Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Sarah Slater

GET UPDATES FROM Sarah Slater
 

Applying to Oxbridge Post-Results

Posted: 01/11/2011 12:47

The idea to reform the university applications process has been floating around for several years, although the latest proposal is the most convincing one that I've seen. And generally, shifting application deadlines to post-results day might be a very good idea. Imagine: no UCAS form stress preventing you from doing your homework, no disparities between different schools' predicted grades hindering your chances, no uncertainty as to whether or not you'll meet your offer, no disappointment over dropping grades, no terrifying crush to try to get a place through clearing - there are advantages for everyone. For a simple and straight forward applications process, requiring just the submission of the UCAS form and personal statement, the proposed system seems to make infinite sense.

However, there is one rather major spanner in the higher education works: Oxford, Cambridge and Medical Schools. Because, sadly, the application process for these highly competitive courses has evolved to be anything but simple. Deciding whom to offer a place to involves a terrifying combination of UCAS forms, personal statements, one of ten different admissions tests, interviews and submitted work - and any institution required to go through this - as well as organise the finances, accommodation and everything else required for a new intake of students - in just three months (and three holiday months at that), is no doubt already fearing for their future.

Back in the day, applicants stayed at school for an extra term preparing for the entrance exams in December - only to go up the following October. Now applicants to Oxford, Cambridge and Medicine submit their UCAS form by the earlier date of 15th October. The majority of admissions tests are sat at the beginning of November and written work required by mid-November - both of which determine whether or not applicants are invited to interview in December. The interview period lasts two to three weeks and offers come out at the end of December - or for Cambridge at the end of January, if a second set of interviews need to take place.

All this makes the whole application process a mammoth task for everyone involved. Interviews also cost huge amounts of time and money - a management consultant might do away with them immediately - but the system has developed like this out of necessity: Oxford and Cambridge's intensive tutorial and supervision system requires applicants to get on well with their tutors and enjoy learning in an intimate oral environment. It's part of what makes studying there so enriching. Without an interview, it would be very difficult to tell whether students will benefit from this style of learning and whether the tutor will enjoy teaching them.

Admissions tests are also now necessary as they go some way to reducing the numbers being interviewed - 17,000 interviews between two institutions in two weeks would, in all likelihood, almost bankrupt the UK's oldest universities.

The system could be simplified. There is no reason why the test and submitted work could not be done immediately after the UCAS form is submitted, for the marking to be automated and for the invitations to interview to come out sooner, all of which would speed up the process for applicants. In short, every stage could be fitted in, but to say it would be a bit of a squish would be a gross understatement.

The problem is, for Oxbridge and Medicine in particular, this system wouldn't solve the problems it aims to. One complaint against the current system is that it is students from poor performing schools who tend to most frequently exceed their predicted grades - meaning that they end up with grades that could have won them a spot at a top university, had they applied.

One of the tutors now working with us at Oxbridge Applications decided to take a gap year on the advice of his teachers after getting straight As at A level and ended up studying law at Oxford, but this is a rare case. Because of the many stages of the Oxbridge applications process, students start working for their application early - and some schools start preparing their students a year in advance.

Those making a hasty decision to apply to Oxbridge based on an unexpectedly good set of grades would be at a disadvantage to their peers, who had set their sights on Oxbridge months previously and social disparities would continue. The idea that the system could replace the administrative complications of insurance and conditional offers is also difficult to believe - Oxbridge offers would come out latest due to the added stages in the process, and many universities would likely find themselves in the difficult position of trying to fill last minute spaces before term begins - whilst students who weren't offered a place first time round take up anything they can in the final days (sound familiar anyone?)

The answer could be to overhaul the system, jump in at the deep end with two semesters each year and begin in January after results come out. That could be a good compromise for everyone. However, no matter what system or deadlines we use - the unique combination of personal emotions, peoples' futures and parent and teacher involvement at this time - means that it will always be a demanding, anxious and frantic time...and any system will have its imperfections.

 

Follow Sarah Slater on Twitter: www.twitter.com/applytooxbridge

FOLLOW UK STUDENTS