University admissions maze

05 Jun 2009 The Guardian


How to get into university



Spare a thought for those poor year 12 students who, as they traipse around university open days this summer, will be wondering just what they have to do to get into the course of their choice.

Should they concentrate on beefing up their volunteering, work experience and extracurricular activities in order to have lots to put into their Ucas personal statements in the autumn? Or should they set all else aside and focus exclusively on trying to achieve the new A* grades at A-level?

The answer, I am afraid, is not a simple one. If applicants are aiming for the University of Cambridge, they would certainly focus on the A*s rather than the personal statements. Cambridge has said it does not use personal statements when deciding whom to interview, but it does want students who achieve at least one A*.

However, not all universities take the same line. Indeed, if anything, there has been a general trend towards universities taking a broader view of the merits of applicants. The Schwartz report into university admissions in 2004 stressed that transparent and fair admissions should take account of candidates' wider achievements.

Clear criteria

The report said the first principle of fair admissions should be "transparency". In other words, applicants should know exactly how, and against which criteria, they are being assessed. The second principle should be that candidates are judged on "their achievements and their potential".

To judge "potential", the Schwartz group said universities could use a number of methods in addition to examination results, including interviews, additional entrance tests, "non-academic experiences and relevant skills", and the "educational context" in which they had achieved their qualifications. The latter does not mean that students from poorly performing schools should automatically get lower offers, but that each applicant should be treated as an individual, taking full account of the factors they may have overcome to achieve their results.

However, although the government and higher education institutions broadly welcomed the Schwartz recommendations, there are still practical problems for admissions tutors to overcome. For example, many universities say it is logistically impossible to interview all candidates.

There is also the problem of trust. As a senior admissions figure at Cambridge told a recent conference, many schools "play games". He says it is not just a "systematic over-prediction" of grades by over-enthusiastic teachers, but also a problem with references. He cites one school that wrote about two separate applicants to Cambridge colleges, insisting that each was the best Oxbridge applicant from that school for many years.

Constant change

To be fair, things are almost as tough for admissions staff as they are for applicants. They are having to adjust to constant change. This summer will see the first A* grades awarded at A-level. Universities are divided over how to respond to them, particularly as they bed down. Some will ignore the new grade; others have followed the Cambridge line.

From next year, universities will also have to deal with applicants arriving via the diploma route. The Ucas tariff has already suggested that the diplomas will carry considerable weight, although there is often a big gap between what the tariff says and the personal views of admissions tutors. Ucas tariffs are, of course, purely advisory.

There will also be candidates coming forward with another new qualification, the Cambridge Pre-U, not to mention the growing numbers who are taking the international baccalaureate, the AQA and the Welsh. If schools and universities take seriously last week's comments by David Willetts, the Tory universities spokesman, about the unsuitability of A-levels for university study, the trend towards alternative qualifications may intensify.

Partly in response to this alphabet soup of qualifications, universities are increasingly setting their own admissions tests, especially for applicants in law and medicine. According to Ucas, about 50,000 students apply each year to courses that have admissions tests included in their entry requirements.

Universities may also increasingly look for candidates who have taken the new extended project. According to Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge, the extended project, which is worth half an A-level, "gives students the opportunity to get deeply involved in a subject that interests them, to develop research and critical-thinking skills, and extended writing skills - all of which are hugely valuable preparation for university study". While that is a big endorsement for the extended project, it may worry students whose schools and colleges do not offer it.

Meanwhile, there are other changes to throw into the university admissions mix. This summer will see the first run of the so-called adjustment period, when candidates with better than expected exam results can attempt to "trade up" without jeopardising the university offer they already hold. In reality, though, it is unlikely that many of the more selective universities will have any places left so late in the day.

The adjustment period is a poor man's version of post-qualifications admissions, the proposed system whereby students apply after they have received their exam results. However, much foot-dragging by the universities means that this - potentially fairer - system remains some way off.

University admissions once seemed a much simpler matter. In the apocryphal story, the student (male, of course) arrives for his Oxbridge interview and the senior tutor chucks him a rugby ball. If he catches it, he gets a place; if he catches it and executes a perfect drop kick, he gets a scholarship.

While it was never quite like that, the pressure for fairer admissions has, quite rightly, put a spotlight on how universities choose applicants. The Sutton Trust has a sheaf of statistics that give pause for thought: pupils from just 200 schools make up half of all Oxbridge entrants, while just 8% of all entrants to the dozen highest-ranked universities come from the poorest postcodes.

Any suggestion that this should be remedied by "social engineering" draws a fierce response, particularly from the independent schools, whose unique selling point is their track record of getting students into the most selective universities.

The fears over positive discrimination are probably overdone. No university wants to admit students who lack the ability to complete their course. No one is suggesting tariffs or quotas. But universities should treat each applicant as an individual, taking account of prior achievements, circumstances and potential. And that means A-level grades alone are not everything.

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