Valued and valuable: how to talk RDA in uni & job applications

Let's get all those learning experiences in a row...

I find that the phrases "this will look great on your CV" or "this will help you get into your dream university" are thrown about so often that they cease to mean anything; particularly as few people who say such things actually stop to explain how and why an activity could be useful. It's particularly prevalent for young people who are applying either for further study or for their first job(s), when those around them (sorry, teachers and parents!) are often quick to insist that an award scheme here or a work experience there will more than compensate for lack of experience in their dream field, or will somehow get them ahead in an application to an unrelated university course.

This week, in the interests of helping out fellow RDA volunteers or participants who might be penning applications this autumn and beyond, I'm going to talk about how you might actually make RDA a valuable part of those applications.

RDA in UCAS (University) Applications

I need to preface this section by saying that I handle a lot of UCAS personal statements, and run a lot of personal statement workshops as part of my job. I wrote one of my own once upon a time, but I've probably edited and advised upon closer to 300 other people's. I work for a university which operates the early UCAS deadline (15th October, a month away), so I spend a lot of time every September thinking about applications.

Name-dropping RDA isn't going to get you a full house of university offers straight off the bat, but that's because nothing is going to do that on its own. Writing a personal statement is far more about giving an overall impression of the type of prospective student you are, and explaining what you have learnt from the experiences you have had. I think the number one mistake I see on personal statement drafts is students merely listing things they have done (or read, or seen etc) without actually explaining what was gained from the experience or how it might link to what they want to study. The explanation is what will impress a university; this makes perfect sense if you keep in mind that the people who read your personal statement probably won't be an expert in what you do outside of the subject you want to study.

RDA is absolutely packed full of potential personal statement content, however you are involved. As for how that could be put into practice, the ways you might talk about RDA fall under the following categories:

1. Directly course-related
This will only apply to certain courses, but if you are applying to study something broadly related to the world of RDA, why miss out? No matter where you are applying to study, I wouldn't recommend writing less than two thirds of your personal statement about things which can be connected to your course (for some universities or courses, this will need to be more). Could your involvement in RDA help to demonstrate your commitment to your dream course? Has it enabled you to learn something related to your course which you wouldn't have learnt through your current studies? If it's a yes, it's definitely worth giving RDA some air time.
  • Applicants for Veterinary Medicine or Biology could write about equine understanding that they have gained from RDA. This could be to do with horse management in general (my group has welcomed many prospective and current vet students who wanted to gain experience with horses), or potentially equine biology in the context of RDA e.g. the effects of riders with different disabilities on the horse's musculoskeletal system. Even the least horsey of RDA volunteers can appreciate the intricacies of how our equine team members function, and any kind of yard is a goldmine of interesting information for would-be vets.
  • Applicants for Medicine, Psychology, Biomedicine, Physiotherapy or similar STEM courses could write more about their RDA experiences in the context of the participants they know and work with. For Medicine in particular, being able to demonstrate commitment to some sort of caring responsibility is an important part of the personal statement (and universities know how hard it is to get hospital or lab-based experience). Have you got to know a rider whose condition you find interesting? Observe how their condition affects their experience of RDA and how RDA helps them; talk to the participant and/or their parent/carer (if only to make sure they are happy with a cameo in your uni application!); and conduct some more scientifically focused research in your own time. Put it all together and you have an interesting, well developed paragraph for your personal statement.
  • Applicants for Sport-based courses (equine or otherwise) could write about disability sport: how competitions work, how it can be part of physiotherapy or rehab, and adaptations made for disabled participants could all be excellent points to discuss.
  • Applicants for Equine Science or similar courses could write about just about anything RDA-related!
2. Indirectly course-related

Not every RDA volunteer wants to study something which has any connection to horses (I studied what was essentially old books at university), but that doesn't mean that you aren't picking up valuable transferable skills which can be used to demonstrate what an amazing student you would be in your chosen subject area. It can be a bit harder to make connections to RDA in these cases, but examples that might not be so obvious include:

  • An applicant for English Language or Linguistics writing about how RDA participants with limited speech communicate, and how this might be developed or improved by RDA
  • An applicant for Accounting, Finance, or Business based courses discussing charity fundraising
  • An Engineering or Design applicant considering a piece of RDA equipment, either existing or completely of their own creation (how does a hoist work? Does your group have a mechanical horse?)
It's important not to force these kinds of links; RDA is unlikely to have any academic relevance to someone wishing to study, for example, Archaeology. You might also want to include more general skills that you have gained from your time as a volunteer. These can be used for any kind of course or subject, so long as you aren't shy about bigging up the things you've done and the ways you have developed as a volunteer!
  • Have you improved your communication skills since volunteering with an RDA group?
  • Have you helped with something behind the scenes; administration, social media, fundraising?
  • If you have completed or started working towards something like a coaching qualification, what has that taught you about balancing your commitments and managing your time?
  • Has RDA helped you develop your leadership skills?
(If you happen to be one of my helpers and aren't sure what your strengths are at RDA, please ask me. I will tell you!)


3. Non course-related (extra-curricular)

I use the term "extra-curricular" to mean the things that you do in your free time which aren't connected to your studies, whatever those studies might include. Extra-curricular activities shouldn't take up more than a third of your personal statement, and if you are applying to a university like Oxford, Cambridge, or a member of the Russell Group, they should be no more than 5-10% of your statement (because these universities don't really consider this stuff as part of their selection criteria). That's not to say, of course, that you can't make RDA a meaningful part of your personal statement.

The most important things to remember for writing about RDA as an extra-curricular are 1. that you don't have much space to explain what RDA is, and 2. that you should prioritise writing about what you have learned or gained from RDA. For example:

  • "I spend X hours per week volunteering for the Riding for the Disabled Association (note that I have written out the name in full; to someone who doesn't know RDA, the acronym could easily mean "Recommended Daily Allowance"!). Working with disabled children has developed my confidence and communication skills, and I have enjoyed seeing the participants progress as a result of my commitment."
  • "Volunteering for the Riding for the Disabled Association as part of my Duke of Edinburgh Award enabled me to develop new skills and resilience as I worked with both horses and disabled participants. My experience challenged my perception of ability in sport and society, and inspired me to campaign for accessibility in my other sport, X." Lots of people just write "I did D of E" in their personal statements and don't say anything about what they actually did to gain that award. Why not make it meaningful? It's more interesting to read that way!
  • "I am a keen equestrian, and balance competing at X level in Y discipline around my studies. My interest in horses led me to volunteer with my local Riding for the Disabled Association, which gave me a broader appreciation of what horses can do to help people." You might want to use RDA to demonstrate "extra capacity": not only do you do all of the impressive academic stuff in your personal statement, but you also fit in being a super RDA helper too!
Whatever you write about in your personal statement, remember to explain what you gained from doing it; link it to your course where possible; and keep your language as clear as possible. And if you are reading this as someone just about to apply to university: don't leave that first draft too late!




RDA in Job Applications

I've found that it is much easier to build references to RDA into a job application, because they typically signpost what is required far more than a personal statement does, and in many cases are more relaxed about the number of characters used. (I often say to the teenagers that I work with that their personal statement is one of the trickiest pieces of writing they will ever have to do.) When I was applying for my first job as a university graduate, I very quickly realised that RDA had given me experiences and skills to write about which I just wouldn't have gained from anything else I did as a student. RDA is often described as something that "looks great on your CV". As I've already expressed my disdain for that particular phrase, I'd describe it as an experience which builds excellent transferable skills that you can write or talk about when applying for jobs (no horses required).

It's difficult to predict exactly what a job application will ask you to write about, and it's important to remember to think very carefully about what is required for each one you complete; copying and pasting what you wrote last time won't always cut it. To get you thinking, however, here are seven useful ways that you might make RDA a valuable part of an application:

1. Leadership: my current job will never require me to manage a group of people aged between 14 and 70 at the same place and time. RDA does. Talking about coaching is a no-brainer for young coaches because it will often expose you to higher levels of responsibility before your job does. If you aren't a coach, you may still have had experiences which required you to take on some sort of leadership role, even if it's not on a regular basis or large scale.

2. Commitment: if you've been volunteering for your RDA group for a sustained period of time, or balancing it around other commitments (e.g. studying), this is definitely something which marks you out as someone who could be a committed employee in a paid job. This is also perhaps the easiest thing to include in an application: "I have volunteered for my local RDA group one day a week for the past four years."

3. Resilience & problem solving: I love RDA, but that doesn't mean it's always plain sailing (I have a couple of future posts planned which talk more about the rough than the smooth). It might not be your favourite of RDA memories, but discussing how you worked through a difficult situation during an RDA session (perhaps a rider falling or becoming distressed) is a great way of answering those "describe how you dealt with a difficult situation" questions that everyone seems to dread.

4. Communication: the best RDA volunteers are great communicators (see point three of this post from last month). Whilst everyone's experience will be different, I would estimate that I have to shift the way I communicate at least five separate times when I am at the stables (to suit my volunteers, young riders, young riders with limited communication (incorporating actions and signs if necessary), parents, older and more advanced riders, and possibly our Instagram followers at the same time) (that's actually six). I really enjoy seeing even the most shy of volunteers develop their communication skills over the course of their time with us, and they are skills which will never not be useful.

5. Time management: this one might sound a bit dry, but I know I've filled out job applications which require a full paragraph on how you are able to manage your time. My volunteers might well turn up on time to work, school, or college five days a week, but I think it's considerably more commendable that they are happy to rock up to the stables before 8.30am on a Saturday morning.

6. Creativity: RDA is the home of thinking outside the box. You might have helped to adapt some equipment to suit a rider's needs; dreamed up a unique fundraising event; put together a drill ride to music for some of your group's riders. It's fun to write (or talk) about, and you can also emphasise the fact that creative thinking for RDA purposes is almost always to benefit other people.

7. Teamwork: the most important of all. Our teams might come in all shapes and sizes, but someone who can't take a solid set of teamwork skills away from their experience with RDA is, frankly, doing RDA wrong. As it happens, teamwork is also something which job applications rarely fail to ask about, regardless of the industry or role. Don't be tempted to come out with "I work well independently and part of a team" (it's another one of those sentences that's so overused you might as well say nothing at all). Write instead about how you work with a coach, parents, and two other volunteers to support a vulnerable new rider. Tell them about how you were part of a team which enabled a blind rider to ride and compete independently. Explain how you use your initiative to divide up stable management tasks to ensure your group's horses are healthy and happy, and that you and your fellow volunteers can go home on time, feeling like you've accomplished something.

So, don't be shy about speaking up about the things that make you a fantastic RDA volunteer. Remember that you are part of a team that values you, and that your experiences are valuable as a result. 

Comments

  1. Thanks India! I think this is really useful information for anyone wondering how to use extra-curricula activities in job applications, not just RDA, nor just university applications.

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    Replies
    1. Good advice should always be transferable - thank you!

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