Thursday, 13 January 2011

The unwritten rules of university admission

In order to maximise your chances of getting into one of the best universities, whether you are home educated or at school, there are a number of rules which most people do not even know about. For instance, GCSEs matter a lot. When a group of candidates all have three A levels at grade A, their GCSEs are often used as a tiebreaker. It is not so much the number of GCSEs as the subjects which have been taken. Physics counts for a lot more than media studies. This is not something which a lot of children are told when they choose their options.

There are a whole bunch of A levels like law, business studies, psychology, general studies, film studies and so on which are disregarded by some universities during the admissions process. A child who wishes to study law at university might be encouraged by her school to take A level law, only to find that universities do not want this A level and will not count it in their offer. Again, this is not something which most teenagers or their parents can be expected to know. The decisions made by a child at the age of fourteen or sixteen can thus have a huge impact upon the type of university he gets to study at. This is incidentally why so few state pupils make it to Oxbridge. It is not prejudice against them, simply that they have not got the right academic qualifications to stand a chance. This is the fault of the maintained schools rather than the universities themselves.

More and more home educated children seem to be doing Open University course instead of GCSEs and A levels. One hears from time to time of one such young person getting into Oxford or Exeter to study law. Nobody knows how common this is, but I have an idea that it might be rare. None of the universities that I have specifically asked about this have had such cases. There has been no such admission at Oxford since Alex Dowty and Cambridge don't remember anything of the sort ever happening. I suspect, unless somebody has some evidence to the contrary, that it is not at all common. Most universities prefer to play safe with standard qualifications, despite what they might say on their websites.

The problem with these unwritten rules, like not taking A level law or business studies for example, is that ordinary parents are not likely to be familiar with them. Independent schools know all about them and make sure that their pupils choose their GCSEs and A levels in accordance with the rules.

All this should really give home educated children an advantage if they wish to try and get a place at a Russell Group university. After all, unlike those at a maintained school, they are completely free to choose which GCSEs they take. Having taken a good selection, such as will look impressive on their UCAS form when they are seventeen, they are then in a strong bargaining position to dictate which A levels they wish to take at a sixth form or FE college. I do not know why more home educated children do not seem to take this route. Granted, not every child wishes to pursue an academic course, but with an estimated eighty thousand home educated children in the country, I would have expected quite a few to be using these methods to get to university. I am aware that some people collate information of this sort. Does anybody have any idea how many home educated children are known to have acquired places at Russell Group universities? It would be good if information about the best way to get into some of our more academic universities could be more widely available for home educated children.


  1. I can't answer those questions. However, I do know a home educating mum who is also an admissions officer at Oxford University and she says that it's a proven ability to 'think' which will be the tiebreaker in such cases.

  2. I haven't found any figures limited to Russell Group universities or home educated children, but there are figures for entry qualifications to universities as a whole. The most recent I've found so far are that 77% of UK domicile students in 2003/4 entered UK universities with A levels, SCE highers & equivalent. So less than 77% gained entry with A levels and SCE highers, the rest gained entry via A level equivalent qualifications (BTEC nationals and similar would be included in the 77%), access courses, higher education credits, graduate qualifications (only 1.8%), just GCSEs, other or no qualifications. These figures are for full time students and are taken from the Higher Education Statistics Agency web site.

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