When you apply for uni, you send personal statements to the ones that match your predicated grades. But is this right? We examine the current system.
Why Are We Asking?
The university application process, where your predicted grades can mean the difference between a conditional offer or an offering for the admission team’s bin, has recently been called into question by the University and College Union (UCU).
So why the lack of confidence in the process?
Dr Gill Wyness of the University College London Institute of Education and UCU did some research and found only 16% of student’s grades are currently predicted correctly. That means a whopping five out of every six students are getting incorrectly predicted grades.
It turns out of the 1.3m student’s best three A Levels results they analysed between 2013 and 2015, the majority of them (75%) were over-predicted, and 9% were under-predicted. Most of the over predictions came from state schools, while most of the under-predicted grades were students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
And the UCU aren’t the only ones who are questioning grades. During their own research into forecast grades, exam group
Cambridge Assessment found teachers were getting one in two forecast grades wrong. Their researchers believe the removal of most January exams has caused this, as teachers often used these to help their predictions.
Nathaniel McCullagh, Founder and MD of
Simply Learning Tuition a leading independent education company, said,
"The traditional indicators of A-Level success were 1) choosing the correct subjects based on the student’s GCSE grades and ii) the results that they achieved at GCSE. Neither of these were particularly good and there are many other factors that come into play (socio-economic, subject choice - sciences and maths tend to be easier to predict higher than achieved grades).
"In my opinion, giving students a single exam at the end of two years learning makes it more likely that these two factors will conspire to mean predicted grades are too high. Because there is no interim external testing (the old AS), students have less opportunity to determine if they can perform well in their choice of A-Level. Additionally, each student learns in a different way and those who work diligently and consistently and perform well in coursework may not perform as well in a single exam and so would receive a lower grade than they otherwise would."
What's The Alternative?
So, if the process was given a makeover, how would it work?
UCU have already got an idea. They believe students should only apply for a university place once they’ve got their final results, meaning that August would be application time, rather than between September and January. The union not only thinks this would take away the uncertainty for both universities and students and make the whole process more transparent, but it would also reduce the number of unconditional offers.
And it’s not just the UCU that feels the system should operate like this. In fact, in a survey they conducted last year, 70% of staff wanted the university application system to work in this way.
Marcella Collins, Managing Director at
“I believe more needs to be done to ensure the predicted grades students are given are as accurate as they can be. This will give students the best chance of finding and getting into their perfect university, allowing them to enjoy the research process and avoid unnecessary anxiety in the run up to getting their results.
“On the flip side of this if there was more transparency from universities on what their actual acceptance grades are this would give all students from all background the real information they need to make an informed decision from the very beginning.”
Arguments for Changing the Process
So, why do organisations like UCU want the predicted grades part of the university application process to change?
In her report, Dr Wyness’s says:
"The vast majority of applicants actually receive predictions that are too optimistic for the grades they actually go on to achieve, with 75% of applicants achieving lower grades than predicted. It seems highly inefficient to continue with a system in which life-changing decisions are made, and scarce university places are allocated, on the basis of inaccurate information."
There’s also the argument that students might not be applying for particular universities in the first place, simply because their predicted grades don’t match exactly with that institutions expectations. Or that universities might be put off offering a place to a student with lower predicted grades even if that student ends up trying their luck.
Some universities told us they agree that predicted grades aren’t a fair way of judging students, and although they have systems in place to make sure everyone has a fair shot, they feel an overhaul of the process wouldn’t be a bad thing.
University of Bedfordshire Vice Chancellor and former HE Minister told us,
“We would have a much fairer system that works for all students if university applications were made after students know their exam results.
"We are already seeing a growing trend for students to apply for the first time during Clearing pushing the system towards post-qualifications applications. While I agree there are practical challenges to changing the system these are not insurmountable, and a post qualification system would remove unpredictability from the system, be far simpler for the student and would take much of the current stress out of choosing a university.”
Arguments Against Changing the Process
So, what about the argument for keeping the process the way it is?
Although there’s no denying that predicted grades aren’t always correct (after all, they aren’t called, “confirmed grades”), there are processes in place if you over or under perform on what you expected, including clearing and UCAS Extra.
Commenting on the report,
UCAS CEO, Mary Curnock Cook, said:
"We reviewed the admissions process comprehensively in 2012, (The UCAS Admissions Process Review) and found the general view from the secondary and higher education sector to be that whilst a post-results application system is logical, it would work against those from less advantaged backgrounds. It wouldn’t leave enough time for universities to properly assess and meet the needs of the full range of students, nor for students (particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds) to conduct all their research into accommodation and finance before making informed choices."
Several universities told us they treat predicted grades with caution anyway, and it’s a combination of factors that ultimately decide whether they offer a student a place, rather than just their predicated grades.
Paul Tebbut, Deputy Head of Student Admissions at the
University of Northampton told Whatuni,
"We factor in more than just predicted grades when making offers to students; for example, portfolios of work, interviews or practical assessments.
“The predicted grade system, coupled with individual institutions’ entry criteria and assessment methods, can often boost student’s aspirations for the institution they choose to apply to as there is a smaller risk attached to aiming high and more time to consider choices."
Mr Tebbut’s point was backed up by Prof Geoff Smith, the Senior Deputy Vice Chancellor of
Falmouth University, who told us:
"We recognise the challenge that has been highlighted and indeed, it is an issue that universities have been facing for many years. At Falmouth, though, we try to establish as round an understanding as possible of applicants’ talent and potential by using as wide a range of factors as possible, beyond simply their predicted grades, before making any offers…Predicted grades are but a part of this broader judgment and their imprecision is therefore less problematic.
"Our approach also means that applicants get the chance to interview us, to ask questions and understand what will be expected of them at Falmouth; we believe this can help them make the right decision about where to study, prepare for life at university and ultimately, successfully complete their chosen course."
What Do Students and Teachers Think?
We asked graduates and teachers about their experiences with predicted grades, and what they thought of the current system…
Safeera Sarjoo, studied Journalism at Kingston University
"I do think universities should wait until students get their final results before judging them. I was predicted a Merit in my BTEC media course which would equate to a double B I believe. But I made it a point to go back and re-write essays and achieved a Distinction (AA) – I would of course want my university to take note of this final grade instead of have a preconceived idea of what I would achieve."
Stephanie Butler, studied English Literature at Swansea University
“I feel quite passionately about this. I was predicted AAAB and needed either A*AB or AAA for my first-choice university. I felt so much pressure keeping up the fourth A level – which I believe prevented me from achieving the higher grades for my other A levels - and when results day came I got BBBC and was so, so disappointed. I felt like this was a huge failure, when in reality, four A levels with those grades is a great achievement!
Maybe there should be one average grade for all subjects studied. People can have false senses of security – I got two A’s on my mock Philosophy exam and then (as my teacher put it: “I must have taught you wrong!”) an E in one of my real exams, hence the C of the fourth A level that I should’ve dropped.”
Jade O Donoghue, studied English with Creative Writing at Brunel University
“I did get my predicted grades (in fact, in one subject I exceeded that) and I do think it’s a fair way of judging students before they actually get their results. I also think it’s the only way since results come out just before students go to uni.
However, I wish there was a way there could be a bigger gap between results and starting uni. Because I knew the actual grades I achieved when I applied for uni (I took a gap year), I was able to apply for a scholarship that meant I didn’t pay for tuition fees. I’m not sure how this would be possible for people who don’t take gap years but I kind of wish it was.”
Chris Mooney, History Teacher
"The issue is not the grades that they offer necessarily. But that it’s based on predicated grades that are done halfway through their academic subjects.
“As a teacher of sixth form you are left with a conundrum. If you go based on their mocks you are taking what they are currently at but students can develop so much in Year 13. Meaning they miss out on universities because you don't predict it right.
“On the other hand, if you do over predict to compensate this (which we avoid doing) and don’t get the grades they don't get in to the uni…You have to justify why you gave them a grade that they didn’t get in their predicted grades. It’s a minefield.
“What doesn’t help is that we aspire students to aim high. However, many of them try to go for the higher universities without the potential or ability, then get frustrated when we don’t predict them the grade they like. There is an issue in the KS5 sector with that logic. However, it’s not helped by more and more universities now asking for A*/A's compared to years before. This makes it harder to weight the best course for the student.
“I don't know what the answer is.
1. The more that universities offer higher grades the more students will apply for universities beyond them. This will have an effect that the system does not cater for.
2. Taking predicted grades are just that: predictions. Schools are more likely to err on the side of caution when predicting because they have to explain why they gave the grade. A B candidate is very unlikely to be predicted an A, but are more likely to be predicted a C instead of a B. This means many miss out who "could" pull it out of the bag in the exam.
There is no room for "I have predicted her a C now but she could in theory get a B just I have no current data on summative tests that say so."
Susie King, Head of Admissions at Middlesex University London
"Reviewing and considering predicted grades provided as part of applications to universities form an important part of decision making when considering applicants for an offer. Universities are looking for students who are going to have the potential to succeed on the course that they have applied for and predicted grades help in this assessment.
School teachers and tutors are uniquely placed to understand the way that applicants have responded to the demands of A level study and their progression since GCSE study. With the transition to reformed A levels and the removal of the AS results at the end of Year 12 which had previously offered an indication the performance of applicants at a higher level of study the predicted grade becomes even more important.
Applicants need to check that their school or college is providing this information on their application and need to challenge where they feel that the grade does not reflect the potential they have to succeed. This could be the difference between getting an offer or an interview for the applicants first choice institution."
Will Anything Change?
Changing the application process would be a very difficult task, so even if there's lots of support for it be overhauled, removing such a complex system that's been around for years would be incredibly tricky.
Rest assured, if anything does change, you'll find everything you need to know right here!