University Admissions

A little over a year ago I completed my collection of 15 works of fiction.

As a tutor to fifteen Upper Sixth students I was obliged to write a glowing UCAS reference for each one, to support their application for university. My line, above, is of course, a joke – every word that I penned was factually correct, 4,000 characters painting an accurate – if positive – picture of the hopeful applicant. I did joke with my students that what I had written may well be the best thing anyone ever writes about them – my aim was to make each and everyone one of them appear an attractive prospect for the universities to which they were applying.

It was no mean feat, if only in terms of time. If I spent only an hour on each, then it would have added an extra two working days to my load; a more realistic three hours per student – including time to discuss them with their subject teachers, draft my reference, proof read it, upload it etc – would add an extra working week to my “normal” teaching load.

And I couldn’t help but wonder how much emphasis the universities would place on my wordsmanship.

It seems no-one (other than the institutions themselves) know.

The Sutton Trust has today published a report looking at universtity application and admissions, and it makes interesting reading. The report looks at three areas:

  • The UCAS form
  • The Predicted Grades system
  • Personal Statements

… so not teacher references, but relating to personal statements the report does state:

They have different approaches to the use of contextual admissions and apply different criteria when analysing personal statements.

so it is reasonable to assume that different criteria will have been applied to my references by different universities – some may have read them, some may not. I have no way of knowing if my efforts were of use, or simply vanished into the ether, never to be read by anyone but me.

The Sutton Trust’s report is quite damming of the admissions process and as a teacher/sixth form tutor and a parent (my Year 13 daughter (at a different school) has been applying to University this term) I agree with them.

The goal of the Sutton Trust is to improve social mobility and, in its report, has focused on the challenges faced by poorer and disadvantaged. My students certainly don’t fall into that category so, by implication, they benefit from the current system, but I think that they, too, would benefit from a leveling of the playing fields.

At the heart of the fallibility of the current system are predicted grades. Applications are made, and offers given, well before students sit their A level exams and so predicted grades – not actual grades – form the central pillar of the process. The Sutton Trust correctly argues that those students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to have pushy parents picking up the phone to demand that their child’s predicted grade be raised.  If the student doesn’t have high enough predicted grades, they won’t be made an offer.

The predicted grades that I give are aspirational – a grade to aim for, but one that may ultimately prove to be beyond the reach of the student. I am not alone in this, the report states:

Evidence shows that the majority of grades are over-predicted, which could encourage students to make more aspirational choices.

Other than in exceptional circumstances, a student shouldn’t do better than their (university) predicted grade, otherwise we’ve done them a disservice and, possibly, shut an educational door on them that should have remained open.

However the report tells us:

However, high attaining disadvantaged students are more likely to have their grades under-predicted than their richer counterparts. This could result in them applying to universities which are less selective than their credentials would permit.

It goes on to tell us that circa 1,000 students each year have their grades under-predicted.

There is, of course, a way, a simple way, to overcome this problem:

Don’t allow pupils to apply to university until they have their grades.

Once you know you have three As, or two Bs and a C, you can then, with confidence, apply to the university and course for which you have made the grade. No more opaque applications, no more unfair predicted grades, no more clearing, just a simple, straight forward and transparent admissions system.

The educational calendar my have to be “tweaked” to make this work, to give universities and students time to make to make their choices – or perhaps not, thousands of students get their results in mid-August, go through clearing and then pack their bags ready for a September start. Or, my big idea, start the university year in January: students finish their exams in July, giving them 5 months to work/travel/grow up before starting university, with a brief punctuation in August to make their application.

Perhaps I can leave the last word to Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust:

“Access to leading universities has improved and they are working hard to attract a wider applicant pool.  However, the brightest disadvantaged students, given their grades, are under-represented at leading universities. The admission process itself may be responsible for this.

“Accordingly, the Sutton Trust is recommending we move to a post-qualification applications system.  This is where students apply only after they have received their A-level results.  This does away with predicted grades.  Having actual grades on application empowers the student.  They can pick the right course at the right university with a high degree of certainty they are making the right choice.

“Additionally, we are recommending using contextual data in admissions.  Also, the format of the personal statement should be reviewed to see how it could be improved and how it could become more transparent.”


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