Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The steep climb to university starts with GCSEs

The steep climb to university starts with GCSEs

As children face a summer of exams, former headmaster Tommy Cookson outlines why getting top grades is more important than ever.

The long haul: your GCSEs will affect your UCAS application
The long haul: your GCSEs will affect your UCAS application  Photo: ALAMY
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Only a month to go before GCSEs and (so the myth suggests) boys will be starting to revise while girls will have been working flat out for months. For both, however, the results will have a critical bearing on whether they decide to go to university, which university they choose and what course they apply for.
Never before have GCSE results been so important. They are the only hard-and-fast evidence that a university admissions tutor has of an applicant’s performance in a public examination. Not all schools offer AS exams and many offer a variety of different sixth-form courses; whereas GCSEs and IGCSEs are common currency for UK and international applicants.
Taking and doing well in GCSE is only the start of a difficult process. Choosing which university to apply to and what subject to read when and if you get there are as tricky as choosing a profession – or who to marry. Unfortunately the university choices have to be made a lot younger and, unlike marriage, the courtship is often indecently short.
Further, some universities are popular and hard to woo. The very best will be looking for as many as eight A*s in a range of GCSE subjects from students at top-of-the-league-tables independent schools; but any university in the top 10 will want at least some in subjects related to the pupil’s choice of degree course. All universities require at least a grade C in English and mathematics and all will need evidence of sufficient ability to make a success of a three-year degree course. Dropout rates are still high enough (in excess of eight per cent) to warrant caution in the assessment of applications.
The results are in by late August. It’s tough for some, but in my experience, generally candidates get what they deserve and their teachers expect. Occasionally a disappointing grade in the sciences or maths may act as a useful warning to pupils who have had a romantic attraction, say, to medicine that the subject is not for them. Other exams such as English literature can produce odd grades that need not put off a candidate. Remember, time passes quickly: applications for top universities such as Oxford or Cambridge and medical schools have to be in by October 15 of the next year and it’s best to apply for competitive courses as early as possible.
The lower sixth year is therefore a time for purposeful research. Pupils should arm themselves with a university handbook such as Brian Heap’s Choosing Your University Degree Course or The UCAS Guide to Getting into University and College. Each university also publishes its own handbook, copies of which are sent free to schools and which should be consulted when you have narrowed down your choices.
Universities hold open days in the summer that offer the opportunity to get a feel for the place and the people and decide whether it’s too far from home… or not far enough.
When you have a clear picture of the type of course and university you want to aim for, it is time to ask the help of professional advisers. The school’s or the local authority’s careers department can tell you, for instance, which universities have good law schools, how you qualify to become a barrister, even whether reading law is the best preparation for law. They can also tell you where to find useful work experience to help you discover what you might (and just as importantly what you might not) enjoy.
Experience suggests that those heading down the science route make up their minds more quickly about what to do at university than those aiming for arts courses. Some schools buy in psychometric tests for their pupils. These indicate where their strengths lie but not necessarily which profession would best suit them. The advice of parents and teachers at this stage is critical. The role of both is a bit like that of the monarch: to advise and to warn but not to make decisions. Your child is most probably nervous of independence but determined to secure it none the less. Wise teachers and parents recognise this and do not force the issue.

Nevertheless you should be ready to listen and comment whenever the subject of university arises and tactfully nudge communication along if it lapses.
Courting a university (or five universities at once, as candidates are required to do on the UCAS application form) is frustrating. There is the one you really want but know that everyone else is after as well. There are those that do not cause the earth to move but perhaps would suit you best in the long run; and a couple you’d rather have than be left on the shelf. You should avoid applying to the last: they are called insurance choices. Unless you want to go to a university, don’t put it down on your UCAS form.
When making your final choices, it is good to be ambitious but silly to be unrealistic. Most candidates, it has to be said, lack realism, aim impossibly high and should heed the advice of their teachers. But very occasionally teachers (perhaps themselves disappointed in the past) can scotch ambition and counsel pupils to play it safe. This is unhelpful and a source of deep frustration to top universities.
Choosing a university, like choosing a partner, depends on compatibility. Once you are sure of your course, it’s worth finding out which university has the best department, although competition to get into it will drive up the required entry grades. If you are doubtful about making the grade a slight alteration of course may do the trick. There is competition for English, for instance, but the choice of English and classical literature might produce a lower offer – and there are some really excellent classics departments around.
This advice sometimes brings the response: what future does classics prepare you for? And this raises the question: what’s university for?
A number of university disciplines are vocational. Medicine, law engineering and many others lead on to a profession, though not directly to a professional qualification. But many aren’t “useful”. Their purpose is to deepen understanding of life, to improve the way we think and communicate and to show us that human existence is complex and the truth murky. Study of classics may prepare one for a career in the BBC as well as media studies. It may also prepare one for a career in law. The recent science editor of a national newspaper read history.
Things to consider
Cambridge and Oxford, Imperial College, UCL and Warwick feature in all lists of the top 10 universities; the other five places tend to be filled by different institutions each year.
Imperial is strong in engineering, Bath and Warwick in business and economics, and LSE in economics or law-related degrees.
The number of GCSE A* grades required by universities vary depending on the applying pupil’s school’s average. For example, a school in an affluent area and in the private sector might be averaging six A*s per pupil, so an offer to a candidate from a top university and popular faculty would be made on a very high number of A*s. Universities expect less from pupils at schools with lower average grades.
Popular subjects that need a very good hand of GCSEs include economics (applications rising rapidly), English, history, medicine, geography, business studies/administration (especially at Bath and Warwick), law and psychology.
High grades would also be expected in joint courses in politics, philosophy and economics, and English and history. These subjects have very high ratios of applicants to places (as many as 20:1) so admissions tutors have no choice but to be very selective.
Tommy Cookson is former headmaster of Winchester College, Sevenoaks School and King Edward VI, Southampton
Brian Heap’s HEAP 2013: University Degree Course Offers is available to preorder from Telegraph Books at £35 + £1.25 p&p. Call 0844 871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
The UCAS Guide to Getting Into University and College is available to pre-order from Telegraph Books at £11.99 + £1.25 p&p (as above)