings of a student, to help them find their own voice, talents and balance.


Public Exams


We haven’t mentioned Common Entrance here – it’s one of our specialist areas, where we really excel, but it’s not relevant to everyone. Email enquiries@riviera-tutors.com for more information on how we deal with Common Entrance.

The years between 14-16 are often difficult for a growing student. Time to break free, stretch boundaries and discover the world. Unfortunately, the world has it that it’s also the time you take your first major public exams. We’ll take the IGCSE as our guinea pig. The major problem we find with students is that, often, they just feel overwhelmed by the volume of material they have to revise. Combine this with areas of weak understanding, and it’s easy to become disheartened.

What’s the secret?


Once you start your final year in September you should be thinking about the exams in May the next year. Treat the January mocks like the real thing; this will give you a strong foundation that will make the following months more relaxed and enjoyable – you can spend your time polishing your skills rather than frantically trying to get the basics in place.

How do you best prepare for the January mocks?

Work extremely hard over Christmas. Really push yourself. Divide up each subject into sensible chapters (your text book should already do this for you), and create a timetable that incorporates all of them. Success in each subject is simply a matter of revising the information, whether it’s plant cell walls or the Wall Street Crash – it’s just factual information dressed in different outfits. On top of this, each subject has a particular exam technique that should be second nature come exam time. This is where our tutors’ value really kicks in – each on of them can teach the specific technique in each subject, so one week with one of them can deal with everything. Organise each holiday after the mocks to continue the work, and by test-time you might be surprised – exams can be surprisingly enjoyable if you feel prepared for them – who doesn’t like a chance to shine?

With the IGCSEs out of the way, all that stands between the student and a place at a top university is the IB (or A-Levels), the application form, and application tests…and maybe an interview.

We’re not going to deal specifically with the next set of public exams here – they are a different beast to IGCSEs, although the principle of planning early, being organized, and methodically learning the material are still the basic keys to success.

For the university application form – the more specific you can be, the better. If it is for a specific course at a specific university, try to find forensic details that you like, what makes the university stand out to YOU beyond the generic attractions that everyone will mention. If it is a general application, through UCAS for example, your personal statement (or admissions essay for the US) is worth a mention in itself.


The University Essay


Whilst there are significant differences between the UK personal statement and the US admissions essay (and our specialists will point these out to you), there are some things you can begin thinking about years before writing time rears its ugly head:

1 – Try to really excel at (at least) one thing.

There is a common misconception that the kind of applicant universities prize above all things is a Jack of all trades. This is not true. Whilst being a Jack of all trades is not necessarily a bad thing, it is often better to focus on one thing and excel at it. The top universities are looking for great diversity within their classes, but not necessarily within each student. It is often better to offer something distinctive (anything – photography, piano, painting) and to have excelled at it through years of dedication, than to have tried a number of things without ever committing fully.

2 – Lead.

Whilst there can only be one captain of the football team or one principal violinist in the orchestra, everyone can lead at something. Whether it’s setting up a debating club, or teaching the Duke of Edinburgh Award to younger students, there are plenty of opportunities – more than you think – already in front of you to adopt some kind of leadership role. Leadership is one of the most attractive things to flaunt on an application letter, as it presents you as someone who will make a proactive and positive contribution to the university and your academic department.

3 – Be altruistic.

It’s never too early to start acting charitably and a side-benefit of helping those less fortunate than yourself whilst at school is that it shows universities that they are dealing with someone who goes out of their way to help others. Get involved with a charity or volunteer scheme, raise awareness about a specific cause, organize a cake-bake or lead (that word again) a sponsored walk. All of these things reflect very well on you as a person – don’t keep your kindness bottled up inside, share it with the world and let the universities know about it too. They’re looking to accept students who will look after those around them to enhance the university environment, and who will use the benefits of an excellent degree to help the wider world after graduation.

4 – Be altruistic and lead at the same time.

Combine the above two points, as many times as possible, to add potency to your profile.

5 – Go beyond your syllabus.

Everyone knows, at least vaguely, the details of their course. Not everyone takes what’s on their course, and reads around the subject, or explores topics that no teacher has broached. Ski some fresh tracks down an area of interest, and mention it in your application. Be creative, and enjoy yourself. One of Riviera Tutors’ main principles (and it’s not a complicated one) is that if you enjoy your work, you’re likely to do better at it. Don’t read around a subject simply because you think universities will respect it, read something that interests you, and see where it leads with an open mind. Then tell universities about the journey. It’s a more enjoyable process, and more interesting to read about.

6 – Be authentic.

The web is full of ‘guides to getting into university’, such as this. Take the main points, but never let them override who you are, or distract from your story. There is no substitute for authenticity, and no story more interesting than your own if it’s told properly by you. Part of a successful application essay is not to replicate ‘the perfect application’, but to present yourself and your achievements in the best possible light. We often take for granted things that are central to our characters, and our achievements. Sit down with those around you and go through your ‘profile’, although it’s much better for everyone if you think of it like a ‘story’, because that’s what it is.

We’re running out of space, and there’s a whole lot more to be said. We still haven’t covered specific university tests (such as the SAT for American universities which, briefly, is about honing a sense for the way the test is written, and remaining dynamic in the face of questions, or the TSA for Oxbridge, for which we have specialist tutors in the UK who can work with students via Skype or down on the Riviera.)

And then there’s the interview, for which again there’s a list of pointers and training tips to give you. Most of it boils down to point 6, though – be yourself and tell your story as positively and authentically as you can.

And there it is – the (incomplete) road to university. Once you reach your destination, it’s the start of another journey for which the perfect approach has yet to be devised. If you make it into Oxbridge and are looking to teach afterwards, perhaps you’ll consider joining us on the other side at Riviera Tutors and sharing what you’ve learnt to those still on the first journey. To quote the Lion King/Elton John (truth can, after all, spring from anywhere) – ‘it’s the circle of life, and it moves us all’. For us at Riviera Tutors, that’s what teaching’s all about.



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