You may have heard that Michael Gove has just announced plans to scrap GCSEs in favour of a two-tier system of academic and more practical qualifications at age 16. Gove has also suggested that he would move away from the current system, where exams are set by private companies and schools can choose which exam board they wish to use – a practice that has been blamed for falling exam standards – to a system where the universities set their own exams: In short, a return to the education of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Leaving to one side the general displeasure from teachers at yet another upheaval to the system, and the warnings from education commentators that this two-tier system will increase social immobility at exactly the time that the government is trying to fight it, what effect will this have on your application to university?
A clutch of A*s
Oxford, Cambridge and other UK universities tend to use GCSEs in their admissions processes, because they are usually the only complete qualifications that you have to submit. Top applicants can generally be expected to have more A*s than As at GCSE and many worry that fewer than five will seriously harm their chances of success. Indeed our survey of Oxbridge Applicants revealed that a third had 10 or more A*s at GCSE – when the average number of GCSEs sat per applicant is between 8 and 9. Getting straight A*s does seem to suggest that the top grades at GCSE don’t recognise students who are exceptional in certain subjects: there just can’t be that many people who are exceptional at Physics, English Literature, French and Design Technology – subjects which test such different skills. What we might find if the new system of highly academic O-level style exams come into practice is that students’ GCSE grades demonstrate show their strength in a particular area: and it becomes not unusual for very bright applicants to have A*s in just a couple of subjects.
Universities calling the shots
The prospect of universities setting GCSE exams seems like a sensible idea – that way students will actually learn what they are going to be required to use when they are at university. Our Oxbridge-graduate tutors tell us that the academics who taught them were constantly bemoaning the fact that students hadn’t been taught enough when they arrived at university. The first year of the Chemistry course at Oxford has become increasingly focused on mathematics – as A-levels simply don’t cover the ground that is required when students arrive to study Chemistry. But do the universities really know what is best for everyone? They probably know what is best for the students applying to their university and for their course, but university courses now have such different focuses (just ask an applicant!) that it can sometimes be difficult to find five courses that fit your requirements, let alone that require the same skills across the board.
What should applicants do?
First of all, don’t worry! GCSEs are still the hard currency for university applications (because they are the last complete set of exams that you took). If you have a set of outstanding GCSEs, this will be recognised by the universities that you are applying to. What is becoming increasingly important is for students to demonstrate their skills and interest in a particular subject. It’s more important than ever that you explore your subject beyond the syllabus: find out the areas that most interest you, compare contrasting opinions to help you establish where you stand on a certain point, keep up-to-date with the important news and developments and work out which experts you like, and which ones you don’t! It’s also essential that you excel in your Admissions Test – if you have one, as these are now used as the differentiating factor between so many strong candidates. Ensure that you know what the Admissions Tutors are looking for, that you’ve practised the skills being tested and that you have worked on the areas that you find most difficult – that way you’ll stand out at this crucial stage in the applications process! You can use our free online resources for suggestions as to how you can explore your subject further. We also run Admissions Test Seminars in October and November to help you excel.