Monday 23 August 2010

On University Applications

Around this time of year you can always guarantee three distinct stories related to the A-Level exam results. The first is that "exams are getting easier" (skilfully analysed by Ben Goldacre). The second is a token picture of a fruity young girl leaping for joy - a full selection can be viewed on "It's Sexy A-Levels". And the third, a late arrival to the journalistic fray, is the top student who got all A grades but got rejected by Oxbridge. It kicked off a decade ago with Laura Spence, and has hit a shrill zenith with Ben Scheffer, who despite achieving three A* and three A grades did not receive a single offer from any university, including Oxford.

Everyone concerned seems very puzzled by this:
The head of admissions at Brighton College, Stjohn Rowlands, said Ben was the school's best pupil and that he could not understand why he had not received any offers at all.
The article ponders whether the problem was that Ben was originally from Germany and did not sit GCSEs, or whether it was that there simply weren't enough places. But the answer is much more obvious to anyone who has guided students through the UCAS procedure:
[Ben] also said: "I didn't write the best personal statement, to be fair, it just wasn't special. And it's a really hard course to get into."
His personal statement wasn't "special". I wonder if some students think that their grades will just carry them into university. An application is not just about what the AS grades are and what teachers and lecturers have predicted for A2.

The personal statement

This has to kick some serious ass. It should have evidence that you're committed to the course, that you've been on tasters, that you have relevant work experience, that you've gone over and above what is expected on your course, and that you're a well-rounded individual. I advised two students on their personal statements this year, despite not being a tutor, one of whom is off to study pharmacology (aid work in India and a part-time job in a pharmacy definitely helps there), and the other is my palaeontologist, who has a very exciting three years ahead of him at Portsmouth (enthusiasm for the subject, knowledge of current issues and interests in photography and computer programming that can be applied to much of palaeontology). The only down side of the latter's personal statement was that between us we totally called Google Wave wrong (sorry kiddo!).

The reference

Your tutor has to pretty much say you're brilliant too. And he or she will ask the lecturers for their opinion. And while they will try their hardest to put all the students in the best light, there's no good way of spinning less than 80% attendance (what, this kid misses a day of lessons a week???).

The other universities and courses

Many students are unaware that each university can see the whole of your UCAS application. This means they can see which other universities you've applied for and which courses. So don't apply for Biochemistry at Newcastle, Drama at Cardiff, 16th Century French Poetry at UEA, Law at Edinburgh and Medicine at Nottingham, because you won't get offers from any of those places. Why? Because you lack focus. And that makes you a risk. If you want to do Biochemistry, make goddamn sure you have put down Biochemistry at every single university, the exception being if, say, at once uni there is a Biochemistry and Pharmacy option, or similar. An exceptionally bright student of mine had few offers because she had applied for Medicine and Midwifery, giving the impression that she was committed to neither.

The presence of Oxbridge can be a help and a hindrance. For me, it meant that Durham, upon seeing Cambridge on my UCAS form, made me an offer within a week, desperate to poach me. Birmingham followed within a month with a pathetically low offer considering what I was predicted. For others, Oxford or Cambridge implied to some universities that there was no point in making them an offer because they'd go with one of those two.

Other admissions exams

Prospective medical students are faced with either UKCAT or BMAT (the latter for Oxbridge, Imperial, UCL and RVC, the former for most other UK medical and dentistry schools). The STEP exams I took in Chemistry and Physics are no more - only Mathematics remains. Instead, science students for Cambridge, Oxford and UCL sit the TSA. This is nothing new - in 1968 my father took STEP for entrance into Cambridge. This can make or break an application.

The interview

If all of the above have so far not sucked, then there's a good chance of being invited to interview. And that may be something for another post.

In all seriousness, the meeeeeja does like to complain when Oxbridge turn down a straight-A candidate, but they fail to appreciate that there are many aspects of a student that go into each application, and any admissions tutor worth their salt must check through all of these components before making a decision.


  1. Even 13 years ago this sort of thing was true. Being interested in Palaeontology helps as there are relatively few places offering degrees that allowed that sort of specialisation, and they're mostly disguised as "Geology with Biology" or Joint Honours courses. In those circumstances I think the admissions tutors are aware of this.

    I didn't apply for Oxbridge (primarily because I wasn't predicted the grades they wanted) Bristol and Birmingham made me exactly the same offer, UCL gave me a slightly lower offer (much the same as the ones Southampton and Manchester did), and Portsmouth gave me a significantly lower offer (low enough that I went for UCL as my second choice, with Bristol as my first).

  2. Nice post, Julia with some good advice.

    the meeeeeja does like to complain when Oxbridge turn down a straight-A candidate

    And they fail to connect the dots between that and their 'exams are getting easier' crusade. If everyone is getting better grades, then more people with good grades are going to miss out - and the other stuff, such as the personal statement, become even more important. Good grades earn you a closer look; that's all.

  3. A good summary

    I did admissions interviewing for Pembroke College once, of the batch of 13 that I interviewed they were pretty much all predicted straight A's in 3 or more A levels and of those 13 we took one student.

    For physics at Manchester we gave the option of an interview - that's to say we didn't need the interview to separate students for admission.

  4. If you break down universities in to recruiting unis and selecting unis things get a little easier to think about. To apply to a selecting uni (Oxbridge, medicine, any oversubscribed course or institution) you have to market yourself really well and get your grade. The personal statement and other aspects of the recruitment process matters.

    To apply to a recruiting uni, the personal statement matters a lot less. They just need you to get your offer grades.

    Key advice for personal statement - it has to be personal, there are so many sites when you can see examples, so much to copy...if I see another 'when playing with my chemistry set/telescope/microsope/globe at the age of 5' or similar statement, I'm going to go crazy. But in general I find personal statements offer little insight into the candidate, being too influenced by tutors and parents. When you see the quality of written work submitted by some students you realise how much or how little help they had with their personal statement.

    Choice of A-levels is really important - safest bet is stick to the 'traditional' academic subjects, and pick complementary subjects such as chemistry/physics, physics/maths, biology/chemistry. Sometimes the grade in that other related and helpful subject is the difference between an offer or a rejection.

  5. Great to have some more insights from the admissions side of things. I agree with the traditional academic subjects - we do an AS in environmental studies, and I'd far rather ditch it in favour of geology A-Level, but I'm biding my time.

    Dave, Cambridge offered AAA, Durham went with AAB and Birmingham BBC (considering I was predicted AAA, Birmingham's offer was incredibly safe). I was so convinced I didn't want to go anywhere else that I didn't bother applying to six universities.

    A very good point Chris!


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