Help your child nail his or her UK university applications.
British expat mamas, the clock has started ticking. Next year, your baby is set to fly the coop and head out to university. Just one last hurdle – the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) application. One form only for all your UK university applications, with just one personal statement to write and all for less than $250? What could be easier or more convenient? Admittedly, you can only apply to five universities (or rather courses) but this, in itself, still provides sufficient choice and range. In fact, it’s a feature that higher education counsellors and admissions officers around the world would love to apply to their own countries and families! Moreover, it reduces application numbers to a level where UK universities don’t have the alarming admission rates that we see in the US, with the likes of Stanford dipping below 5%.
So, can UK applicants all relax and just spend a few hours, at most, in charting their future for the next three or four years and beyond? Well, yes and no. There are a number of points you need to consider before you apply and this handy guide is sure to help. Let’s start by looking at the constituent parts of the UCAS Application Form:
- Personal Statement
- Predicted Grades
- Personal Details
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With only 130 universities (rather than 2,000 as in the US) to choose from, of which many can be ruled out because of the courses they offer or their entry requirements, this should be a piece of cake. Surely, all one needs to do is look at entry requirements compared to one’s own academic profile and pick five within a realistic range, including an element of both reach and safety? There are even online platforms that will do this for you on your smartphone in a matter of seconds!
Once you’ve broken down the numbers to 20 or 12, dig deep and research the course details, accommodation offerings and the richness that each course and university can offer – it should be a pleasure and should whet your teen’s appetite for the experiences that await them. Sadly, this research is something often done poorly or at too late a stage in Hong Kong (perhaps because of the simplicity of the UCAS process).
Yes, your teenager only has to write one, but it has to cover all five course choices. So if your teen is applying for varied courses, this becomes rather tricky. The statement should send the clear message that “Course is King”(the feature that distinguishes UK from US Higher Education). Many applicants devote far too much of the precious space (4,000 characters and 47 lines) to extra-curricular endeavours that have little relation to their chosen course. Others do themselves no favours by telling the reader about their “passion” for this course, while the chosen smart ones “prove” it! What this means is that your children need to demonstrate, in detail, what specific topics have intrigued them and how they’ve gone beyond the curriculum to pursue their intellectual curiosity.
While some students might say or believe this is out of their hands, there is a way to help their cause (without writing their references themselves). Your teen could provide the referee with a “brag sheet” or at least indicate what strengths or anecdotal evidence he or she intends to put into the Personal Statement. It would help if the reference complements rather than repeats what is there.
These appear at the top of the UCAS reference. Whether expressed in terms of A level, IB, HKDSE grades or otherwise, these are used by the university admission gatekeepers to decide if the application gets any further. No wonder these grades create so much controversy and anxiety! Despite the protestations that schools are overestimating on a massive scale, it’s no wonder that they do err a little on the positive side in order not to restrict applicant’s choices.
Whatever your opinion on this perpetually hot topic, my main advice to students is to remember that UCAS applications happen in the early part of the final year (Y13, G12). Naturally then, predicted grades are based on their academic performance up to the end of the penultimate year of high school (Y12, G11). So, don’t coast in your first year of IB or A levels AND be nice to your teachers!
This section shows the secondary schools you’ve attended, exam grades you have achieved and the courses you are now taking, with grades pending. So what are the universities looking for here?
The answer is externally-assessed grades that will give them an indication of academic potential. I always say I’m a fan of GCSEs and I often refer to the UCAS Form in this way:
- Reference – Opinion
- Personal Statement – Opinion
- Predicted Grades – Opinion
- GCSE grades – FACT!
This section now looks fairly blank for students doing some curricula, including the local HKDSE curriculum, where previously HKCEE (“O” level) grades appeared. With the demise of AS levels also, the result is an increase in the use of additional assessments to distinguish between all those predicted top grades. I know for a fact that many UK admissions staff are frustrated by the lack of real evidence of academic achievement on the UCAS Form for an increasing number of students.
How on earth could you get this wrong? It’s the million-dollar question – or at least, several thousand! What I mean is, the way one answers certain questions here (five in total) will determine whether a student qualifies for the “Home” or “Overseas” fee status. While many parents are concerned about this issue, talk about it and often share common myths (such as the idea that sending one’s child to UK boarding school makes them “ordinarily resident”), few can actually tell you how one applies for “Home Fee Status”.
It is done by the particular way the student fills in the UCAS Personal Details section which many parents never see, as it is often done remotely at school or at boarding school overseas. Furthermore, many of the teachers or counsellors advising students on their UCAS applications don’t know how this is done in detail. The usual result is shock and indignance when the applicant is automatically classified as overseas for fees purposes, despite their UK passport, and the road to reverse that becomes a very steep one.
The Bottom Line
One thing that frustrates me, year after year, is applicants who add UK universities to their shortlists simply because they see others doing it and because the UCAS application seems to involve so little extra effort. Some schools actually encourage this by saying that UCAS counts as only “one” application while setting limits to the number that each student can apply to with the school’s support. This not only encourages the “frivolous” approach (without proper research) but is also unfair to students applying elsewhere!
UK Higher Education has many strengths that justify a well-researched decision to apply. It is easy to fill in the UCAS application form, but your teenager should value and respect its simplicity with thorough research. Make sure your child shows a level of care that will maximise his or her chances of admission to the best-suited course and university.