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Let's make a delayed entrance

It's crunch time for sixth-form students hoping to succeed at A-level and head off to university. By the end of this month those with offers have to have sent their final choices to UCAS.

For some students the effort of completing a UCAS form was followed by a traumatic interview. While many experiences this year have been positive, some tutors at Cambridge in particular still seem to gain a sadistic pleasure from making the interview as intimidating as possible. Bright but nervous students can be devastated by such an experience, and the univerity loses them. I have known such candidates accept places elsewhere in spite of being offered a place at Cambridge.

Our 18 Oxbridge candidates have between them applied to 27 other universities. Their Premier League consists of Nottingham (11 applications), Bristol and Durham (nine each), Birmingham, Exeter, Reading, Sheffield and York (five each). Most universities have responded promptly, but many (and Nottingham is particularly guilty of this) have not only delayed answering but also perfected the art of building a telephonic brick wall to students trying to find out what the hold-up is.

One girl plaintively asked me if I thought they realised students were "real people".

Some students have had to come to terms with rejection and make contingency plans. Others have had offers from places they now realise they don't really want to go to. The lucky ones have had six offers and the luxury of deciding which to accept. This is not easy, however, as returning the UCAS decision slip represents a commitment of which many seem to be scared rigid.

All-round panic seems to grip Year 13 students at this time of year. Suppose their grades are much better, or worse, than predicted. Can they "trade up", or will they be taking their chance through Clearing? Might it not have been wiser to have applied to somewhere nearer home? Supposing they get there and hate it? This last worry especially afflicts those who have ignored all advice to go to open days and have not been required to attend any interviews.

A steady trickle of students have come to tell me that they no longer want to do the subject they put on the form in those distant autumn days. Then there are those who applied to the same university as the boygirlfriend and now think they might have made a mistake.

Most of these anxieties and traumas could be resolved with a post-A-level application procedure. Timings would have to be adjusted, but the whole process could be simplified. It's not just about the certainty of applying with known A-level grades, but the maturity of candidates by the end of Year 13, which contrasts strikingly with their approach at the end of Year 12.

The abolition of the "insurance" offer would then follow naturally. In fact, many of our 250 candidates have opted for a "firm" decision only, either because there is only one institution they want to go to or because the grades required for their second choice are higher than their first.

There is still no real consensus about the practicalities of introducing post A-level applications, but I for one would favour the change.

Bridget Patterson is head of sixth form careers at Northgate High School, Ipswich, Suffolk

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