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How to make your decisions confidently. [Steps 56-71]

dog running with toy

Having researched the options and decided on the way forward, you now need to implement those decisions. There is much good advice on how to apply on the UCAS website. The focus here is on issues to consider within the application process, including narrowing the choice and assessing the outcome.

Stage 3 : Application: About

[STEP 56] 

It is worthwhile at this stage stressing again that decisions made in Year 13 are not binding. If you apply to universities and are accepted onto a programme when your exam. results are published next summer, you can still decline these offers by the end of August and either re-apply or do something else.

Moreover, I am aware that many people by the start of Year 13 have still not finalised a choice of subject(s) and therefore cannot draw up a short-list of universities or complete a Personal Statement; and some people who think that they have finalised all of this discover, while applying, that they are less committed than they thought they were and need to re-consider their options. If you find yourself in this position of uncertainty at the beginning of Year 13, don’t panic, but keep researching and discussing with your advisers.

The only warning I give is to those who decide last minute to apply for Dentistry, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine, Oxford or Cambridge, i.e. the subjects and unis. that have a 15 October application deadline. These areas are so competitive that applications should be made on the basis of extensive research; those made on the principle of “I might as well give it a try” are seldom successful. Be careful of parents and other advisers who try to push you into something with which you are uncomfortable. On the other hand, don’t fall prey to last minute nerves, thinking “I can’t compete in such a high league”, when all the evidence of results and passion points to the fact that you can compete!

If you are applying to those university programmes for which there is a 15 October deadline (Dentistry, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine, Oxbridge), I advise you to complete your UCAS form by 30 September. This is what many schools and colleges insist on, so that there is time for checking, reference writing  and any last reflections.

I recommend other applicants for courses at highly selective universities to complete your UCAS form by the end of September, as the first offers are made at the beginning of October. I advise all other applicants to aim to complete a UCAS form well ahead of the 15 January official deadline. DO NOT REGARD 15 JANUARY AS YOUR DEADLINE, as many universities will have been making offers from October, and there are correspondingly fewer offers to be made by January. Very few universities wait for all the applications to be received (“the gathered field” is the technical term) before making decisions after 15 January. Edinburgh and St Andrews tend to do this, but even they make earlier decisions.

The speed with which universities or departments within universities give a decision to an applicant varies greatly. Only a minority of universities and subjects these days requires an interview as part of the selection process, and that inevitably delays the decision making. I tell Medicine applicants that they are usually the first to apply and are often the last to hear some of their uni. decisions – but then this is merely a taste of the waiting that they will put their patients through, once they’ve qualified!

The new UCAS cycle of application opens on 1 September each year. I think that it is important from the beginning of this term that applicants know what predicted grades would be put on their form, if they were to apply at the beginning of September, as they need to know which unis. they can reasonably aim at. If an applicant thinks that she or he will be predicted ABB, when the school intends to predict BCC (or vice versa), in the light of examination results and overall performance in Year 12, the applicant is likely to waste a lot of time looking at the wrong unis.. If, however, the applicant knows from the start of September that BCC would be entered as predictions, if the form were to be sent off then, she or he can focus on a more realistic choice of unis. or set out to convince teachers in the first few weeks of Year 13 that the higher predictions are justified. This is a system with which I am familiar, and I think that it works well, not least in giving students an incentive to start Year 13 with a positive attitude towards their studies.

Predicting A Level grades is an art rather than a science, and teachers’ experience counts for a lot here, especially as new examination specifications and assessment criteria are being introduced. Similarly, there is an art in applicants’ selecting uni. programmes that they have a reasonable chance of being able to enter. Before the cap on student numbers at each uni. was lifted, it was easier to predict whether an applicant with a particular set of predicted grades would get an offer from a specific uni.. This is now harder, as more offers are being made above predicted grades, in a more competitive market among unis.. It is also harder, in the age of higher fees, to persuade some applicants that a tempting offer made by a big name uni. several grades above those predicted is likely to be difficult to achieve. We hear: “But they took Kate last year with a grade below her offer.” That might be true, but what this student might not realise is that others who achieved a grade below their offer were turned away and made little noise about it amidst Kate’s loud rejoicing. Don’t assume that unis. will accept you with a grade or two below those specified in the offer. Some will, but others won’t. As a rule of thumb, the more selective the uni. (or subject), the less likely they are to take you, if you don’t meet the offer. In my experience, it is least likely for Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London or Medicine.

If an applicant is planning to enter uni. the September immediately after Year 13, I advise choosing 3 unis. whose likely offer grades are in line with the applicant’s predictions, with one uni. whose requirements are slightly above these and a final “fall-back” choice with requirements slightly below them. As elsewhere, there is no rigid rule here, and much depends on both the reliability of those predicting and the academic progress made by the applicant in Year 13.

If an applicant has already decided to take a “gap year”, it is possible to take more risks, as there remains the opportunity to re-apply the following autumn, if the first application doesn’t yield the desired outcome.

If you know the predictions that will go on your UCAS form, how do you know which unis. you can reasonably look at?

For Dentistry, Medicine and Veterinary Medicine you will need to be predicted at least AAA for all but a couple of unis.. The only exception is for applicants at schools with significantly lower than average A Level results, who might receive “Contextual Offers” (see Step 6) that are lower.

Unfortunately, few of the most selective universities make their policy on Contextual Offers sufficiently clear in their prospectuses and websites to those applicants who most need to know it. Bristol, Edinburgh and Glasgow do publish Contextual Offers in their prospectus, while some others act on a more individual basis. One university does not automatically give lower offers but has members of its admissions’ staff who assess whether an individual applicant might be successful on the degree programme applied for, if additional support is given; the standard offer is usually given but each individual situation is reviewed in August, when results are received.

If you are unsure whether you might qualify for a Contextual Offer, check with your school or college, or, if need be, contact a university’s School Liaison or Admissions’ Department directly.

An important source of information on this subject is a paper published by The Sutton Trust in 2017: Admissions in Context: The use of contextual information by leading universities (Vikki Boliver, Claire Crawford, Mandy Powell and Will Craige) 

Every year I produce lists of entry requirements published in the prospectuses for over 40 Single Honours subjects across more than 60 universities, which include all those unis. with the toughest entry requirements (i.e., the pre-1992 unis.) and some of those unis. that gained full university status in 1992 or later (These lists are in the University Entrance Requirements section). In the table below I have ranked the unis. by average grades in their published entry requirements across 39 subjects. In compiling this list I have excluded Dentistry, Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, as some unis. have significantly higher requirements in these very competitive subjects than for other subjects, and almost all require A*AA or AAA. In STEM subjects I have taken the grades for BSc programmes rather than for undergraduate Master’s programmes (e.g., MSci), with the exception of Engineering, where I have used the grades for MEng rather than BEng, as MEng is the “gold standard” programme for those ultimately seeking Chartered Engineer status.

Consider this table as only a very rough guide. It is important to look at each uni.’s published likely requirements for individual subjects. I have, for instance, converted offers in UCAS Tariff points (which are usually made by post-1992 unis.) to an equivalent set of 3 A Level grades, although most unis. will allow the points to be made up from a variety of qualifications, including stand-alone AS results. However, it should give you some idea of where to start looking, if you are aiming to apply to unis. with the highest entry requirements. There are many post-1992 unis. that have not been included here: that is in the interests of my sanity in compiling these annual lists, not because I value those unis. less. They are all likely to have average entry requirements below ABB, with many in the BBC-BCC area. Once you get to CCC or below, you are entering the area where application for a 2 year Foundation Degree (with a possible “top up” year to gain a full Honours Degree: Step 47) might be more appropriate.














St Andrews























Queen Mary

East Anglia



Royal Holloway






Queen’s Belfast










Bristol UWE






Oxford Brookes


Nottingham Trent









Manchester Metropolitan


St Mary’s Twickenham

Sheffield Hallam

This rank order of likely entry requirements has nothing to do with the quality of what each uni. is offering. The grades required are a reaction to the market, where the “price” is determined by the popularity of the product: i.e., by the number of applicants. There are two basic factors that determine the “price”: popular prejudice about what is a “big name” uni. and geographical location. It is important to note that the unis. with the biggest names have got their big names for research rather than teaching; that popular prejudice is not well informed about the current standing of research in a particular uni. department; and that one of the criteria, geographical location, has no connection with the quality of what is on offer within the uni.. To judge from the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (discussed above on Step 27), The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE for short) does indeed produce top quality research in social sciences, but Essex matches that level of research, even though it offers applicants lower grades, because neither Uni. of Essex nor Colchester has such a big global brand image as LSE and London. Similarly, Aberystwyth’s Politics department has long had one of the strongest research profiles (it started the world’s first International Relations programme in 1919), but fewer applicants are interested in going to a place considered to be on the geographical edge of the UK. However, my feedback from students is that more remote unis. often have a particularly good sense of community, as those at uni. in London or other big cities have more opportunity to develop a social life outside the uni.. It all comes down to personal preference.

The discerning applicant, who looks at the evidence carefully, can in this way pick up a less demanding offer at a top flight research department, if that is what they think suits their needs.

The grades published in the prospectus and on the uni. and UCAS websites are the ones likely to be required, if an offer is made. They are therefore a best guess, but my experience is that it is rare for unis. to make a very different offer from what has been published, with the exception of the Contextual Offers mentioned above.

In drawing up a final list of degree programmes to be applied for, CHECK SUBJECT ENTRY REQUIREMENTS CAREFULLY. If a particular subject or grade in a particular subject is stated to be “required” by a uni., don’t consider that programme further, if you don’t now have that requirement achieved or in the pipeline. Many applications are rejected each year because applicants haven’t looked closely enough at the minimum requirements.

Moreover, if you are thinking of applying for deferred entry (i.e., you don’t plan to enter uni. immediately after Year 13 but you want to book your place a year ahead, to enter after a “gap year”), make sure that your chosen unis. will accept a deferred entry. For most subjects it is likely to be fine, but for a subject like Drama, where an audition is required, departments consider it fairest to hold a competitive audition only for those hoping to enter in the next intake. Make no assumptions: I have known a Midwifery applicant be turned down for applying for deferred entry (see Step 59).

It is also important to check the location of a particular degree programme. Some multi-campus unis. have campuses that are very far apart. Exeter, for instance, has two campuses in the city of Exeter but another near distant Falmouth, a much less urban setting; while the University of the Highlands and Islands has campuses and centres across the entire length and almost the entire breadth of Scotland.

Some applicants still want to “keep their options open” by applying for several different subjects. There is no problem applying for broad-based programmes that include the study of three or more subjects (e.g., PPE=Philosophy, Politics + Economics; Natural Sciences; Liberal Arts) for some of your choices and, alongside these, programmes that only include two of these subjects (e.g., Politics + Economics; Chemistry + Maths.; English + History). It is still possible to write a Personal Statement that each uni. would find relevant. However, it would be almost impossible to write such a Personal Statement, if you were to apply for Geography + Economics, Real Estate Management and Accounting + Finance at three different unis..

Sometimes applicants think that they can solve this by applying for different programmes at the same uni., but this merely sends the message to that uni. that they are indecisive. There are justifiable situations where one might apply to the same uni. for different programmes, but it is always worth asking the uni. first, if you’re thinking about it, as you might be wasting an application. An applicant for an MEng programme in Engineering might automatically be offered a BEng in the same discipline, if the offer grades are not met. However, an applicant for a 3 year Honours programme in Real Estate Management might not be automatically offered a place on the corresponding Foundation Degree programme (with the prospect of a one-year top to gain Honours, if successful), in the same situation. Check this out for each case before applying.

I still hear a myth circulating along the lines of “Uni. X won’t give you an offer, if you apply to Uni. Y”. It has been the case for many years that each uni. you apply to only sees your application to itself and does not see where else you have applied.

Stage 3 : Application: About

[STEP 57] 

If you are applying through a school or college, don’t assume that you are the only applicant and that the whole process revolves around you. All institutions have finite resources, and you shouldn’t assume that everyone will drop everything else, if you are late completing your application. Be aware of the importance of punctuality. It is the best way of ensuring that you will give yourself and receive from others the best treatment: mistakes are apt to happen when there is a rush.

I have sometimes come across applicants who have been reluctant to enter details in the “disability/special needs” section, in case these are held against them. Such discrimination would be illegal, but might be hard to prove. I should, however, stress that I have seen a big change in the provision of support for dyslexic and other such students since the Disability Discrimination Act was passed in 1995, and I encourage all such applicants to give full information on their UCAS form, in the belief that it is far more likely to have a positive rather than a negative outcome. See Stage 21 for further details on Specific Learning Differences.

If you are applying to Durham, you need to choose a college or let Durham choose a college for you by submitting an Open application. There are 15 colleges that admit undergraduates (a 16th will open for 2019-20); 2 colleges are currently based in Stockton but are moving to Durham from 2018-9. Unlike Oxford and Cambridge, Durham does not coordinate its teaching via the colleges but via the academic departments. The colleges are the students’ social and accommodation base. There is also a central Students’ Union, through which many university-wide societies are arranged and Team Durham similarly caters for athletes who perform at university level rather than inter-collegiate level.

The following criteria might act as a guide in choosing a Durham college (for useful comparisons, see the table at ):
- location + age
Older colleges cluster around the old centre (Bailey) adjacent to the Cathedral. St Hild and St Bede is a little away from the centre on the north bank of the River Wear. Post-1945 “Hill” colleges are on the South West, near the Science Site. No college is more than 20 minutes’ walk from any university department.
- size
There is quite a range in the number of students, from about 500 to about 1,300. One person’s “small and friendly” is another person’s “small and claustrophobic”, but no college is very small.
- accommodation
There is a big range across the colleges in the percentage of 1st year accommodation that is en suite (0% to 100%) or shared (0% to 70%). It is unusual in UK unis. to have a high percentage of shared accommodation. I discovered from someone working at the lodge of a Bailey college that a few rooms are kept free, in case the relationship between strangers allocated shared accommodation doesn’t work out.
- activities and facilities 
It is worth checking out the current standing of college teams in particular sports, if you’re keen to play at inter-collegiate level. Similarly, some colleges will have more active music societies than others, if you’re not going to go for the level of university ensembles. Bigger colleges are likely to have more facilities, but check out your individual needs.

The UCAS website offers clear information on how to complete the UCAS form, whether you are applying through your school/college or independently:


1. The danger of plagiarism

UCAS has very sensitive software that will detect phrases in Personal Statements that have been borrowed from other current or former applicants or from websites. Never borrow phrases or sentences from elsewhere.

A few years ago it was reported that this sentence (complete with spelling mistake) occurred 234 times in UCAS Personal Statements: “Ever since I accidentlly burnt holes in my pyjamas after experimenting with a chemistry set on my eighth birthday, I have always had a passion for science.” It’s not even relevant evidence!

Plagiarism is the easiest way to get instant rejection. If you show your Personal Statement to another applicant, who then borrows part of it, you will both run the risk of instant rejection.

2. The danger of dishonesty

In 2008 “The Apprentice” television show attracted great criticism, when the competition was won by someone who had lied on his c.v. about the length of time he had spent at university. As far as your competition for a uni. place is concerned, never lie on a UCAS form. You are required to sign a declaration of honesty. In theory, if you knowingly give false information in order to gain a place at uni. and ultimately get a degree there, you can be deprived of that degree, as it has been gained under false pretences.


Stage 3 : Application: About

[STEP 58]

An applicant’s UCAS form has to be accompanied by a set of predicted grades for examination results that are pending and a reference.

If you are applying in Year 13, your A Level (or equivalent) subjects will be entered in the Examinations section of the UCAS form together with a result date that is still in the future (i.e., August immediately after Year 13), when the form is submitted. As soon as you enter an examination whose result date is in the future, a box for a predicted grade is automatically created for the reference writer. This applies for all such entries in the Examinations section. If you are taking practical examinations in instrumental music or are due to complete a Duke of Edinburgh Award, a box will appear for a prediction. In some cases, as for the Duke of Edinburgh Award, this will simply be “pass”.

In the UCAS online system the reference is added after the applicant has completed her or his part of the form, so the applicant does not automatically see it. However, the reference is an Open Reference, so the applicant has a legal right to apply to UCAS to see it (i.e., after it has been sent).

If you wish to do this, you will find details on the UCAS website:
There is a charge of £10.

A UCAS form is confidential between the applicant, school/college/other reference provider, the unis applied to and UCAS. A parent or guardian does not have any right to see a UCAS form, including the reference, unless the applicant chooses. A school/college does not have the right to show a UCAS reference to a parent or guardian.

If a reference compiler feels that illness or adverse personal circumstances should be mentioned in the reference, permission should first be sought from the applicant.

Each school and college has its own system for supporting applicants in completing their part of the form, compiling references, checking both and sending the form and reference to UCAS. When I have compiled a UCAS reference, I have always read it to the applicant, having stated at the outset that I’m not obliged to change anything in the light of their comments, unless something is factually incorrect. After reading it, I ask for comments, including whether I have left anything out that should be included. I haven’t given a photocopy of the reference. I can’t guarantee the effectiveness of this system, but I’ve never had a complaint and, so far as I know, no applicant has asked for a copy from UCAS. But, if they did, I don’t suppose they’d want to tell me!

Stage 3 : Application: About

[STEP 59] 

To gap or not to gap. That is the question that preoccupies a lot of applicants.

I’m not going to engage in the pros and cons of a “gap year” here, as it’s very much an individual issue. Some have good reasons to postpone, others to hasten entry to uni.. All I do say is that a “gap year” should be structured, with periods of time allocated in advance to specific activities. I warn about the danger of a drifting “gap year”.

Be aware that institutions that require an audition for music or drama programmes are likely to want to audition you within the cohort of applicants seeking entry the following autumn. They consider it unfair to offer a place in advance to an applicant seeking a “gap year”, as they can’t yet measure her or him against the following year’s applicants.

Similarly, I think that Oxbridge applicants are making life harder for themselves in a very competitive field, if they apply for deferred entry. Some do apply for deferred entry and are successful, but they, too, are asking a college with a small allocation of students per subject per year to promise a place to someone against a field whose standard they don’t yet know. In other words, you’ve got to be particularly impressive to make the college feel confident that you’re worth backing. However, the position is complicated. It seems as if Cambridge’s Engineering students are almost encouraged to take a “gap year”, while Medicine applicants are discouraged. I have known strong applicants be turned down with a deferred application to Oxford, only to be accepted at the second attempt, after getting their A Levels. I suggest that, if you are seriously thinking of deferred entry for Oxbridge, you test the reaction of an admissions’ tutor to the point I make at the beginning of this paragraph.

Those who enter uni. after a “gap year” are sometimes seen as more mature, but there is also concern that they might have lost proficiency, especially in Mathematics and Music. However, modern linguists might enhance their proficiency by spending a substantial part of their “gap year” speaking the target language(s) in relevant countries.

As for “gap year” tactics in application, there are two possible ways of applying. In the next 2 paragraphs “Year 13 entry” means entry in the September immediately after leaving school/college; “Year 13+1 entry” means entry in the following September, after a “gap year”.

Option 1 
It is possible to indicate a “gap year” from the outset, by applying for Year 13+1 entry rather than Year 13 entry. However, it is not possible to change an application for Year 13+1 entry to one for Year 13 entry later in the Year 13 application cycle.

Option 2
However, many but not all universities are prepared to let Year 13 entry applicants defer their entry to Year 13+1 entry during the Year 13 application cycle: for instance, in March, after a “gap year” placement has been secured. This has the advantage of allowing applicants more time to decide about a “gap year”. However, it is vital that the applicants CHECK BEFORE THEY APPLY whether the departments to which they are applying are happy to grant a deferral later in the Year 13 application cycle.

Therefore Option 1 is only appropriate for those who are 100% sure that they want to take a “gap year”. While Option 2 might seem preferable to many as a tactic, there are some applicants every year who do not check a department’s attitude to deferral and end up facing a dilemma between losing their offer or losing their “gap year”!                                                                                                

Stage 3 : Application: About

[STEP 60] 

Entry tests and questionnaires are required from those applying to only a small minority of degree programmes.

On entry tests see Step 32. It is important that you now check whether an entry test is needed for any of the degree programmes for which you are applying. A warning about the possible need to sit a test should appear on your UCAS form, if you apply for a degree programme that requires one. Be aware that institutions change their minds, and what might not have been required last year might be required this year. One year a university department changed its mind between the publication of the paper prospectus and the application deadline: the paper prospectus announced “No test required”, whereas the website was updated and had “A test is required”! More empathy might have been shown for the applicants – and for the university’s admissions’ office, which was inundated with calls.

You should NOT assume that, by applying for a degree programme, you will automatically be registered for the entry test that is required for it. These tests should be regarded as public examinations, for which you have to register with the relevant board, just as for GCSE or A Level. Most of these tests are sat at your school, college or other registered examination centre. A few, such as UKCAT or LNAT, are sat online at a Pearson Test Centre.

It is also important to prepare for these tests, as they are used to exclude some applications from further consideration. More details are given in Step 32.

If you are applying to Durham, you have the opportunity to send a modified Personal Statement by Email to Durham within 3 days of your UCAS form being acknowledged by UCAS. This was introduced several years ago, because many Durham applicants also apply to Oxford or Cambridge and tend to write Personal Statements that are almost entirely academically focused. However, Durham has colleges that are the students’ residential and social base, but not their academic base, which is in their departments. Its colleges want students who will contribute to college life and therefore they want more of the Personal Statement devoted to extra-curricular interests than most Oxbridge applicants write. Having spoken with admissions’ staff at Durham, when this extra Personal Statement was introduced, I strongly advise you to take advantage of this opportunity, especially as you may state what you particularly like about the Durham programme to which you are applying: e.g., the fact that Medieval, Early Modern and Late Modern courses are compulsory in the History programme.

Cambridge applicants will receive a Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ), which has to be completed by 22 October. There are detailed instructions on the Cambridge website:  . Module scores for public examinations taken in Year 12 need to be entered. The “optional additional personal statement” (maximum 1200 characters) sometimes makes applicants worry. I advise using it to highlight which aspects of the Cambridge degree programme particularly appeal. Potentially more worrying is the photograph: choose a sober-looking one, not just for the sake of first impressions and the interview, but because this will be the photo. on your ID card for several years, if you enter the uni.!

Online questionnaires are requested by some Veterinary Medicine and Medicine schools. In some cases applicants need to complete them after application, and the university will request this later. However, some need to be completed at the time of application, and failure to do so will disqualify that application. This is especially the case with Veterinary Medicine, where the online questionnaire requires details of relevant work experience.

Stage 3 : Application: About

[STEP 61] 

There are different types of interview that need to be distinguished. Some are part of the selection process, and performance in the interview will determine whether or not an offer is given. I term these “selection interviews”, and they are my focus in this section. In other interviews the applicant’s performance does not determine whether or not an offer is given, although it might be necessary to attend the interview in order to get an offer. In the latter cases these interviews are an opportunity for the university to market itself to the applicant, and the interviews often occur after an offer has been made.

Most university applicants are not invited to interview these days. For them, the decision on whether or not they are given an offer will be made only on the basis of their UCAS form. For many universities selection interviews are simply too expensive and the claim is often made that they are an artificial and ineffective way of selecting applicants. I once attended a conference at a very selective university. The Vice Chancellor set out the deficiencies of the UCAS form as a means of selecting undergraduate students, so I asked whether he was considering re-introducing selection interviews across all subjects. He replied angrily along the lines of: “Our university doesn’t have the financial resources of Oxbridge.”

Here is my advice for “selection interviews”. In short, preparation is important, but spending a lot of money on the many preparation courses on offer is not necessary.

1. Find out what kind of interview format it will be and try to get practice in a similar format

For Medicine it could be one-to-one or two-to-one (possibly with a silent observer) and solely focus on science (Oxbridge) or touch on anything but science (e.g., medical ethics, structure of NHS) or be a series of stations (maybe 7 in an hour, including anything from manual dexterity to breaking bad news in a role play). The last (Multiple Mini Interviews) is now the most common and applicants need practice in what can be a stamina-sapping exercise. But maybe testing stamina is part of the assessment. See the separate sections on Oxbridge (Step 37) and Medicine (etc.) (Step 39, Step 43).

Accounting and Finance programmes sponsored by companies (e.g., by PwC at Newcastle and elsewhere) might include an Assessment Centre with group tasks as well as an individual interview (which can be over 1 hour long). See Step 49.

Individual university websites should offer guidance on the format of interviews. If in doubt, contact the uni..

2. Assume that you will be asked about your Personal Statement, but don’t be surprised, if you are not.

This also applies to written work submitted or pre-interview questionnaires.

If you are able to arrange practice interviews, ask the interviewer to include questions based both on and away from your Personal Statement.

At Oxbridge the interviewers are researchers who pride themselves on their independent thinking, so they don't necessarily like to toe a policy line...

3. Applicants for science/engineering/economics

Practise solving problems while giving an oral explanation of your thinking.

This is what interviews at Oxbridge and elsewhere are likely to require, and applicants need practice in expressing themselves, while working towards a solution on paper or on the board.

However, don't assume, for instance, that Economics + Management interviews at Oxford will necessarily include this: some will, and some will not.

4. Get practice in reacting to objects, photographs or texts

Objects might include animal skulls for vets., artefacts for archaeologists, photographs for History of Art or Geography. Texts might include a book review for History, a French or Latin poem, a Business scenario. You might be asked to summarise and then analyse the text.

5. Get practice in thinking across categories

Universities do not like an unduly modular approach. Some questions might be cross-disciplinary, linking perhaps another A Level with the one which is the focus of the application. An Oxbridge applicant for both a Choral Award and Archaeology + Anthropology was asked to give the anthropology of a choir. Another was asked to compare the leadership of a named medieval king and a named US president.

6. Read the course outline carefully

You should make sure that you can answer the question "Which of the 2nd/3rd year options might you be most interested in?"

7. Leave plenty of time for travel

Travel-induced stress is the worst start to an interview.

8. Practise greeting

Don't assume that an interviewer will want to shake hands: take your lead from what the interviewer does. Don't give a bone-crushing handshake that is still being felt and resented five minutes later by an interviewer who has arthritis. Look the interviewer in the eye and smile. If there are two interviewers, try to look at both from time to time when answering.

9. Give clear and unrushed answers

This comes with practice, which can help to clear up mannerisms (e.g., using “fillers” like "um" or "like") and a gushing stream-of-consciousness approach to answers.

10. Believe that interviewers are not most interested in right and wrong answers

Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification, or to say when you don’t know an answer. If you are given an answer to a problem or question which you did not get, show some genuine interest. However, the interviewers are likely to be more interested in thought processes than getting the right answer (assuming there is one!): logical thinking; a use of knowledge to develop and defend individual lines of thought. Don't assume that an interviewer is negative, if a line of thought is challenged. A good applicant is likely to be challenged more and more by an interviewer encouraged by what has already been seen. The outcome of an interview is therefore very hard to judge.

11. Don’t give other applicants an unfair advantage

Don’t tell your competitors about the interview that has just happened, before they have had their own. Don’t allow yourself to be "out-psyched" by those out to impress and who might come across as (superficially) very confident.

12. Develop oral confidence by explaining a complex issue in your subject to someone who is not studying it

Ask a relative or friend to be your audience, or ask to give a presentation to your class and invite questions at the end.

Stage 3 : Application: About

[STEP 62] 

As soon as your UCAS form, including the reference, has been sent, you will get an acknowledgement from UCAS. You might also get communication from the unis. to which you have applied, as they can now contact you independently of UCAS.

Don’t be surprised, if different unis. operate on a very different timescale. Some will give an instant decision; others will keep you waiting for months. At the same uni. some subjects will take longer than others, especially if interviews and auditions are needed. Durham has a two-stage process, with acceptance by a department preceding college allocation.

Oxford and Cambridge will let applicants know whether they are needed for December interviews. Sometimes the notification is close to the dates allocated for the interviews. Early in January they will let the vast majority of interviewed applicants know whether or not they have been given an offer. The exceptions are those that depend on the Cambridge system called The Winter Pool. Only a minority of “pooled” applicants are recalled for a second interview: of the 1,000 or so pooled applicants who receive offers, only about 10% will have been recalled. Cambridge Winter Pool decisions are mostly made in mid-January, and all decisions will have been announced by the end of the month.

As for applications to other unis., some will receive an offer or rejection immediately. Most unis. have moved to a central admissions' system, where specialists in admissions make decisions, with or without consulting a relevant department admissions’ tutor. There is often a “three pile system”: immediate offer, immediate rejection and awaiting further consideration (perhaps in the light of all applications received by the 15 January deadline).

Since the lifting of the cap on student numbers, more offers have been made in recent years, and I think that that includes more early offers.

Some applicants will have had all 5 decisions several weeks before Christmas; other applicants will have had none. Try not to let it worry you, if your friends are getting offers and you’re not: it’s just another idiosyncrasy in our idiosyncratic admissions’ process. There is no predictable timescale.

Just make sure that you respond to UCAS or uni., if they contact you and ask you for information, including, for instance, confirming the date you want to come for interview or completing an online questionnaire. Unis. outside Oxbridge are aware of transport difficulties, school commitments or interview clashes and are usually flexible about interview dates, but ignoring a request is likely to result in rejection.

Otherwise, just focus on working towards the best grades possible!

15 January is the official closing date for UCAS applications. It is also the closing date for Art Foundation applications at some institutions, but application for these Further Education programmes is not through UCAS and each institution has its own deadline. Some Art and Design programmes have a deadline of 24 March, to allow more time for a portfolio to be assembled. If you are an applicant for this subject area, check the details for each institution.

UCAS receives a disturbingly large number of last-minute applications. An atmosphere of last minute rush is not conducive to careful consideration, so I hope that you manage to avoid this. Universities might consider applications after this date, and I have known applicants who have started a UCAS form as late as August, after receiving their A Level or IB results. However, applications for the most competitive programmes will almost certainly not be accepted beyond the stated deadlines.

Some Dentistry, Medicine and Veterinary interviews start as early as November, but most are in the period January to March, and applicants for these programmes can expect a long wait until final decisions are made, usually just after Easter. The Spring Term is also when auditions are held for performance-related programmes. I advise checking carefully what is likely to be required and getting as much practice as you can.

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Stage 3 : Application: About

[STEP 63] 

If you were given an offer by a uni. without an interview, as happens in the vast majority of cases these days, you’ll be invited to visit the uni.. Most of these post-application Open Days happen in the Spring Term.

If you are accumulating several offers by the time this invitation comes, you might be reluctant to spend the time and money to visit a place that you were only half considering. All I advise here is that you don’t rush to be dismissive of a uni. and its programme. I remember the student who had decided, before visiting either, that Bristol was to be his first choice and Bath was to be his last. Both had invited him to visit, but the visits were to be on consecutive Wednesdays, a day favoured by unis., because teaching isn’t supposed to happen in the afternoons, in the interests of inter-uni. sport. He was a conscientious student and didn’t want to spend so much time away from school. However, I persuaded him to keep an open mind. He loved Bath so much when he went there that it became his Firm choice, largely because at the uni. he heard more about the work placement year. He went to Bath and enjoyed his placement year, which gave him the confidence to set up his own business soon after graduation.

Before going to the Open Day, check whether information is given on the website that might answer some of your questions: e.g., how different modules are assessed (e.g., coursework or exam.); library opening times, departmental societies; cost and location of accommodation.

Take full advantage of these days to ask searching questions about the degree programme and its delivery and about accommodation and other social issues:

The degree programme

Ask the uni. staff questions such as:
How many lectures and/or laboratory sessions are there each week?
What field trips are currently offered?
What exactly does a Personal Tutor do?
What support is offered, if I’m having a problem with, e.g., Maths.?
What links does the department have with relevant businesses?
With which companies are students currently away on placement? [In Brunel’s Design department I was pleased to see that photos of students away on placement were prominently displayed – an indication of the importance attached to the students and their placements. They were not simply forgotten about for a year.]
What support is given in finding a placement?
What does the department mean by stating that a subject is “preferred”? How big a disadvantage is it not to have this subject?

Bear in mind that you might not get the full story in some of the answers, so it’s important to consider the way in which the question is answered as well as the content delivered in the answer.

Those with Specific Learning Differences should re-read Step 21.

Those with mental health and other health needs should re-read Step 22.

Quiz as many students as you can find who are studying the programme that you have applied for.

It might be useful to ask:
Is the programme, in general, what you expected?    If not, how is it different?
What are the best features of the programme?
What are the worst features of the programme? 
What have been the greatest problems you have had in changing from school/college/Gap Year to university?
How much contact time have you had this year:
                (a) in lectures (per week)                        (b) in tutorials/classes/seminars
                (c) one to one                                         (d) how many students are there in tutorials/classes/seminars?
What do you feel about the teaching quality? 
How accessible are the tutors, if you have an academic problem?
What is the quality of the library resources, labs., studios, IT facilities?
If you have had a placement, where was it and was it useful? 
How much support did the university give you before and during the placement?

Living at the uni.

Have you any other comments (positive or negative) to make about your university that you think applicants might find useful?
                - which 1st year accommodation do you recommend?
                - where do students tend to live after the 1st year? What is the average price?
                - how useful is the accommodation office?
- What is the Students’ Union like?
- What are the sport/music/drama facilities like?
- How easy is it to find a part-time job at the uni. or in the town?

Some universities invest a lot of effort in arranging these days. I remember an impressive example I saw at University of Manchester. While a huge auditorium filled with prospective applicants was being addressed, about thirty student ambassadors were assembling in the foyer as guides – and the organisers were happy for me to interview as many as I could in the time available. Then, with impressive efficiency, the guides took their groups off to visit Students’ Union, Library and accommodation.

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Stage 3 : Application: About

[STEP 64] 

At the end of February UCAS Extra opens. It enables some applicants to apply for an extra choice:
- those who have had responses from all 5 programmes applied to but are holding no offers (because they have been unsuccessful in gaining offers, have declined offers or withdrawn their original application)
- those who applied to fewer than five programmes.

If you are eligible, UCAS Track should show you. The UCAS website has a good guide to the process.

You may apply for one programme at a time, but it is first worth contacting the uni., to see if they are likely to make you an offer and whether you need to write a new Personal Statement.

If you don’t succeed in finding a place through Extra, you may look for a place through Clearing, which opens in July. Clearing is the UCAS operation through which unis. advertise programmes with vacancies. Contrary to popular belief, Clearing opens long before A Level results are published in mid-August, although, of course, many students don’t realise that they need to use it before they get their results.

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Stage 3 : Application: About

[STEP 65] 

If you receive an offer from a uni., it will be either Conditional (i.e., the uni. will accept you, provided that you achieve certain grades) or Unconditional (i.e., the uni. will accept you with your current qualifications). Applicants in Year 13 usually get Conditional Offers, whereas Unconditional Offers are commonly given to applicants who have left school with their Level 3 qualifications (A Level, IB Diploma, BTEC, etc.) and have achieved the required entry level in their final school exams.. However, in recent years some unis. have tried to entice some Year 13 students to join them by giving them Unconditional Offers. These offers are usually (but not always) given to students whose academic profile is at least in keeping with the top group of those who are usually admitted to a particular degree programme. The applicant is usually (but not always) expected to put the uni. offering the Unconditional Offer as the first (Firm) choice uni., but sometimes this uni. might still make the Unconditional Offer, if it is put second (Insurance) choice.

This is a symptom of the market economy, in which each uni. is struggling to attract as many of the best students as it can. Other unis. offer a financial “golden hello” in terms of entry scholarships and bursaries with criteria ranging from academic attainment to social background. The Complete University Guide has a useful list:

If you get an Unconditional Offer, it is another factor to add into the decision-making process, when you are narrowing your choices down to Firm and Insurance. If you feel that you will now struggle to get the grades that your favourite uni. has offered and another uni. gives you an Unconditional Offer (which you like for its programme and ambience but not as much as your favourite), you could reasonably feel tempted to take it. I have seen this done by someone who might otherwise have been left looking for Clearing places in August, having failed to achieve his other offer grades. On the other hand, the most important thing is to aim for the programme and uni. in which you would most flourish, and the Unconditional Offer should not deflect you from this. Remember, too, that, if you accept an Unconditional Offer, you shouldn’t take your foot off the gas in your efforts to get the best exam. results possible, as your Level 3 results will travel with your curriculum vitae (c.v.) for evermore, and a prospective employer, looking at low grades, is unlikely to be impressed by the excuse “I didn’t work as hard as I might have, because I got an Unconditional Offer” – if indeed you get as far as an interview with that prospective employer and get the chance to state this excuse.

If you get a Conditional Offer, look carefully at the conditions. Remember that, if you are given a BBB offer for your 3 A Levels, the uni. has to take you, if you get these grades or higher. It is a legal contract. However, if you get ABC, you have not made a BBB offer, as you have not got B in one of those A Levels. The A grade, in other words, does not cancel out the C. However, if you are given a points’ offer of 120, this can be made up by BBB, ABC or AAD. With points’ offers it is important to establish what might be included in those points. Can, for instance, points from a stand-alone AS qualification, an EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) or practical Music examinations of Grade 6 or above be included? Full details of the points given for a variety of qualifications in  the UCAS Tariff are available on the UCAS website: .

Make sure that the uni. making the offer has got your details right. I remember the IB student who was given an A Level offer by a uni.. Similarly, if you have changed or discontinued a subject, it is important to let the uni. know, preferably before you get an offer that includes a subject that you are no longer studying.

It is in the Spring Term of Year 13 that some of those studying a fourth A Level think that the academic pressure is getting too intense and consider shedding one of them. There might be good reasons for doing so. I have seen this happen most often with Further Maths.. However, there needs to be a careful weighing up of the advantages (the ability to focus more on three rather than less on four subjects) against possible disadvantages (e.g., the Maths. in a uni. Engineering programme is likely to be harder for the student who has given up Further Maths. – and the pace might be faster than in the Sixth Form).

If you are unsuccessful in achieving an offer, you might be given a reason in the response from UCAS (e.g., “Your application does not meet the minimum academic grade requirement for this course.”) or from the uni.. If you aren’t given a reason, you have the right to ask for feedback. I remember one instance when a uni. stated that “Your predicted grades are not high enough” and on further enquiry it transpired that a member of staff at the uni. had read “Physics B” as a prediction rather than the title of the specification for this applicant, who had AAA predictions.

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Stage 3 : Application: About

[STEP 66] 

In deciding which unis. to put as Firm and Insurance and which offers to decline, if you have 3 or more offers, different factors apply in individual cases. As more offers have been made by unis. in recent years, since the cap on student numbers was lifted, more offers have also been made above applicants’ predicted grades. It is therefore tempting for many applicants to “aim high”. At the same time, since the rise in tuition fees in 2012, many students have become more selective about which uni. they are prepared to put as an Insurance choice: “If I’m paying so much money, I’m only going to a uni. I really like.” Some students are therefore reluctant to put what they consider a lower status uni. on their form in the first place or to make it an Insurance choice. Of course, you should only choose as Insurance a uni. that you’re prepared to enter (and visit beforehand!), but I urge you to be careful not to succumb to blind brand-name prejudice (either your own or your advisers’) in making this choice. In most cases it is sensible to retain your lowest offer as an Insurance choice. I have come across applicants who in August regretted not keeping their lowest offer as Insurance choice, since, if they had done so, they wouldn’t have ended up missing Firm and Insurance offers and looking for remaining vacancies in Clearing.

Those who are considering taking a “gap year” can afford to take more risks than those seeking entry to uni. in the current year, as re-application in the next UCAS cycle remains an option for gappers who miss out first time.

Don’t assume that you should put a higher offer as Firm and a lower offer as Insurance. Strict logic might dictate that, but strict logic doesn’t happen here, as the grades that a uni. might ultimately accept are not necessarily those of the original offer. You should put as Firm choice the uni. that you wish to go to the most. For instance, if you most like Uni. X (offering ABB) and you have two other offers, from Uni. Y and Uni. Z (both offering AAB), you should put Uni. X as Firm and choose either Uni. Y or Uni. Z as Insurance. The Insurance choice is not a waste of time. Suppose that you end up with results of BBB. Uni. X might reject you, as you didn’t achieve their offer, but your Insurance choice might accept you, even though your results are two grades below the original offer.

You must make your choice of Firm and Insurance uni. by the date specified by UCAS, or you will lose all your offers. By the end of March most applicants will have received decisions from all the unis. that they applied to, and the deadline for them will be the beginning of May. Virtually all the rest will have a deadline at the beginning of June.

It is also important to check that the details that you put on your UCAS form are still correct: e.g., if you have changed home address or telephone numbers. If you are at a boarding school and have entered that as your address, make sure that you change that before you leave school this summer. Don’t run the risk of having important correspondence arriving at the wrong address in August!

Check the date of when your results are published. IB Diploma applicants will have finished their exams. by the end of May and will get their results by the beginning of July. If you are an IB Diploma applicant who has narrowly missed your uni. offer, don’t wait until August. I have known IB Diploma applicants get offers of places at their Firm or Insurance uni. – or elsewhere –  with reduced grades in July. If you have grades achieved, you are immediately in a better position to negotiate, and IB Diploma applicants can do this ahead of the A Level field. If a new uni. is being considered, there is much more time to visit and make a considered decision than in the scramble for Clearing places in mid-August.

Those who do receive their results in mid-August should, in my opinion, make every effort to be in the country. If you don’t achieve the grades in your uni. offer, it is sometimes necessary to act quickly, if you wish to enter uni. in the following month. If you are looking for places in Clearing, I think that it is particularly important to visit a uni. that you don’t know, as you are considering spending the next few years studying and probably living there (see Step 68).

Stage 3 : Application: About

[STEP 67] 

Inevitably some exam. candidates have their preparation for and participation in exams. disrupted by injury or illness affecting themselves or their close family, other seriously upsetting personal issues like bereavement or domestic crisis, or events that have happened on the way to or within the examination room. The end of a long-standing personal relationship can also come under this heading.

Exam. boards give a maximum of 5% extra marks to the most exceptional cases, such as the recent death of a close relative. 2% is the most common allowance, and this is by no means automatic, as the exam. boards have to try to be fair to all the other candidates.

It is my experience that unis. are far more likely to take these issues into account in looking at those who have narrowly missed their offer grades in August. It is far more compelling, if special consideration for an applicant is communicated to relevant unis. at the time the exams. are taken rather than when the results appear in August. If you feel that you are in such a situation, I suggest that you ask your school/college to do this during the summer term and let you have a copy of their letter/Email and the acknowledgement from the unis..

It is possible for unis. to consider evidence put before them in August, but there is inevitably more suspicion of special pleading in the face of disappointing exam. results than if the evidence had been produced earlier.

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Stage 3 : Application: About

[STEP 68] 

A Level results are published by the exam. boards to candidates in the middle of August (9 days before the Saturday of Bank Holiday weekend). The exam. centres (schools/colleges) receive them unofficially the day before, but the unis. receive them on the Friday before that. The unis. therefore have several days in which to consider:
- which Firm choice applicants they are obliged to take, because they have achieved their offer grades;
- which Insurance choice applicants they might be obliged to take, because they have achieved their Insurance choice offer grades but haven’t achieved the offer grades required by their Firm choice unis.;
- which Firm choice applicants they might now take with grades below their offer.

Results’ day is a day of intense emotion, whatever your results, and I therefore strongly urge you not to make important decisions on that day. You will be in a state of shock, whether you have surpassed your expectations, fulfilled them or received disappointing news. The shock will be of a different kind, ranging from euphoria to despondency. Whatever the situation, it is not a good time to make irrevocable decisions, such as deciding to jettison this year’s achieved uni. offer in order to “have a go at Oxbridge” or to snap up an offer from the Clearing vacancy list. The latter can be tempting for a student who has received disappointing results, seen the door closed by favoured Firm and Insurance choice unis., and heard a voice of welcome from another uni.. By all means consider this vacancy, but don’t commit yourself to it when you’re still in shock.

This is the procedure for you as an applicant, when results are published in mid-August:

If the required grades for your Firm choice uni. have been achieved, simply wait for the confirmation of your place and sign the acceptance form. On the morning of results’ day your Firm choice uni. in UCAS Track should indicate that a previous Conditional Offer is now Unconditional.

If the required grades for your Firm choice uni. have not been achieved, consult UCAS Track.

If your Firm choice uni. indicates that your offer is now “Unconditional”, you’ve been accepted with lower grades, so simply wait for the confirmation of your place and sign the acceptance form.

If the Firm choice does not accept you with lower grades (indicated by “Unsuccessful” in UCAS Track), your application is automatically passed to your Insurance choice.

If the Firm choice uni. entry in UCAS Track remains unchanged, the uni. has not made a decision on your application in the last 6 days, so I suggest that you immediately call the uni. hotline and ask when a decision is likely to be made. This is particularly important, if you are seeking entry in the current year and you haven’t achieved the offer grades set by your Insurance choice, as you might need to start searching for vacancies in Clearing.

If you still know what subject(s) you want to study, you can start searching for Clearing vacancies while the Firm and Insurance unis. are deciding whether or not to take you. If one of these two eventually takes you, that’s fine; if not, you’re ahead of the game.

If the required grades for your Insurance choice uni. have been achieved, simply wait for the confirmation of your place and sign the acceptance form. UCAS Track should indicate that a previous Conditional Offer is now Unconditional.

If the required grades for your Insurance choice uni. have not been achieved, consult UCAS Track, as in (2) above and contact the uni. directly, to ask when a decision is likely to be made, if one hasn’t been indicated on Track.

If your Insurance choice does not accept you with lower grades, your application automatically enters “Clearing” and this is indicated on Track. You might now try to gain a place on a degree programme where there are still spaces.

As indicated above, it is important that you engage in this process before many places are taken by other applicants in Clearing, but it is also important to visit any uni. which you are now considering and not jump into somewhere in a state of shock from disappointing results.

It is good to talk through your situation with someone in your college or school as soon as possible on results’ day, as you might find it advisable to apply for a re-mark (see Step 69) and you should consider whether or not you wish to pursue an application in the same subject area as before. I have sometimes found that applicants who have been disappointed by their results have only at that stage realised that their heart was not fully committed to their previous application, and for them the disappointment has led them to achieve a place in Clearing or a re-application for a subject to which they feel better suited and more committed.

I encourage all applicants at this stage to sit back and reflect. If you’ve learnt that you can enter your dream uni., is the degree programme and prospect of being at that uni. still as appealing? If you’ve exceeded your offer grades, you might be able to “trade up” through UCAS’s Adjustment process (see Step 70) and enter a uni. that demands higher grades, but the same caution as with Clearing needs to be observed: don’t leap into a uni. with an attractive brand name without fully researching the degree programme and visiting the uni.. If you’ve got into your Insurance choice uni. after rejection by your Firm choice uni., you probably feel deflated at not having achieved your first choice, but how committed are you to your Insurance choice? Some applicants are prone to be too quick in dismissing this second-choice option; others have pinned their hopes so much on the first choice that they haven’t fully researched it. Calm consideration and, if necessary, further research is needed - and a visit, if this hasn’t already been done!

Remember that you don’t have to commit yourself to anything until the end of August. This gives you ample time to recover from the shock of results’ day, whatever that has brought. You might decide not to go to uni. after all, or to re-apply in a “gap year”, which perhaps now includes an opportunity to re-sit exams. or take new qualifications.

Consider carefully before opting for re-sits, as this is a considerable commitment in time and money. Don’t assume that you will improve a module result next year off the back of a couple of weeks of private study. I think that those who do improve significantly are those who have invested several months in undertaking a course at a tutorial college. If you are going down this route, check that the college offers the right exam. board specification and ask to see their results for the last 3 years: i.e., what grade students arrived with and left with. It is harder to get this information from private individual tutors, so monitoring their effectiveness is likely to be more difficult. Re-sits are a good idea for some students; however, revisiting a subject that hasn’t been congenial or has turned out very differently at A Level from what the enthusiastic GCSE student expected is not likely to be profitable for others.

I urge students who are disappointed with their A Level results to see that there is always a positive way forward: it might be that an applicant for “Philosophy and Ethics” or “Chemistry” now realises that her or his real interests lie in the more vocational field of “Hospitality Management” or “Nursing”.

Bear in mind that it is not allowed to be in two UCAS cycles at the same time. In other words, if you decide to re-apply in a “gap year”, you have to give up any offers that you are holding in your Year 13 application. There is no guarantee that an offer acquired in the first application will be repeated in a second application, even if the offer grades have been achieved. It is likely, but not certain.

The applicant looking for a place in the Clearing vacancies faces a dilemma between trying to get a place before vacancies disappear and avoiding leaping into a place in a state of shock and before fully researching it. I suggest that, if you know what subject(s) you want, you can start looking on that first day. If you see an interesting vacancy, contact the uni. on the Thursday or Friday, say that you would like to visit the uni. on Saturday, and ask them to keep that vacancy for you until you have done so. If they agree to do this, it is important that you get hold of the contact details of the person who has agreed to do this and you send them an Email summarising the confirmation. In over 20 years I have known two cases when someone at a uni. has made an offer to an applicant at this stage and then the uni. has denied that an offer was made, so this is a sensible precaution. I know that it is difficult for those living abroad, but, as a general principle I suggest that you should never take up a place at a uni. without visiting it first.

In this post-results period in the second half of August it is important to realise that students have individual needs and that they have to assess their priorities in the light of their achievements. The role of school/college advisers, parents and friends should be to support but not dictate. Two contrasting examples illustrate this. A student with disappointing A Level results had ended up in Clearing but was still keen to study Psychology. I noticed that Bangor, a uni. with a strong research profile in the subject, was advertising vacancies, but I strongly suggested going to look at the uni., as the rural setting (like urban London) is likely to divide students into those who love or loathe it. Her father took her on the weekend after results’ day, a five hour drive each way; she loved it; ended up with First Class Honours in Psychology and went on to study for a PhD. Another student, having achieved a string of top grades at A Level, decided that he was keener on studying Ancient History at uni. than his original choice of English; he reapplied in a “gap year”, gained First Class Honours at UCL and formed a highly successful rock band there with some fellow students.

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Stage 3 : Application: About

[STEP 69] 

If your results are below what you expected, you should consider opting for a re-mark of one or more of your papers. The examination boards call this an “Enquiry About Results” (EAR). Although only a minority of grades is changed and the process can cost up to £60 per script, I have been surprised by the large number of grades that I have seen raised for both A Level and IB Diploma examinations in the last ten years. The result in quite a lot of cases has been entry into a uni. achieved after entry had been denied on the results originally issued. I am therefore forced to conclude that many students each year who are turned away by unis. because they haven’t met their offer grades might in fact have been denied entry on the basis of sub-standard marking. As a teacher I have found the questioning of published results hard to stomach, but the evidence of re-marks has convinced me that it is often right to question the competence of some examiners.

It is important that an applicant can contact their teachers at school/college as soon as the results come out, as they have access to grade boundaries and the marks of other candidates. If you have been given a grade B in a subject, it is important to know whether it is a low or a high B, if you think that you should have got an A. On a re-mark, it is the final mark that stands rather than the better mark, so you can end up with a lower grade. It is therefore unwise for someone with a low B to seek a re-mark, as there is a danger of ending up with a C. However, if your mark is near the top of the B range, there is little danger that you might end up with a C, and some chance that you might get the A. Moreover, the teacher will be able to tell you whether it is just your result that is questionable or whether others have similarly unexpected results; and which module might be the best to target for the extra marks needed. Sometimes a whole year group can have its results questioned: for instance, if an inexperienced moderator has been too harsh in assessing coursework.

There are different categories of EAR for A Level. If a mark is changed through a re-mark, the examination board makes no charge.

Fast-track priority re-mark

This was introduced to help those whose uni. place depends on the result of a re-mark. It is the quickest and most expensive service. It is important that you act quickly, as the service is only open for a week after the A Level results are published in mid-August. The result of the re-mark should come through within 2 weeks and unis. are expected, but not obliged, to keep a place open for an applicant whose offer is achieved after a re-mark, if the unis. are informed before 31 August. They might, however, ask such an applicant to defer entry until after a “gap year”.

It is important to let a uni. know that you are pursuing a re-mark, as soon as you have made your application through your school/college’s head of centre (examinations’officer). Private candidates may make requests directly to the relevant exam. board.

It is worth noting that marks in Maths. and science are less likely to change than in other subjects, as it is easier for examiners to agree on the application of marking criteria in these subjects than, say, in essay-based subjects.

Other re-marks

This is about £10 cheaper than the priority re-mark. If you want this, you can apply before mid-September.

If a school/college feels that coursework has been too harshly moderated, it can launch an appeal, but this process inevitably takes longer. A single student cannot request this service.

Photocopies of scripts

You can ask for a photocopy of your script, so that you can consult your teachers about whether there look to be good grounds for requesting a re-mark.


If you have been unsuccessful, you do have a right of appeal. This is most likely to succeed, if a school launches an appeal on behalf of a whole group of students who it feels have been unfairly treated in both the original marking and in the re-mark process. Such successes are rare but do happen.

Clerical checks

It is also possible to request a check that all the marks have been added up (I have known a case where they weren’t!) or a check that the mark scheme has been applied correctly.

Exam. boards make a lot of money out of the re-mark process, but I feel that some schools are much more active than others in highlighting this opportunity to students and parents. I am concerned that the cost of a re-mark is prohibitively expensive for some families.

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Stage 3 : Application: About

[STEP 70] 

If your results are better than the offer grade set by your Firm choice uni., you have the opportunity to enter UCAS Adjustment, which operates for the two weeks between the publication of results and the end of August. This allows you to retain your current Firm choice offer but look for vacancies at other unis. that might take you. You have to register for this through UCAS.

You have 5 days in which to look for alternatives. Given the time constraint, I suggest that you need to arrange a uni. visit in advance of registering, if you haven’t already visited a uni. that you’re considering entering under Adjustment. The wise applicant always tries to visit a uni. before committing to study there for several years.

See the UCAS website for further details:

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Stage 3 : Application: About

[STEP 71] 

I had just finished writing the first draft of this guide when the daughter of a friend came to see me. Academically able, she had gained a place in a university department with a strong reputation in its field. Indeed, it was one of the departments in which, when I visited ten years before, I had arranged to have a discussion with a senior member of the academic staff, who was generous with her time and insights. This student was disillusioned with the lack of structure, contact time and access to facilities essential for her study. When I put in front of her my notes from my discussion with the member of staff, which included details of the delivery of the programme, her reply was: “We don’t get anything like that now.”

There are two valuable lessons to take from this. Firstly, information can soon be out of date. What was the case even last year might no longer be the case now. We should be careful about making assumptions based on previous information; it is essential for advisers and applicants to get up-to-date information, whenever they can. Secondly, applicants, when visiting a uni., should make every effort to ask current students about the delivery of the degree programme. A few carefully chosen questions about the size and frequency of discussion groups with academic staff and about the teaching and learning environment should soon make you aware of how far the claims of a department’s publicity and presentations are matched by the reality of students’ experience. If students are unavailable for you to ask, you might wonder why this is so; and, if you put the questions to academic staff, the tone of the answers might reveal as much as the content: are they clear and straightforward or vague and defensive? Bear in mind that, if resources have been cut but student numbers have increased, this is unlikely to be a decision that academic staff members in a particular department have been happy to accept.

Over the last 25 years I have read hundreds of responses to questionnaires sent by me and my colleagues to current and recent students and I’ve had hundreds of conversations with current students. The vast majority of these students have been positive about their degree programmes and their uni.. It might be claimed that those who reply to questionnaires or who are happy to speak with me on campus are likely to be among those feeling more positive about their choice of degree programme and uni.. However, I do believe that most students are, on balance, satisfied with their experience of university.

That doesn’t mean that a potential applicant should be complacent. Surveys of undergraduates have repeatedly indicated that many have found themselves on the wrong degree programme as a result of insufficient research. John, for instance, entered a big-name “red brick” civic university to read Engineering. Although he got a good grade in A Level Maths., he struggled with the Maths. content in the first year of his MEng programme and decided to change to Computer Science at the same uni.. Unfortunately, he encountered the same problem: he couldn’t cope with the Maths.. He was now getting desperate, but then he discovered a more applied programme (with a year’s “sandwich” work placement) at an ex-polytechnic uni. that was ideal for him. He had previously looked down on ex-polys. as requiring grades below what he had achieved but came to realise his mistake. It was not that the civic uni. was worse than the ex-poly.; rather that the programmes that he embarked on at the civic uni. were worse for him than the one he ultimately found at the newer uni.. This is an instructive example. There is no “good uni.”, “good department” or “good degree programme” in absolute terms; each individual has to find what is good for her or him. This is just one reason why relying on league table rankings is an unsatisfactory approach.

Finding a good degree programme at a good uni. for yourself is not an arduous or scary challenge, provided you start your research early. In my opinion, “early” means in the first half of Year 12. I hope that the previous Steps have indicated that this should not be a hugely time-consuming activity, and that different potential applicants might reach their decisions at different times. I am confident that undertaking a reasonable amount of research and preparation in Year 12 will produce a confident decision sufficiently early in Year 13 to avoid a last minute rushed and therefore inferior application, as the 15 January (or in some cases 15 October) deadline looms.

I encourage you to regard this research and preparation as parallel to your A Level (or other Level 3) studies. The more you research your future destination, the more you are likely to feel enthusiasm for your studies as a means to reaching that goal. The two feed into each other. Your “aspiration” (what you are aiming at) is likely to be matched by your “perspiration” (your efforts in getting there). As with revision for Sixth Form assessments, starting it early and spreading it out is likely to be more successful than last minute cramming.

It is helpful to regard the research and preparation for your post-Year 13 destination as another part of Sixth Form study, as an academic subject in its own right and which needs the same skills. The research should be undertaken as thoroughly as possible; the material should be considered objectively, with an open mind; careful analysis is needed to separate what is central from what is peripheral and to distinguish misleading rhetoric from sound evidence. I hope that the preceding Steps have pointed the way.

As in other academic study there are three qualities that it is particularly useful to develop: curiosity, perseverance and intellectual humility, the readiness to admit limits to one’s knowledge. If you approach research into your possible post-Year 13 destination by trying to develop these qualities, I am confident that you will find the process, as well as the end product, an enjoyable and satisfying experience.

My final point is to emphasise this enjoyment. Although it is now over forty years ago, I still have fond memories of my first experience of independent travel in visiting the unis. to which I was applying for an undergraduate place; and I still relish the opportunity to catch up on developments in a uni. that I’ve previously visited or to meet students and staff on a new campus. I hope that you, too, find it fun to chart your future path.

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Stage 3 : Application: About
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