Tag Archives: A level

A MONTH OF SUMMER LEFT TO BUILD YOUR UCAS APPLICATION

If you are a year 12 student about to move into year 13 you will probably be making a UCAS application to universities in the Autumn once you get back to your school or college. You will therefore soon be nailing down your final choice of five universities and familiarizing yourself with the UCAS online ‘apply system’ (https://www.ucas.com/ucas/undergraduate/apply-and-track).

 

Now we are at the end of July, of next year’s university applicants will have had at least a week and possibly as much as a month or more since the end of the last school term. With a month or so to go before the start of their final academic year before university, it is time to start thinking about how to productively spend the rest of the summer in order to have the best possible chance of making a strong university application.

 

Time to think: what can I do to help support my application and to add to my personal statement. Think about:

 

  1. Work Experience – are you intending to apply for a degree that will lead you to a specific career? If so, have you ever had any experience of that career? If you want to be a lawyer, doctor, pharmacist, physiotherapist, architect or accountant – can you get some experience in this field during August and throughout the academic year? I bet you can!
  2. Go and visit – the university or department you want to go to may have an open day in the next month or so (find out at http://www.opendays.com/) but even if they don’t this is a great time to go and visit the university or even just the town or city where you will be living.
  3. Read and research – whatever you want to study at university, you need to be able to convince an admissions tutor that you are able to study that subject at undergraduate level. You will need more than just your A level/IB/Higher (or whatever) knowledge to do this convincingly. Start reading a broadsheet newspaper everyday, subscribe to a popular journal such as The Economist, The New Scientist or The Student BMJ and pick up some back issues from your local library or online. What about a book or two in the field you want to study? Use google to recommend some popular literature and read for an hour or so a day. You’ll learn a huge amount about your subject to write about or discuss at interview and it will give you a real confidence boost before you make your application.

 

The final deadlines may feel a long way off, but they will be upon us very soon:

15 October 2015 – Oxford, Cambridge, Medicine, Dentistry

15 January 2016 – All other applications

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HOW DO YOU CHOOSE WHICH MEDICAL SCHOOL TO APPLY TO?

How do you decide which medical school to apply to?

Students in their AS year with good GCSE results, a love of science and a passion for caring for and working with others will be considering making an application to medical school.  I tend to think that the passing of the October 15th UCAS deadline for the A2 students fires the starting gun for those in AS who want to apply the following year.  365 days to make a difference to their applications.  UCAS reported recently that in 2013, for the 7,515 places offered to medical candidates last year, 84,395 applicants applied.  That is roughly a 1:11 ratio.  Competition is fierce.

 

Is a degree from one place the same as a degree from another?

One important consideration is deciding which medical school to apply to.  But, how important a decision is this actually?  Unlike most other degrees there is a national standard, set by the GMC (General Medical Council) and applied to medical school degrees.  This ensures that as far as possible, all doctors educated in the UK are trained to the same standards (www.gmc-uk.org/education/undergraduate/tomorrows_doctors.asp).  There are obvious reasons why this makes sense, a scenario whereby doctors in the UK are trained differently at different institutions would quickly lead to problems.  However, were you to take almost any other degree you may find that your degree from one university is quite different to that you may have received at another – depending on the specialisms of the professors, location, resources and many other factors.  A good example would be in biology, where many universities close to the coast will emphasise marine biology and ecology for obvious reasons whereas this is less practical in other places.

 

What type of candidate are the different schools looking for?

So a degree in medicine is the same wherever you go, right?  Well to an extent, yes, but there are still some important factors to consider.  First of all, your priority when applying is to get in somewhere and different universities emphasise different attributes when it comes to the application process.  Some place the highest regard on academic performance; some will only interview candidates with a particular UKCAT (United Kingdom Clinical Aptitude Test) score; others prefer the BMAT (BioMedical Admissions Test) and make it their most important diagnostic; some need you to have secured a minimum number of hours of relevant work experience before you can be considered; for many the interview is key, others don’t even interview every candidate.  It is therefore important to consider your own strengths and attributes, match those to the entrance criteria of the medical schools and apply to those that suit your strengths.  There is no harm in contacting the admissions tutors at the medical schools to have a conversation about what they prefer to see in their applicants.  In fact I recommend that you do this.

 

Know your competition

Another thing to consider is the competition.  Most would-be doctors have a pragmatic approach to their applications – they don’t mind where they go, they just want to get in and begin training.  However, some universities, rightly or wrongly, attract more applications than others.  Oxford and Cambridge have a certain prestige attached and offer a particular lifestyle that appeals to many.  UCL and Imperial College in London have world-renowned reputations and of course, along with King’s College, Queen Mary’s and St George’s have the attraction of being in London and the lifestyle associated with living in the capital.  This increases the number of applicants and therefore the competition at these places.  It doesn’t make them better medical schools necessarily, but it does mean they can set their bar very high.

 

How is the course delivered?

Although medical schools are required to meet the GMC standards, they vary in the way they deliver their courses.  You will hear phrases like “problem-based learning,” “clinical training,” “pre-clinical training” and you should make sure you fully understand what they all mean.  At some medical schools you will meet patients “on day one”; at others you may spend a long time studying physiology and anatomy before encountering your first patient or making your first diagnosis.  There are pros and cons to each approach.  Students with strong clinical skills may feel they lack some of the scientific rigour and understanding of their colleagues with stronger scientific backgrounds, who in turn lack some of the communication skills, ability to empathise and other crucial skills essential to become a good doctor.

 

Where do you want to live?

If you don’t want to live in London don’t apply to UCL!  If you live in Newcastle and don’t want to be far from home, don’t apply to Plymouth University Peninsula! This sounds so obvious, but it is probably the most commonly ignored piece of advice I give to university applicants each year.  People presume that they can sacrifice quality of life for (perceived) quality of degree.  “I hate the idea of living in a big city like London, but UCL/King’s/Imperial has such a good reputation.”  This makes no sense to me.  It takes a long time to qualify as a doctor, that means you will be living in the town or city you choose now for five, six, maybe more, years.  I’m all for taking risks – life is about experiences, any chose you make has an element of risk, but take a calculated risk. Go and visit, explore and picture yourself there.  Decide on the criteria that are important to you and carefully select four universities that match those criteria.  Of course criterion number one is likely to be “can I get in?” but what are numbers two, three and four?

 

SEND YOUR UCAS APPLICATION EARLY!

The UCAS deadline for on time applications is always January 15 every year.  Whatever day of the week it falls on, this is the deadline.  If you are applying to medical school, dentistry, veterinary medicine or to Oxford or Cambridge, your deadline is October 15.  Again, whatever day of the week that happens to be, that is the deadline.  In this cycle, October 15 is a Wednesday and January 15 is a Thursday.

Visit the UCAS website for more details:

http://www.ucas.com

My advice is to complete the process as early as you possibly can.  If you’ve not decided where to go or what to apply for – start making some decisions. Go and visit some universities, research some programmes you are interested in and begin to take responsibility.

So why do it early?

Firstly let’s dispel some urban myths…

1.  There is no advantage to getting your application in early in terms of whether or not you are offered a place.  As long as you meet the Jan 15 (or Oct 15) deadline, your application is on time and will be considered equally with all the rest.  So take your time to get it right.

2.  If I’m not applying to Oxbridge I should wait until after October 15 before I apply because otherwise the other universities will think I’m applying to Oxford or Cambridge and therefore will reject me. Believe me.  They won’t. 

So why bother getting the application in early?

The main reason is TIME. You are buying yourself precious time by getting this thing done soon.  This term (between now and Christmas) is usually the busiest and most tiring of your sixth form career.  There is pressure of coursework, harder A2 material, AS re-sits to revise for, field trips, practical work (if you take practical based subjects), entrance tests, interviews, and that is just the academic stuff.  You also have to do your university application.  So it pays to do it early and get it out of the way.

Not only that, but also, although applications are dealt with equally if received before the deadlines, you can get an interview or even an offer before Christmas if you apply early enough.  That is a very satisfying position to be in when others around you have yet to even complete their applications. 

Experience tells me that the longer students spend on their personal statement, the less progress they make.  Personal statements are things of diminishing returns.  The longer you spend the less effectively you improve it!  Your personal statement is crucial.  In fact it is arguably the most important 4000 characters you will ever write, but it is easy to get bogged down in the process and pour over it for weeks on end without really making too much difference.  When it’s finished, send it and move on to the next thing.

In my experience, students with university applications unsent in December and even January invariably make bad applications.  They appear rushed (despite being several months in the preparation) and read as if little thought has gone into them.  So, if you are applying to university this year, act now.  Make some decisions, do some planning and some research and get your application done.  You will thank yourself for it later this year.

Good luck with your university application!

UCAS APPLICATIONS – CHOOSE YOUR 5 UNIVERSITIES WISELY!

Students beginning their A2 year of A level or their final year of IB will no doubt be beginning to prepare their university applications this week if they haven’t already started. As schools and colleges go back, so upper sixth/A2 groups are encouraged to register for the UCAS system and to start taking some decisions about university. There is lots of advice available and lots of advice to give about this process, but here is my tip for the week…
Choose your five universities wisely! 
This means that you should select five institutions that you would like to study at. It sounds obvious, but you are no longer required to rank you list in order of preference. In fact this practise ended decades ago. So your choices should be of five institutions or courses that you would definitely like to go to and you should ensure you’d be happy at any of the five. This is more difficult than you might think and the temptation is to rank them in your head in order of preference anyway.
This is dangerous, because it means that you end up with a ‘fifth choice’.  Fifth! Who cares about fifth!? Two places outside of the medals in an Olympic event and not even a champions league place (if you get the football reference). The problem is that your ‘fifth choice’ is likely to also have the lowest entry requirements and therefore, if you miss your firm choice offer it could well be the place you end up.  Experience tells me that on results day students who have made their insurance offers are disappointed that they now have to go somewhere they never really thought they would end up and they never really wanted to go anyway!
Now, I hope that every gets their grades for their firm choice institution, but the reality is that many people don’t.
So consider this.  You are lucky enough to have five offers from five universities which are:
University 1 – AAB
University 2 – AAB
University 3 – AAB
University 4 – AAB
University 5 – BBB
You then have to pick two. Your firm choice and your insurance choice (note they are not called first choice and second choice – that is deliberate). If you want to have a genuine insurance policy,  University 5 HAS to be your insurance choice, even if you would rather go to any of the others. So… You had better make sure you want to go there!
A trap students often fall into is to pick a ‘fifth choice’ that has substantially lower entry requirements than the other places you apply.  Imagine the scenario above, but where university 5 had entry requirements of DDE. If you miss your grades by a fraction (say you get ABB) you may well end up going to university 5 and you may feel under-sold.
More often than not this ends up as a wasted choice in any case. Why? Because if you end up with more than two offers, imagine this scenario:
University 1 – AAB
University 2 – AAB
University 3 – ABB
University 4 – BBB
University 5 – DDE
You’re not likely to pick university 5. You didn’t want to go there any way and so wouldn’t you rather have another university to choose from than this essentially dead choice?
And so, my tip for the day and for the week is – CHOOSE WISELY! Pick an range of universities that are within your academic range and skill set. Don’t over-sell yourself and don’t under-sell yourself.
Good luck!

A NEW YEAR!

On Monday, as in many schools and colleges thought the uk, a new academic year begins. For us at Ashbourne this means registration days,  induction meetings and ‘getting-to-know-you’ for students followed by a full-day ‘welcome back’ meeting for the staff. 

As a senior manager this is arguably the most important week of the college year. For the students coming to us for the first time it is essential that the college presents itself as the modern, inclusive, successful institution we believe ourselves to be. The focus is three fold:

1. Efficiency – we have a lot of students to process in a short space of time. We need to reduce ‘hanging around time’ to a minimum, ensure there is plenty for the students to be doing and that we take their details and diseminate materials and information swiftly. 
2.  Professionalism – a slick, professional first impression is crucial.  there should be no hint that anything is going wrong (even if it is) and all staff should be well drilled and know exactly what is required of them that day. 
3.  Welcoming and friendliness – sixth firm colleges are curious places. Students join in our case from all over London and the world. Despite some bravado and some brave faces, most of them are nervous and frightened. “Will this be the same as my old school?” “I don’t know anybody here!” “Everyone seems to know someone except me!” “Everyone seems so clever/smart/good looking/popular (or whatever…)” the college staff have a very important job to do to settle nerves and make everyone feel welcome. 

If any if these don’t happen or are not delivered at 100% it is very easy to “lose a life” with the students. It is so important for them to leave with the impression that they have made a good choice, that they will be successful and welcome and that they are looking forward to getting started. 

Good luck to anyone starting a new school or college next week and good luck to the staff involved in making their first few days run smoothly.

IS IT TIME TO SCRAP GCSES?

In his article in the guardian on Friday http://gu.com/p/4xxbm, Peter Wilby made a good case for the abolition of the GCSE as a qualification in England and it has to be said he makes a compelling case.  Before I go further, let me say that I largely agree with everything he writes.  The GCSE is no longer fit for purpose, mainly because it no longer has an obvious purpose!
As Wilby discusses, once upon-a-time, when pupils left school at age 16 and only 10% or so of those leavers went on to study A levels, there was a clear need for a qualification that assessed the general skills and academic achievements of the school leaving population.  Employers had to be able to discern between applicants for jobs and apprenticeships.  I believe that GCSEs did this well, especially within the grade boundaries A (or later A*) to C.
However, as the number of pupils who remain in education rose and rose over the years to a point in time now, where post 16 education is compulsory, the need for a stand-alone, high-risk qualification at 16 seems entirely unnecessary.  Surely if we were designing the education system from scratch to include compulsory education to 18 we wouldn’t stick in a huge exam session just two years prior to this.  What would be the purpose?  Yes students should have their progress assessed at this point, but not in this way and why would 16 be more important than 15 or 17 on the road to whatever final qualification the individual gains at 18.  Furthermore, increasingly I find through my own teaching that the GCSE has ceased to be a particularly good preparation for A level.  Those who have done GCSE sciences don’t seem to have a good grasp of some fundamental material that would allow them to access the A level material in my subject (biology).
I happen to believe that the university system in England and the A levels that allow entry to it should be retained and have many strong features.  It would be on the back of these two institutions that I would build our education system.  Wilby wrote about removing the “full stop” of the GCSE and replacing it with a “semi-colon.”  I couldn’t agree more.  Why not a series of semi-colons throughout ones educational experience until one is ready to leave the system.
It would be easy to imagine a system in which the educational experience from the age of 11 (or 10, or 12 or 14 or whatever age we decide it is more appropriate) that, year on year, gives our young people a deeper and narrower educational experience leading up to university entrance and incorporating the A level.  Students should be assessed regularly and should have to achieve a minimum standard in order to progress to the next level, but we would no longer have the “this is the most important thing you will ever do” exams at age 16.  There should also be a range of attractive, useful options for students to leave this system in order to pursue other equally valid, perhaps broader, perhaps more vocational routes.  In fact I wish there were more of these at present in order that more pupils had more opportunities to fulfil their potential.
Another brave move would be to remove the age-based cohort system altogether and to have pupils progress through the educational system at a rate that best suits them and so that they reach the next level when they are ready, not just because they reach a certain age.  For a refreshing take on this and other matters, take a look at Ken Robinson’s RSA animate lecture http://youtu.be/zDZFcDGpL4U
Why shouldn’t a student be elevated through the system if they are good enough?  This happens in the work place and in almost all other areas of life.  The best candidates in the work-place are promoted over the less good ones and their age or number of years at the company is usually not a factor.
Under the last Labour government there was a move towards a 14-19 agenda, but the GCSE was retained – it will be a brave government that remove it.  14-19 makes sense.  There are some LEAs in England that operate a “middle/upper school” system so that children move schools at year 9 (age 13/14), in fact I briefly taught in an excellent one – King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds.
Unfortunately, the thing that may save the GCSE in the end could be simply a matter of practicalities and infrastructure.  The ever-complex system of schooling in England (comprehensives, grammars, free schools, academies, independent schools, FE colleges, middle schools, upper schools, public schools etc etc) means that it suits the running of our educational establishments to retain the status quo.  If we remove the GCSE, and education is compulsory until 18, why have a school that says goodbye to its pupils at 16?  But those schools exist and in great numbers.  They don’t have space to expand and we certainly can’t close them down.  Should their pupils not have anything to show for their five years at their high school?  GCSEs still make sense to a degree in this context.
So, as a product of the GCSE system (2A*, 6A, 1B in 1995 if you were wondering – fairly humble by today’s standards), I would have to conclude that they are probably here to stay unless a government of the future is prepared to spend a lot of time and money coming up with something better and then implementing it in the face of waves of objection, vested interest and unhappiness.  That would be a brave government indeed.

ADVICE ON CHOOSING YOUR A LEVEL SUBJECTS

If you are about to receive your GCSE results. Good luck! If you had worked hard for them, you will no doubt be feeling about collecting them.  I hope it goes well for you and you manage to get the results you need to help you move in with your life.
If you plan to stay in education you may also be considering your A level choices. Advice on A level choices is varied and can depend on who you speak to and their own educational background.
Here is some advice that I think is impartial and also puts the some of the many points to consider in one place.
Do something you like and do something you are good at 
This is always my number-one piece of advice. There are various other factors to consider when choosing A level subjects of course, but after you’ve considered these, please always come back to these two questions:
– Am I good /going to be good at this subject?
– Do I/will I enjoy this subject?
If you do this, it is difficult to go far wrong with your choices. You have to remember that A levels are difficult qualifications to get. Whatever the press may tell you, whatever you hear about ‘grade inflation’ or that A levels are no longer the ‘gold standard’ in British education, the fact remains that they are tough. There is an old cliche about the gap between gcse and A level and that many are unable to bridge this gap, but it is more that a cliche. It is true.  If you have no real interest in the subject or if you struggled at GCSE level, no matter how good (or bad) your teachers or how hard you worked (or didn’t), you will have a difficult time over the next two years.
Do you want to go to university?  What do you want to study when you get there?
 
Some people already know what they want to do post-A level which can be a big help in choosing A level subjects.  For example, if you want to be a doctor, you will almost certainly have to do at least two from biology, chemistry, maths and physics.  If you want to do a history degree it makes sense to study history A level, if you are keen on biochemistry it would make sense to do biology and chemistry and if you want to study French, it would be difficult to do this without French A level!
If you’re not sure about what you want to do post-A level, don’t panic and don’t feel like you have to decide now.  A levels are not “vocational” qualifications, in themselves they don’t prepare you you specifically for a career.  They are designed to be studied, learned and enjoyed and although some subjects may guide you towards particular careers, that is not necessarily the main reason to choose a subject.
I want to be a lawyer so I’ll do A level law, right?
This is a common misconception.  You don’t need to do law A level either to be a lawyer or to study law at university.  Similarly you don’t need an economics degree to study economics and you don’t need to take business studies A level to study business.  In fact a huge number of degree subjects do not have any specific A level requirements.  I therefore suggest you go back the the “do I enjoy this/am I good at it” rule when considering your A level choices.
Facilitating subjects
Having said that, in recent years, the Russell group http://www.russellgroup.ac.uk/ (a group containing some of the UK’s leading universities) have recently stipulated that they prefer students to have a specified number of ‘facilitating subjects.”  This is a rather short list of A level subjects – just maths, english literature, biology, chemistry, physics, history, geography and any modern foreign language count as facilitating subjects.  So, if you are considering applying to a “top” university you would do well to do at least one and maybe two or three of these subjects.
However, I would advise not getting too hung-up on facilitating subjects, especially if they don’t meet the “do I like it/am I good at it” criteria.  There are many A level subjects which are very interesting and may be more likely to suit you.  I happen to think that, for example, media studies, psychology and film studies are unfairly derided as “soft” subjects.  Several of these allegedly “soft” subjects are academically demanding, interesting and provide unique opportunities to study material you may never otherwise get.
 
Do your homework
For this reason, it is extremely important that you do your homework and know what you are studying. What is the subject ACTUALLY about?  Will you enjoy this? Will you be good at it?  Film studies is not all about making films, in fact it is quite closely aligned to english literature.  Drama and theatre studies is only around 50% acting, psychology is not about analysing dreams and philosophy is not a big two year debate on the meaning life.  Perhaps the most misunderstood of these is psychology which, at A level, is a very scientific subject very similar to biology and so well suited to students taking sciences and maths.
How many?
To impress a university entrance panel, take three or four subjects and do well.  Taking five, six or even more subjects does little to improve your chances.  Three (plus an AS level) is definitely much better than two, but after that there is a law of very diminishing returns.  Focus on getting AAA not BBBBB!!
Don’t chose your best GCSE scores if your mind was set
A common mistake is for students to pick their A levels before GCSE results day, only to find that they do slightly better in another subject at GCSE and make a late switch to this subject.  For example you pick English, French and maths because you like them and are good at them, then on GCSE results day, you get an A* in history and an A in French so you decide to history instead of French.  Don’t switch!  You chose French for all the right reasons and those reasons are still valid!
Good luck on results day!