Life After Sixth Form

Helping you get that university place or career

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This blog is here to help you as you make your decisions about what to do after college or sixth-form. The blog was initially set up for use just with my own students at the McAuley Catholic High School, Doncaster, and some of the posts refer to details of that school’s particular processes, deadlines, and to sessions from the annual ‘LAMA Week’ (Life After McAuley) when year 12 students had a week of sessions on preparing for application to higher education, apprenticeships or jobs.

However, I know from the blog stats and from mentions of the blog on Twitter that it came to be read outside McAuley, and I have also found over time that posts written for a previous year group continue to be useful, so now I am ‘resurrecting’ the blog in my new context working in an FE college in South Wales, and over time I hope to re-organise the blog to make it easier for newcomers to find the information they need, and to edit some of the posts to make them more widely relevant . Obviously, this is a work in progress so do let me know if you have any suggestions for improvement.

You can use the links above to find pages on Researching and Applying. The Researching page has links to the key posts that give information about how to find out about and make choices of university courses and career options. The Applying page has links to posts concentrating on the UCAS application process in particular, and making job or course applications in general.

I hope you find the blog useful. Do feel free to discuss the information given, ask questions, or share your experiences using the comments boxes.


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Sutton Trust – Students are losing out as teachers’ and university tutors’ ideas about what makes a good personal statement are a “world apart”

My experience over many years as a tutor of students applying for university is that they often overemphasise the importance of extra-curricular activities, and fail to meet university admissions tutors’ expectations for strong personal statements to be specific and detailed about students’ academic studies and how these relate to the courses they are applying for.

Recent research by the Sutton Trust suggests that often the fault may often lie with teachers advising students without being aware of what universities are most likely to look for in personal statements.

Perhaps the most useful part of the research report from your point of view as students is the presentation of extracts from personal statements, comparing how teachers and universities commented and graded their effectiveness at helping the student to secure an offer of a university place.

For example

Extract from Personal Statement Comments from Teacher Comments from Admissions Tutor
[Here the student is writing about studying Flaubert’s novel ‘Madame Bovary’]

“I researched psychoanalytic studies and was surprised at Ion Collas’ claim that ‘bovarysme’ is usually beneficial, while in Emma’s case it is morbid’.”

“More theory than analysis … Lots of opinion and theorising.”This Personal Statement neither increases nor decreases the likelihood that the applicant would be offered a place. “Excellent evidence of intellectual curiosity… Good account of how the applicant responded to being stretched.”This Personal Statement strongly increases the likelihood that the applicant would be offered a place.

It is worth clicking through to the details of the report (see links below) for further examples that show how admissions tutors generally seem much more impressed by academic detail than students and their teachers sometimes suppose. The overarching message from this, I think, should be for you to genuinely develop your intellectual curiosity about your subjects so that you can write about specific topics beyond the core curriculum with detail and enthusiasm, rather than sounding ‘forced’ or out of your depth. The kind of extra-curricular activities and reference to generic skills such as ‘teamwork’ and ‘communication’ that often take up a large part of students’ personal statements should be no more than a little seasoning in, or icing on, a rich and well-baked academic cake.

The Sutton Trust’s press release about their findings can be found here:

Source: Sutton Trust – Students are losing out as teachers’ and university tutors’ ideas about what makes a good personal statement are a “world apart”

While the full report can be downloaded from this link :


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Universities making unconditional offers in race for top A-level students – Telegraph

This is an interesting development reported in the Telegraph, getting on for thirty years after I received the very welcome early Christmas present of an unconditional offer. I had thought the practice was gone, never to return.

Universities making unconditional offers in race for top A-level students – Telegraph.

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Turning the tables

Last year I wrote a post about interpreting university league tables. In an increasingly market-driven, competitive culture, league tables are more important than ever in the role they play in affecting students’ decisions about where to apply, but just how useful are they?

Recent research from Royal Holloway, University of London, has studied the role that league tables play in applicants’ decision making, and has identified the Guardian league table as the most influential. But does that mean it is the best? Naturally, the Guardian itself has been trumpeting the value and influence of its tables, but I would suggest you read not only their article, but, perhaps more importantly, the comments below it (they get quite heated in places).

The overall message I would give is to make sure that you refer to several tables, make sure you understand how they are compiled, and make sure they are only one part of a decision making process that takes in a range of information and data. Certainly don’t be swayed by differences of a small number of places in a table. As you can see if you spend any time at all looking at the detail, tiny differences in the weighting of individual pieces of data that are less than wholly reliable in the first place can send a university or subject department  soaring up or plummeting down the tables.

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Chasing the job market is no way to choose a degree | Ally Fogg | Comment is free |

As for any teenagers reading, I can’t advise you which course would be best for you. But I can tell you that accountancy students drink the most, philosophers take the most drugs but, as we learned last autumn, economists have the most sex. Coincidentally, the applications submitted to Ucas in January saw a 4.8% in demand for economics. Don’t forget to explain to your parents that the course offers excellent career potential.

Chasing the job market is no way to choose a degree | Ally Fogg | Comment is free |

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PPH students most satisfied | The Oxford Student

Thinking of applying to Oxford? You may want to look beyond the bigger, more famous colleges if you want the most satisfying student experience. I went to Regent’s Park College, which topped the poll of mixed sex colleges for student satisfaction, and at the very top was St Benet’s Hall, a Catholic Benedictine hall, which I remember as being notable for the jugs of (free) beer and cider served at their meals!

Full story at Oxford Student, here:

PPH students most satisfied | The Oxford Student.

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Access to Russell Group universities ‘far from fair’, according to new research – Durham University

Access to Russell Group universities ‘far from fair’, according to new research – Durham University.

An update to the study … found that state school applicants continue to be significantly less likely to receive offers from Russell Group universities than comparably qualified applicants from private schools, although the disparity appears to have become smaller over time.


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The UCAS reference

Rather than thinking of the reference as an awkward extra over which you have no control, and which just annoyingly delays your application being sent off, you should consider it as an integral part of your application.

If you are reading this at an early stage of your sixth-form career, and you know who will be writing your reference (at McAuley it will be your form tutor) then you can begin the process of ensuring your reference is both personal and positive by the way you conduct yourself both academically and socially.

In our case, part of the reference will be compiled from the comments of subject tutors towards the end of Year 12, so make sure your teachers have a very positive view of you as a student that will allow them to make comments that show you standing out from the crowd, whatever your academic ability. Asking for suggestions for wider reading or other study materials (and then doing that wider study and showing it in your work) is one straightforward way of doing this. Make sure you are fully engaged in lessons, asking questions and contributing to discussion.

Impress your form teacher (or whoever will write your reference) by your punctuality, and willingness to contribute to form and school activities, such as assemblies and fund-raising. Ensure your tutor knows about any and every extra-curricular activity you are involved in, and if you have part-time work, make clear how you are organising your time well to fulfil that responsibility without it harming your academic work. Show that you are well-organised and committed to higher education (or future career if you are applying for work or training) by starting your research early, arranging work-placements, visiting universities, developing a network of contacts through social media in your field of interest, and make sure your tutor knows about all this. A good way of doing this would be to start a blog tracking your experiences. I posted about this idea previously here.

Once you are closer to completing the application process, you should work ever-closer with your tutor to make sure that your UCAS personal statement (or CV / letter of application for jobs) is complemented by the reference. One of my main sources of annoyance as a tutor is when the guidance I have given is not followed, leading to extra work on my part: if you want the best reference possible, you should obviously want to make your reference writer’s job as easy as possible, so make sure you carefully take on board all the advice and instructions you have been given (in my case you will find it all on this blog). In particular make sure you are in a dialogue with your tutor as you draft your personal statement. Perhaps there are things that you are struggling to fit into your personal statement, which it would be appropriate to be mentioned in the reference instead. For me, one of the most important things is making sure that my reference not only shows genuine knowledge of the student, but also of the courses they are applying for. However, it is frustrating to have to constantly switch between the personal statement, my draft reference, and university websites or UCAS entry profiles. So remind yourself of this post on targeting your personal statement about making sure you know exactly what universities are looking for, and share this information directly with your tutor as you are drafting the personal statement, so that it can also be used to tailor the reference to be specific to your course choice(s).

You may like to read some of the guidance that is available for staff who write references (see links below). This will help to give you an idea of exactly what we have to do, and help you work with your tutor to make your statement and the reference complement each other positively.

UCAS advice on reference writing. Ucas have also produced a video guide to reference writing.

Slides from a UCAS presentation on references – succinct and useful advice with examples of what to write (and avoid)

Exeter University Teacher Information Sheet– a short and succinct advice sheet.

Slides from a Leicester University presentation – covers both personal statements and references.

Tips from Birmingham University academics – a short video packed with useful advice.