Why being a fancy flautist won't help win a place at Oxford

27th August 2010 at 01:00
Admissions chief scuppers theory that elite universities value extra-curricular activities

Never mind that treasured Duke of Edinburgh's Award or the hours spent toiling away in youth orchestra. Oxford University wannabes should drop extra-curricular activities and concentrate on academic study, the head of admissions has said.

Instead of wasting their time with worthy - but ultimately expendable - interests, or trying to become well-rounded individuals, applicants should nurture an in-depth knowledge of their chosen subject.

"It really doesn't matter if you haven't got any friends or hobbies or if you don't do any charitable work," said Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate admissions at Oxford. "(Acceptance) is a purely academic judgment."

The university wants undergraduates who are "enthused, engaged and excellent", Mr Nicholson said, not "second-rate historians who happen to play the flute".

Mr Nicholson's comments come as tens of thousands of pupils are still chasing university places. And they appear to contradict universities minister David Willetts, who said last week that volunteering can improve their chances of winning places.

This year's university application figures suggest that a greater focus on subject expertise may deter Oxbridge applicants.

Cambridge University, which introduced the A* grade requirement this year, recorded a very small increase in applicants - just 0.5 per cent. Oxford, which eschewed the A*, noted a 12 per cent increase.

Mr Nicholson's blunt appraisal is likely to come as a shock to many secondary schools which have long held the belief that extra-curricular activities impress university dons.

A spokeswoman for Cambridge University said: "Ultimately, all admissions decisions are based on academic criteria, and excellence in an extra-curricular activity will never 'compensate' for lower academic potential."

Geraldine Naughten, director of sixth-form studies at George Green's School in Tower Hamlets, east London, said: "I don't disagree that academic rigour is important, but we also believe in balance."

She admits, however, that "if the guy who is dishing out places at Oxford" says scholarship is more important than anything else, "we can't really ignore that".

George Green's introduced the International Baccalaureate three years ago specifically because of its "unashamedly academic" reputation, Ms Naughten said.

But it is the whole package that makes it work, she insists. As well as taking six subjects, Creativity, Action and Service (CAS) is an integral element, potentially consisting of an arts project, an international expedition or volunteering.

"It gives us breadth, which we think is really important," said Ms Naughten.

Last year, George Green's recorded its best university acceptance rate. All but one of its sixth-formers went on to university - 10 per cent to the prestigious Russell Group.

Not all top students suit a narrow academic approach, according to Paul Kelley, head of Monkseaton High School in Tyne and Wear, whose alumni include Laura Spence, the straight-A student turned down by Oxford in 2000.

Two of his students went to Oxford this year. He says one was tightly focused on her subject - biological studies. The other, taking philosophy, politics and economics, relished a broader approach.

"He was one of these marvellous, wide-ranging thinkers, interested in everything," Mr Kelley said.

"The key is to build individual programmes to suit students, increase academic challenge beyond A-level (both students took undergraduate modules from the Open University), and offer the right support at the right time."

Is Oxbridge still a preserve of the posh? Magazine, page 10.

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