Life After Sixth Form

Helping you get that university place or career

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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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Transferable skills and the Nobel Peace Prize

Still struggling for things to include in that Ucas personal statement? How about: “I showed my teamwork skills by, along with 499,999,999 fellow citizens, winning the Nobel Peace Prize recently.”

Actually, maybe that wouldn’t be such a great idea, but showing that you are up-to-date with recent developments in your proposed area of study, or how it relates to areas in the news, could be impressive. Referring to transferable skills such as teamwork and communication is also often recommended, but too often it feels like an awkward add on, or too far of a stretch from the experience gained to the situation it is related to. “I gained valuable teamwork skills working in McDonald’s which will be valuable as I hope to be involved in international diplomacy after my politics degree” is likely to sound more comic than impressive. On the other hand, a paragraph like the following makes a realistic and thoughtful link between the skills required on the course, and the applicant’s recent experience:

Physiotherapists need to be caring, understanding and tolerant with their patients of all ages with different abilities. I have shown similar skills helping in a maths booster class for year seven pupils who found maths difficult, which also helped me develop my skills of patience, flexibility and a sense of humour.

I strongly suggest you research carefully the ‘entry profiles‘ that many courses list on the UCAS website, and also check for any further descriptions of the skills and qualities that universities are looking for in applicants for individual degree courses that are published in their prospectuses and websites. Tailor your personal statement to address those specific profiles, and submit that information, along with your personal statement, to the person writing your reference. That will help them to confirm the appropriateness of your statement when advising you on how to improve it, and they can also use the information to help ensure the relevance of the reference that is written for you.

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Interpreting University Tables

[This post is an ‘edited for public consumption’ version of an email response to a query from one of my students.]

When you look at university league tables, consider the significance of the data that lies behind them. Let’s take the case of someone considering a Psychology degree and looking at Leeds Trinity as a possible option. Leeds Trinity appears in the Guardian table at 76th place out of 109 for psychology (, which you might say looks pretty poor.  However, on that table you will see that overall student satisfaction is higher at Leeds Trinity than at UCL which is top of the table. But perhaps that is simply because expectations of the kind of students getting into UCL is higher. After all they’ve given UCL a ‘value added’ score (a measure of how well students do on the degree compared with their entry qualifications) of 10/10 whereas Leeds Trinity has a score of only 1/10 which seems awful (it doesn’t make clear how that score is calculated by the way – it may be masking perfectly valid reasons).  On the other hand, does ‘value added’ in terms of your degree score matter if studying there helps you to get a job afterwards? Isn’t that a pretty important kind of ‘value’? For Psychology, Leeds Trinity’s ’employability’ rating is 34th in the table which puts it into the top third, above more prestigious universities such as Manchester and Liverpool.

It’s perhaps also worth noting that this seems to be an institution ‘on the up’. I don’t know why the Complete University Guide doesn’t include it in the main table, but it does appear in their subject tables. For Psychology, Leeds Trinity has moved up from 78 to 59 in the table – rather higher than in the Guardian table, which shows that you shouldn’t be reading the tables as some kind of gospel truth. See: – again, note the high student satisfaction score. Obviously a one year shift does not necessarily indicate a trend, but looking at different tables over time does seem to suggest an institution improving across the board.

Ideally, though, you shouldn’t rely just on published information. For any course, get to one of their open days or visit days, if you can. Information is always available on the university websites, for example at Trinity here:, but also make sure you see other places you might be interested in. I think one of the most important things is to get a feel for the course, the place and its people. Is it something you can see yourself being interested and motivated to put the work in? Can you imagine yourself being there for three years, getting along with the other students and the lecturers you’ll be working with? Many places accommodate weekend visits, too, to avoid missing too much school

If you want to know more about university league tables and how they come up with their rankings, Newcastle University has some interesting background, but funnily enough they don’t mention the Push guide table.


UCAS application and personal statement advice

The talk on Personal Statements on Wednesday got really good feedback from the questionnaires I’ve looked at this morning. Unfortunately it was yet another session I missed, as it was my day off. However, two years ago sixth form tutors had an excellent talk by Mike Nicholson who was senior admissions officer at Oxford and had previously been at Essex and Newcastle universities. I took detailed notes which I reproduce below, with one or two alterations to account for changes since then. I would be interested to know if any of this advice differs from what you heard on Wednesday. Remember, ultimately you will be writing a Personal Statement so it must be distinctive to you, and you will have to negotiate your way through the different emphases in the advice you will hear and read to produce something that you are comfortable as representing you at your best.

As the number of applications changes, Universities are struggling to decide how to differentiate between candidates, and it is difficult to know what kind of offers will be made. Prospectuses for 2013 entry will typically have been produced in January 2011 so it is likely that offers may be different from those published in the prospectus. Make sure you double check the grades you are likely to need for a course by reference to university websites which should have the most up to date information. You can get more detailed information about the actual UCAS points achieved by students who gained entry to a particular course at

Check carefully for any other requirements beyond A-level grades and UCAS points. For example from 2012 entry all applicants to UCL will need to have a modern foreign language at GCSE. Other courses may have unexpected requirements so make sure you check all entry requirements information carefully, even though it often looks very similar.

Start the process of writing the Personal Statement by coming up with one sentence that answers the question; “What’s your motivation for doing this subject?” If you can’t answer that, you haven’t found the right subject. Once this sentence is established, it can be used as the basis for the first paragraph of the PS, fleshed out by considering ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions:

  • what do you most/least enjoy about the subject?
  • what outside interests relate to the subject you want to pursue?
  • why is the subject interesting to you?

Before making the final decision about application choices, ask yourself have you considered any subjects other than the one you are going for. Look for related subjects. For example rather than just going for ‘English’ or ‘History’, think about what you most enjoy about those subjects, and you might find it would be better to apply for, say, ‘Medieval Studies’ or ‘Anthropology’. Rather than just applying for ‘Chemistry’, you could consider ‘Perfumery’ or ‘Brewing Studies.’ Look beyond the subject titles of your A-level studies. Also many students are unaware that for many courses you do not need to have studied that subject at A-level, even if there is an A-level in that subject. For example Psychology and Sociology courses do not require an A-level in those subjects.

The PS should have a ratio of about 70/30 in favour of concentrating on the subject and course as opposed to the ‘hobbies & interests’ material. In an increasingly competitive environment, admissions officers are increasingly looking for reasons to turn people down, so the two key things to get right are:

  • the basic research regarding the nature of the course & its requirements. If there is any hint that that the candidate hasn’t read and referred to all the information available about the course, it is easy to reject.
  • displaying the more general skills, qualities and knowledge that are relevant to the course, such as awareness of current affairs issues that relate to the subject area – you have the summer to put this right.

It is vital to quantify and make specific anything you put in the personal statement. Generic comments such as ‘I enjoy reading’ or ‘I like socialising with my friends’ are the ‘kiss of death’. Subject related interests that you may feel are seen as ‘sad’ or ‘geeky’ by many of your peer group are likely to be just the sort of things that may make you stand out as an appealing candidate.

Most universities make decisions without interview so the PS is likely to be the one chance you get to impress. You need to make sure that your statement is individual and has impact, but making it wacky/eccentric is likely to be counter-productive. Use the selection / success criteria published by the universities for your course, and link these to your hobbies and interests.

When was the last time you want to a museum? What was the last book you read not directly connected with your school studies? Have you been to public lectures / exhibitions? Evidence of taking advantage of free and universally available cultural activities such as these carry more weight than paid for or ‘organised’ experiences such as medlink courses, which are often pushed by schools (or wealthy parents).

The most important characteristic admissions tutors are looking for is evidence of independent critical thinking, including the ability to think critically about ‘respectable’ material. Students are often happy to pull The Sun apart, but accept The Independent uncritically. The more competitive universities that do interview students will often present challenging material at interview and ask students to evaluate it critically, often using very open-ended questions. The ability to identify and evaluate different points of view is important, not just to repeat learned material.

If you are only thinking about the subject you are considering applying for in relation to your school lessons, you are not right for that subject. You need to show evidence of genuine interest and engagement beyond the limits of your current course and show that you are engaging with intellectual ideas not directly connected with your subject. Don’t apply for different subjects (this does not apply to joint honours degrees). Your personal statement needs to be geared firmly towards a particular subject, and if you apply for different subjects at different universities this will be diluted. If you apply for different courses at the same university this will immediately be seen by the admissions officer as evidence that you haven’t committed yourself, and that is suicide for your application.

Extended Projects are looked on very favourably, as they help to develop research and independent study skills needed in Higher Education. It is particularly valuable if the Extended Project shows evidence of beginning to engage with the course being applied for. Try and get reading rights at a local university to get access to more advanced material than will be available in school or local libraries [please note – there is a clear assumption here that you are already using libraries as a matter of course!]

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Applicants per place: how do you find out and does it matter?

You were a bit quiet yesterday morning, but we did have at least one pertinent question that didn’t get a very satisfactory answer because unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a very satisfactory answer.

Joe Pearce (I think it was) asked whether information on the number of applicants per place is available for university courses. As far as I can tell that information, at individual course level, is not available in one central place. The university information provided by the likes of the Complete University Guide often (but not always) has the figure for the university as a whole. For example it tells us that for Leeds University, the ratio of applicants to places is 7.8:1

A small number of universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, are totally transparent about their admissions statistics, and publish them online, broken down by course, school type, gender, ethnicity, and so on. Others, such as Durham, also supply plenty of statistics but in rather less user-friendly format. Many universities, however, either don’t provide such information, or make it very difficult to find. For Manchester University, for example, after much digging around I found a document on widening participation that includes some interesting information and statistics, but nowhere could I find information on the applicants to places ratio by department. The most illuminating data I could find on Manchester’s admissions statistics came from a Freedom of Information request.

Some universities include admissions statistics of one type or another on individual course pages or in their prospectuses, but it’s a bit hit and miss to say the least.

If you do find the applicants to places ratio of a chosen university or individual course, what does it tell you? Most people would assume that the higher the ratio of applicants to places, the harder it is to get in, and the more popular the course is. However, there are other factors that need to be taken into account.

For example if you look at the overall figure for Cambridge the number of applicants per place is about 4, whereas further east at the University of East Anglia it is 5.4 (as reported by the rather entertaining Push university guide). Does this mean that UAE is more ‘competitive’ than Cambridge? The answer, fairly obviously, is no unless we take a very narrow and unusual definition of competitive. The pool of applicants for a university is to some degree self-selecting. People know that Cambridge has very high entry requirements and a competitive selection process, so that reduces the number of people who decide to apply in the first place compared to other universities.

Even so, you might think that the self-selection factor evens things out so that 5.4 may look like pretty poor odds, and that if you’re the type of person who’s likely to apply to UAE, you have less chance of getting in than the type of person who applies to Cambridge has of getting in there. But remember there are other factors in the equation, too. If everyone just made one application it might be straightforward enough, but most people make five applications through UCAS. Some will receive five offers, and reject four of them: they are rejecting the universities – not the universities rejecting them – but still, the offers were made and appear in the statistics). Others will receive no offers, and fail to get a place at all. The overwhelming majority will be somewhere in between: being rejected by some universities, rejecting others, and eventually taking up one available place. Consequently most universities have to make significantly more offers than they have places available to account for people accepting one of their other offers instead, and to ensure they don’t have unfilled places, but they have to make sure they don’t make too many offers so that they end up over-subscribed.

What would be at least as interesting as simple applicants to places information, therefore, is the ratio of offers made to places available. For Cambridge it works out at about 1.2 – because almost everyone who is offered a place meets the entry requirements and takes up the place. However, for most universities, finding that information is very difficult.

There is a mass of statistical information available on the UCAS website, but accessing it in an easy to interpret form is not for the faint-hearted. If any statisticians out there can help a clueless English teacher out with this, I’d be delighted to hear from you!

Your best bet, if you’re interested in admissions data for a particular course at a particular university (and you should be!) is probably to ask them direct. The worst that can happen is that you get no response or are told the information is unavailable, but the very process of engaging with universities may well  yield some potentially interesting insights into how helpful (or otherwise) they are likely to be if you end up studying with them.

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UK Course Finder

If you are still at the stage of wondering what to do at university, or you want to make sure you have covered all the possible courses that might be suitable for you, then one very useful site is UK Coursefinder.

It has an online questionnaire (similar to the Stamford Test that you may have heard of that used to be on the UCAS site but is no longer available). You just answer a series of questions, taking no more than a few minutes, and it suggests a range of course areas that may suit your interests and skills.

One thing that keeps cropping up each year I am involved in the UCAS process is that many students assume that to do a course at university, you must have studies that subject at A-level. For some courses this is true, but for many it isn’t, so don’t dismiss any subjects that the questionnaire throws up just because you are not studying that subject now.


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UCAS preparation

Hello everyone,

As I said in PSHE last week, now is the time to be getting on top of your preparation for what you intend to do after leaving school, and for most of you that will involve applying to Higher Education through UCAS.

To help you focus and to ensure I know who may need more guidance and support, I am asking you to update your personal information documents on Google Docs by putting the following information at the top of the document. Even if you think I know some of this information already from our academic mentoring or other conversations, please do this anyway to help avoid any confusion as we go on.

1) If you are not intending to make an UCAS application (or are undecided and may choose another alternative instead of, or as well as, applying through UCAS) please let me know what your plans are, and what steps you have taken so far (eg. Any applications made, interviews held, conversations with other staff members etc).

2) For those intending to apply through UCAS, please give me an outline of the progress made so far (eg. Open days attended, or due to attend; reading and research you have done; people you have spoken to or contacted by email such as admissions tutors or former students/acquaintances doing courses that you are interested in etc).

3) List the courses you are intending to apply for (institution, course name and course code) AND the entry requirements for that course. At this stage you may still be deciding between several different types of course, or not have narrowed your options down to the five choices available to you on the UCAS form, but what we need to see at this stage is that your research is detailed enough to show that you have considered your options, looked at a range of potentially suitable courses, and know what the entrance requirements are so that you can tailor your applications realistically to the grades you are likely to get, so please put all the courses you are considering. You can delete them or add to them as you narrow your options down or do further research and make changes in the light of your results in August.

This may be seem a bit of a pain for some of you now, but there is a good chance you will be thanking me in the autumn term 😉

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Universities admit ‘soft’ A-levels damage chance of top places | Education | The Guardian

We pay particularly close attention to the personal statement. We are looking for signs of individual engagement with the course of study, as well as empirical evidence of a commitment to the subject that goes beyond the A-Level (or equivalent) syllabus.

Successful candidates tend to be those that demonstrate independent, critical engagement with the themes and controversies that underpin the discipline. This is not simply a case of applicants describing the issues they are interested in or listing the books they have read (though relevant reading or research beyond the A-Level syllabus is strongly encouraged). It is about addressing the ‘why’ question. What is it – specifically and explicitly – that so enthuses them about the debates they engage with, the books they read and the ideas they discuss? In most cases, there is a clear sense of the applicant’s own intellectual journey and how this has forged their interest in and passion for the subject.

In all cases a sense of the individual is crucial. A personal statement should be just that – a personal reflection on what it is that interests the applicant about the subject and why. We are not looking for a model answer. Indeed, there are countless different ways to write a successful application. For this reason using a template is STRONGLY DISCOURAGED as it will result in a generic statement that will not distinguish the candidate from the other applicants following the same model.

This is from the University of Bristol, but I think it’s pretty good advice for anyone applying to anywhere, to be honest.

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“I came here expecting windmills & marijuana” – British students flock to Holland


An interesting article about how increasing tuition fees is increasing the number of British (& Irish) students going to study at European universities, some of which, like Maastricht featured in the article, have English as the main language of instruction.