Opinion

Opinion: When should we apply to University?


Deciding which university courses to apply for is one of the most important decisions you will make. An unwise decision could affect you for the rest of your life. Does anyone disagree so far?
The two most important criteria for your choice of undergraduate courses are your choice of subjects at A level and your final grades, but for sixth formers the latter are an unknown quantity in the first term of Year 13, when they are being asked to complete UCAS forms and write their personal statements.

Some students may hold back on applying for courses that demand much higher grades than they feel they can possibly achieve. Students need to be realistic about their academic potential and their motivation to reach that potential. So how easy is it to make accurate predictions of those final grades? Hands up those who think it is easy.

Does this mean it is safer to lower your goals? There’s less risk of disappointment, perhaps; less stress all round. You could play safe by applying for courses that ask for CCC, even though you feel you could achieve ABB if all goes well. Who knows what might happen on the day of the exams? It could be a bad hay fever day, couldn’t it? By playing safe with your choices you should avoid the stress of having to apply through clearing after the results day. Yet, how many students are put off applying for courses that require grades beyond their wildest dreams, only to discover on results day that their wildest dreams were not so wild after all?

How many students, too, arrive for Freshers’ Week nursing a heavy heart because they are starting a course that, for one reason or another, is not the one they really want to do? If they voiced their concerns at home before they accepted the place, they were probably told by anxious parents, ‘Don’t be silly, you’ll love it once you get started.’

What is the drop-out rate during the first year at university? What are the reasons for dropping out at an early stage? How many of the early drop-outs started courses that either required much lower grades than they actually achieved, or were accepted through the clearing process because they did not get the grades required for any of their chosen courses? Are there any statistics on the various reasons undergraduates drop out and what they do after that? And perhaps most significantly, how many of these ‘drop outs’ are students who take the rest of the year out and reapply the following year, making more appropriate choices because they already have their A level grades?

The conclusion must be: wouldn’t it be better for everyone if applications were made after the results day? Better because each student is in a position to make more appropriate choices and therefore improve their chances of staying the course. Better because the whole UCAS process would be slimmed down. Might this save on salaries and therefore bring the fees down?

How could such a radical change be organised? Universities currently operate on the same academic year as schools and colleges. Freshers’ Week begins around mid-September, but does it have to be this way? Would it be so dreadful if the university year were to begin in mid to late October, or later still, and finish in mid-July? Wouldn’t it be more user-friendly if the deadline for applications was moved to mid-September? Hopefully the UCAS processing stage could be speeded up, because students with very poor grades would not even apply.

To summarise, consider this: there is no advantage to anyone in a service that does no favours for its users.

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My views on the UCAS system have been influenced by my daughter’s experience. When considering her undergraduate application she lacked confidence and underestimated her final A level grades. She felt she was ‘overqualified’ for the course she accepted and dropped out before the end of the first term in order to reapply for course that required the high A level grades she had achieved. The application process was much easier the second time around, and had she stayed and seen her first course through she would not be at the academic level she is now.

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