Teachers, don't let application misunderstandings hamper your students' chances of winning a university place

7th January 2011 at 00:00
With next Saturday's deadline looming, Ucas chief executive explains how to be on form

The difficulty of getting an offer

There is no doubt that 2011 entry is likely to be more competitive than even the past two years. But in 2010, 70 per cent of applicants were accepted to a course of their choice, which is high by any standards. About 45 per cent of those who "missed out" actually turned down offers or withdrew. The key point here is to make a realistic application.

The likelihood of a three-A pupil being turned down

In 2010, about 3,000 applicants with three grade As "missed out". The reality is that there are plenty of high-quality courses and institutions who would love to offer places to applicants with really good A-level grades. I would advise high achievers to make sure that they don't put all their choices for the most highly competitive courses and institutions. In 2010, an applicant with three grade As who applied for English at the five most competitive courses would, statistically, have had only a 12:1 chance of getting an offer. Remember that all applicants for a particular course are likely to have the minimum entry requirements, so sometimes it's best for an applicant to pick a course with slightly lower entry requirements than their predicted grades so that they get to the top of the list.

Entry requirements

There have been many calls in the press recently for better information about what universities and colleges require for admission to certain courses and everyone would agree with that. However, it is a mistake to think that institutions are able to give hard and fast entry requirements in any one year because the level of candidates that they will admit will depend on supply and demand. If an admissions tutor receives 200 applications, all meeting the minimum entry requirements, for 20 places, they will start to apply new criteria to sift down to a shortlist. Some institutions will check GCSE grades; some place a lot of emphasis on the quality of the personal statement and the reference; some might be looking for evidence of extra-curricular activity. The best way to understand this is to speak to or email admission offices for guidance. Advise applicants to go on university visits and open days to understand better what they are looking for.

Number of choices

I have met so many advisers from schools and colleges who think that applicants must put five choices on their Ucas application. The admissions offices who receive each application cannot see how many choices an applicant has made or where else they have applied, and there is no ranking of choices. So if your applicant only has three real targets, they should only put three choices down. Adding in a couple of random choices at the end to fill the space just creates more work for admissions offices and skews the supplydemand dynamic. If they only put two or three choices, and don't receive an offer, they can still add up to five new choices later on. But remind them to do this before the 15 January deadline to be sure of equal consideration. After the deadline the institution is not obliged to consider their application, although many will do so.

No offers?

If one of your applicants has received five rejections, don't panic. After the end of February, applicants who have received five rejections can use the Ucas "Extra" service to make additional applications, one at a time, until they secure the place they want. Before doing this, you need to review carefully why your applicant failed to get any offers. Was this because their application was not of high enough quality? Did they apply for very competitive courses? Was the application realistic? Once you have done this diagnosis, it may be worth suggesting that they alter their application strategy and consider using Extra.

No offers even after using Extra?

If your applicant is still determined to secure a place, they can prepare for clearing. Clearing usually happens quite quickly, so it's useful to do research to be sure about what courses and institutions your applicant might be interested in if clearing vacancies come up. Or sit back and take stock and reapply the following year. Be aware that reapplying will put your applicants in the realm of the new tuition fee rates and that is something they need to understand if they wait until 2012.

Insurance choice

Last year, about 40 per cent of applicants made an insurance choice that had harder or equal conditions to their first choice. That is not a good strategy for ensuring a place in 2011. The insurance choice is designed as a back-up in case applicants miss a grade in the summer. We suggest that applicants retain one conditional offer that has easier conditions than their preferred conditional offer. But make sure it really is somewhere they would like to go - we had many people rejecting their insurance choices last summer.

And finally ...

There is nothing more heartbreaking than to hear about your students dropping out of higher education after a couple of terms. The most important advice you can give your Year 12 and 13s is to be really sure that they have both passion and purpose for pursuing higher education. Three years of their time, together with tuition fees and living costs, is a big investment to make. If they go into higher education with their heart in it, they are more likely to succeed. Good luck!

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