Dec 18th 2008
From The Economist print edition
Strategic thinking for the aspiring student
FOR the 300,000 or so British youngsters putting the finishing touches to university-application forms over the Christmas holidays, it is decision time. Which institutions to choose? Which of the myriad alluringly (and sometimes improbably) titled degree courses? Weighty decisions, no doubt, but evidence is mounting that the more crucial choices were made two years earlier, when students picked which three or four subjects they would continue to study until leaving school.
According to research published earlier this month, many may have chosen the wrong ones, and damaged their chances of getting into a highly regarded university. Policy Exchange, a centre-right think-tank, looked at the A-levels offered by successful applicants to a group of 27 very selective universities—some ancient, some modern—and concluded that, despite the fact that all subjects are notionally equal, in reality admissions tutors think more of some than of others.
A tenth of all A-levels are in art and design, or drama, film and media studies—but only a twentieth of those taken by students who gained places at top universities. They were also less likely than the average A-level candidate to have studied psychology or sociology, and more likely to have studied maths or a science. The think-tank concluded that although only two universities, Cambridge and the London School of Economics (LSE), openly list the A-levels they are less keen on, others have similar, unstated, biases. They should come clean, it said, in order to avoid penalising students whose schools (or parents) are not wise to the unwritten distinction between “hard” and “soft” A-levels.
Admissions tutors told the researchers that they were dubious about certain subjects not because they were too easy but because they were a poor preparation for their institution’s courses. Research-intensive universities offer more science and language degrees, and fewer in media studies and the like. So one possibility is that the distinctive profile of the students admitted to elite universities is simply a matter of students picking the right universities for the subjects they are interested in.
Running counter to this reassuring interpretation is a recent analysis of A-level results by researchers at Durham University. They compared the relative difficulty of every subject, and found that no matter which method they used, some subjects really did turn out to be harder than others—so much so that a candidate could expect a result two grades higher in the easiest subject than in the hardest (see chart). The widespread perception that sciences are particularly difficult turned out to be correct—and the order in which subjects were ranked matched closely the perceived preferences of selective universities. Applicants with a clutch of A grades in sociology and similar subjects may be bright; those with As in physics and French are pretty sure to be. That means an admissions tutor can be more confident that the latter are able students, says Robert Coe, the lead author of the study.
All this leaves tutors in a quandary. Coming clean about which A-levels they think best prove students’ abilities risks provoking politicians: “We simply do not recognise the label ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ A-levels,” says Jim Knight, the schools minister; and the frankness of Cambridge and the LSE over the subjects they look down on made them no friends in high places. But secrecy is not fair, as students are misled into choosing supposedly nonexistent soft subjects—and are then at a loss to understand why they missed out on coveted university places, despite their high grades.