Seasonal trip to Ucas mania takes a detour through La-la Land

30th October 2009 at 00:00
The leaves fall, the nights draw in, pomegranates appear in the shops - and students become obsessed with their Ucas applications.

It's that time of year again. The leaves fall, the nights draw in, pomegranates appear in the shops - and students become obsessed with their Ucas applications.

"Obsession" is not too strong a term. Classes are cut, books abandoned, essays stillborn. Thoughts of real studies fly away to La-la Land. All that matters is that electronic application form on the Ucas website.

"Look," I say, "it's only a form, not War and Peace. How long do you want to spend on six pages?" "Ah," they reply, "but I've got my personal statement to write." This is obviously meant to end all discussion. Clear the diary, empty my brain, I've got a statement to write.

At most, the personal statement consists of 750 words, but for the angst it causes you'd think it was 70,000. At this point, I hit them with a revolutionary idea. Instead of endlessly planning, talking and moaning about it, why not just sit down and write it?

But it makes no difference. And in a way you can't blame them. After all, there's now a whole industry devoted to applying to university. To all the books about filling in forms there have been added hundreds of websites on the applications process.

But when all else fails, why not ask someone who knows? Like your teacher! The trouble is, they always ask the most inane - and difficult - questions. Top of the list is invariably: what is the best university? Quick as a flash I could reply: Harvard, Cambridge, Yale and UCL. At least, that's the ranking order in this year's Times Higher Education - QS World University Rankings (poor old Oxford's fallen to fifth equal).

But it won't do any good. Half of them have problems finding the bus fare to get to college, so the $40,000 a year they'll need for the US Ivy League might just be beyond them. Like most mature students, many will end up at local universities. As my college is in London, that still gives them a wide choice.

"The question you should ask," I always say, "is `what's the best university for you?'" Whether to tell them about the rankings of British universities is always a dilemma. The problem is, if I don't, someone else will. And that someone else is less likely than me to take account of the subtleties of a system shot through with status, prejudice and snobbery.

Warning them off listening to all those someone elses is also vital. "My friend," they say, "says such and such university is a crap place to study." "And how does your friend know that?" I ask. It's then that you discover the friend started at said university five years ago, drank their student loan away in a fortnight, then left - never having even glanced at their reading list - at Christmas.

Everyone has such definite opinions on university entrance. "Whenever you get advice on the topic," I tell students, "ask yourself how well qualified the person is to give it. How can they say what they are telling you with such conviction?"

The people who teach them - yourself excepted, of course - should be treated with particular suspicion. They know, you so often find, because they once went to a university. True, they haven't stepped inside one since they left clutching their precious 2:1 in 1973, but that doesn't stop them endlessly pontificating about it.

So, does all that put them right? Do they then go away, research their options, draw up a shortlist and go on open days before making informed and realistic choices? Possibly. Alternatively, they might just nod, sniff, stare vacantly into the distance and say, "That's all very well, but I've got a personal statement to write, and my friend says ."

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