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Personally speaking, my college gaffes have taught me a lesson

Spare a thought today, if you will, for all of those brave teenagers in Lower Sixth who are currently composing their Personal Statements.

A Personal Statement is a sort of letter that students write to the university they hope to attend after leaving Upper Sixth.

In their Personal Statement, students should mention any relevant work experience that they've done; for example, anyone hoping to study medicine may have spent their summer holidays working in a local hospital or nursing home.

Students should also mention any extra-curricular activities or achievements that mark them out as gifted or super-dedicated in some way; such as playing the cello with a distinguished orchestra, or climbing Everest for charity.

No, it's not enough to have 10 or 11 top grades at GCSE, and four or even five top grades at A-Level anymore. Nowadays, there's got to be a glowing Personal Statement as well.

And let me tell you, competition for entry to the top universities is fierce. I imagine that competition for entry to just about any university is fierce at the moment.

I have no idea how Lower and Upper Sixth year students are expected to find the time to climb mountains, hold down part-time jobs or travel round Europe playing the cello.

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For most A-level students have several hours of homework to do every evening and every weekend. But they do find the time, apparently.

Because, as I said before, it's not enough to have studied your heart out anymore: these days you've got to show yourself to be a well-rounded and mature individual as well.

I didn't have to write a Personal Statement back in 1986, or even worry about getting top grades, for I wanted to go to art college in Manchester. And the selection process was based solely on the contents of each student's portfolio.

So I duly set off on the ferry, wearing a cerise pink coat, a bright green hat, scuffed white winkle pickers and sky blue eye-shadow, with my maroon cardboard portfolio under my arm.

I have no recollection of how I got to the art college itself, but I do remember setting out my work for the trio of lecturers to peruse it and feeling quietly confident I would be accepted onto the Foundation course. (Ah, the innocence of youth: if only that delicious self-confidence hadn't deserted me utterly in later years.)

So the lecturers looked at my work. And when they asked me why I wanted to study in Manchester, I told them, in all seriousness, that I wanted to live in Morrissey's home town. To their credit, they didn't even blink.

I told them I wanted to go shopping for studded belts in Affleck's Palace (a kind of Holy Place for rock fans).

I told them I wanted to go dancing at the Ritz on Friday nights.

I said it would be hilarious to live in a place where everyone sounded like the actors off Coronation Street.

At the end of the interview they told me I was the lucky recipient of an unconditional offer. To this day I think I only got that offer because all three of the lecturers were male.

And some kind-hearted men do tend to feel rather protective towards hopeless cases, don't they?

If the lecturers had been Alpha females, I suspect they would have had me sussed as a right twit as soon as they clocked my scuffed white shoes.

In any event I had to drop out of the course after a few weeks as I just couldn't take to life in the vast slum estates of Whalley Range. I did go to the Ritz a few times, but I never did bump into Morrissey. Perhaps he'd already left Manchester by the time I got there.

I ended up at the Art College in York Street, Belfast, two years later and finally graduated with a degree in Illustration at the ripe old age of 24.

If I had my time again I'd approach the university experience with more maturity and less gusto. I'd work harder and aim for a 1:1 instead of a 2:1 and I'd never, under any circumstances, wear white shoes to the interview.

I'd insist on inspecting the accommodation before handing over three months' rent in advance. I'd spend less time admiring studded belts and more time in the library.

Or would I?

Maybe it's a good thing that the selection process was a lot more relaxed in my day.


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