I recently heard someone say that they are looking forward to the moment when things become precedented again after Covid 19. I think we can all agree that a little normality would go a long way towards calming the storm whipped up in the wake of all the changes we have seen. Schools and universities have been hit hard by the UK’s attempts to navigate the best course through the pandemic. However, there are some common, perhaps subconscious assumptions about teaching and learning that Covid 19 has given us cause to question. In the long term, I think that the true value of private tutors will be better understood as a result.
We often associate learning with a specific place and time. For many, school is a limiting factor on their education, a place that bounds and confines the potential for new opportunities and challenges. Now, parents may rightly be questioning whether there are other options for their children. Whether out of concerns for safety, the demands of practicality or the preferences of individuals, people are seeking out alternative times and places for their children to learn. One of the more obvious options available is hiring a tutor.
The greater flexibility and more personalised learning experiences that having a tutor makes possible has always been useful, but never more so than now. Perhaps more families will take the opportunity to hire a live-in tutor now that we are advised to keep social contact to a minimum. I expect that many will come looking for tutors because of the pandemic, but that they will continue to use them long after the present crisis is averted. Tutors are a little like academic umbrellas. Most people go about their lives without bothering to use them. Most of the time, the rain is only a little annoying, sometimes the weather is even sunny. In most cases, parents only look for tutors around exam time or in other important moments in a student’s development, but, much like umbrellas, once you get used to having one around, it is difficult to imagine how you ever got by without one.
If I tried to list all the advantages of using a tutor, we would most likely have a new head of Ofqual by the time I finished. Tutors provide a learning environment free from the pressures and expectations of peers. In a classroom, it might seem more important to crack a joke than note down that physics formula. In a Zoom class, there is often no need for any engagement at all. With a tutor, your questions are not lost in the maelstrom of considerations even the best of teachers cannot overcome all the time. Even the most dedicated teacher will struggle to give each individual student the degree of attention that a tutor can. And now, the value of having the chance to learn in the comfort and safety of their own homes has probably never looked more appealing to students.
So many things have become available to us in our homes lately. It seems as if you can find a take-away option for almost anything at the moment. The tutors from Bonas MacFarlane are no exception. Unlike a standard take-away, Bonas MacFarlane does not make a mess of your kitchen or give you a stomach ache the next morning. In fact, the report system used by our tutors helps to ensure that you are kept in the loop and able to tailor the experience to best suit your children. There is no need to put all of your academic eggs in the uncertain basket of the UK’s school and university system. Get a take-away tutor. They deliver results.
by Jamie Bogyo, US College Consultant | Bonas MacFarlane.
It’s been a rough couple of months for US Universities. Students have had to pack up and leave campus, schools are still scrambling to determine how they should balance remote vs. in-person learning, and Ivy League universities are either suing the US Government over immigration laws or being sued by the US Government for discriminating against white people in their application process. The situation is – to borrow from the verbose tweets of America’s current leader – “Sad!”
In this fraught time for US universities, I’ve found myself reflecting on my own collegiate experience, and the value of US higher education at large. I entered Yale fully expecting to major in Mathematics. Math was by far my strongest subject in high school, so when I walked through Yale’s gothic gates I imagined the wonderful world of Differential Equations, Combinatorics and Analysis would await.
What I didn’t expect was to bounce between majors throughout my undergraduate career – careering between my interests in medieval history, theatre, astronomy, classical civilization, creative writing, and music – before finally settling on theatre studies with a playwriting concentration as my official major. Four years since receiving my undergraduate diploma, I’ve graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, where I trained as an actor for three years, and am a playwright with a top literary agent. My life now has no resemblance whatsoever to the one I envisaged when I first arrived on Yale’s campus, cracked open the now digitised “Blue Book” containing more than two thousand undergraduate courses, and decided I’d done so much math in high school that maybe I’d give it a rest for the first semester, just to see if there was anything else I liked.
This, in a nutshell, was what my college experience was all about: the freedom to explore and the opportunity to discover new passions. Also a whole lot of singing, but my musings on undergraduate a capella groups might have to wait for another time. Nowadays, as the chair of Bonas MacFarlane’s US Admissions Team, I help students gain acceptance to universities where I hope they too will uncover new interests from the smorgasbord of academic opportunities offered to them. Whether it’s in sociology, psychology, biology, Egyptology or something that doesn’t end in –ology, there is a whole world of courses and disciplines available at American universities, and I encourage every student I work with to make the absolute most of them during their education.
Because that, in a sense, is their education – not just what they learn at university, but the experience of choosing what it is that interests them and pursuing their own interests, as opposed to following a pre-ordained path decided when they were seventeen. There are several hugely important differences between US and UK Universities (four years vs. three years, cost, Freshers week vs Frat life etc…) but the most fundamental pedagogical difference is the flexibility of the US system.
Students at US Universities don’t have to declare a major until the end of their second year – and even then they still have the option to switch majors, as I continued to do until the fall of my senior year. Ultimately, a student’s chosen major – whether “declared” in freshman or senior year – will still only account for roughly one third of the classes they will take at university – which leaves a whole lot of room for exploration and discovery.
If this sounds like a model that would work for you, you’re in luck. US universities have never been more interested in international students than they are right now. Top schools across America are fearful of the impact Covid-19 will have on their draw to international students and are going to great lengths to expand their international recruitment. Schools are also becoming increasingly flexible with their standardized test requirements. Some are even dropping the tests altogether, removing one obstacle that’s traditionally been a major deterrent to international students who aren’t as familiar with standardized testing as their American counterparts. Additionally, rising fees in the UK and falling fees in the US, not to mention the existence of several “need blind” US universities, means that the price- gap between the two countries is lower than ever.
My academic journey at Yale was one I could never have foreseen when I was accepted. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way. For international students who aren’t sure what interests them most, or are open to studying multiple disciplines in parallel, I always recommend they look at applying to US universities. These universities, in turn, look for an intellectual curiosity and proactiveness from applicants, as these are the students who will make the most of a university’s resources!
I’m incredibly grateful for what Yale afforded me, and I would never have had the freedom to embark on the path I ultimately chose in any other higher education system. I encourage every international student looking at universities to look past the headlines and explore what the US really has to offer. As I learned from my own time in college, you never know what you might find.
Now that shopping centres are opening again, surely minds will be turning to universities and schools as well. When students do return to schools and universities, I imagine the temptation will be to minimise activity in clubs and societies. Whilst I wholeheartedly support taking measures to ensure the safety of students and faculty, my thoughts are drawn back to a mistake I made at university. At school, I engaged in several extra-curricular activities and clubs, which likely played a large part in my attaining a place in my first-choice university. Once I was at Oxford, all thoughts of societies and clubs went out the window. I would like to explain to you why I made that mistake, why it matters in the first place, and how you can help your children to avoid making it.
The problem with university is that, unlike school, almost all of your time is your own. At A-level, study periods provide a break in the lessons of the day. At university, lectures are the break in your routine, and that is if you even have any that day. There is a good reason for this. Universities develop independent work and time management. However, beyond the bare minimum requirement that you do the work set for you, there is not much of a system to help students analyse and optimise their use of time. I spent half of my time working and the other half doing just about anything else but work. Knowing this, you might think I would have had time for societies and sports. Due to the pressure of university work, however, I never joined a single one. I had a near constant feeling that I did not have enough time to do my work, so I never made the time commitment to these societies. I was wrong, of course. I did have time. I ended up writing comedy, exercising regularly and socialising with my friends in the evenings, but I did it all in my own time.
You might not see the problem yet. After all, I did most of the stuff I wanted to do. What does it matter if I was not officially part of a club? It is an issue of networking and the sort of thing that you can put on a CV to impress employers. For instance, I wrote comedy, but I did not have the opportunity to befriend anyone in The Oxford Revue, the proving ground of Rowan Atkinson, Monty Python and more. Some people treat The Oxford Revue with disdain, as if its glory days are long gone. That may or may not be true, but I might have missed the opportunity to get in the boat with the future’s next classic comedians because I did not want to pin myself down. There is also the issue of how it looks on paper. Saying that I wrote some comedy in my free time is not nearly as impressive on a CV as saying that I was a member of The Oxford Revue where I wrote and performed comedy for three years. Students can easily find out what societies are on offer: they simply need to attend the societies fair during freshers week. There they will be able to meet and sign up for any society or club that remotely interests them.
I hope your children will not labour under the same delusion as I did about what I would or would not have time for. However, if you want to take precautionary measures, it is very simple. Rather than making the odd comment encouraging participation in societies and sports, you could drive the point home that there is always more time than one might think, even whilst staring down the barrel of an essay due in a week. When I started writing, running and learning the guitar, the only things I had less time for were procrastinating and worrying about work. I am now at a slight disadvantage to those who did those exact things as part of a society for the reasons I have already explained. If I could have my time at university again, I would sign up to every club on offer. I hope that this article can help students make university worth their while. After all, it is quite expensive.
Imagine this… you slaved your way through the relentless pressure of GCSE’s and A Levels, spent hours freezing on a hockey pitch, shocked everyone by reaching Grade 8 with some pretty questionable violin technique and survived an unnervingly odd cookery residential which you were told was essential to your Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award… Later, you nailed the subtle nuances of a UCAS statement that was both personal and profound, flattering yet humble. You’ve done it, you’re leaving home, flying the nest, off to a limitless future that is yours for the taking… except you’re not… you’re in a Zoom waiting room with the rest of the Class of 2023’s untimely incoming Freshers…
Sadly it doesn’t take much imagination as this is the reality facing this year’s university applicants hoodwinked out of a ridiculous first term of parties, new friends and wide-eyed fun. Without these hard won rites of passage and with the prospect of glitchy lecturing, awkwardly constricted to the parameters of our screens… is there much point still ‘attending’ university? If this unexpected (I refuse to say unprecedented) predicament now applies to your child then (and apologies for trotting out another of the government’s most overused pandemic phrases) you are not alone.
Will the next academic year at university be the same? 100% no. It cannot be. Should they still go? Categorically yes.
Allow me to explain why. First off, let me manage your expectations. I do not claim to possess any prophetic skill and although we share a surname, Sir Patrick Vallance is not my Dad, hence I am privy to no insider information. Yet it is my suspicion that a recovery will come sooner than expected. Last month Cambridge spearheaded the move to online tuition and other Universities are predictably following suit. I don’t believe this will be a permanent move. Although there are some clear advantages. My own Land Law lectures would have been substantially more palatable had they not mercilessly began at 9am following another raucous night out. The ability to pause and rewind would have also been incredibly useful when a professor muttered another intricately complex legal theorem. So perhaps for a short period only, lectures will suit the students timetable and learning style at the sacrifice of the small amounts of socialising we crammed in en route to our seats (I soon found that chatting during lectures themselves was the quickest way to be hated by both the lecturers and my more conscientious peers).
My general impression of the human spirit suggests that anytime we feel something has been taken from us we overcompensate to make up for it. Did you see the queues outside Primark when it reopened? Why anyone would queue for a £1 thong in a global crisis is beyond me, but hey, whatever gets you through. In a less déclassé example, the Roaring Twenties directly followed the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 so we may well find this pent up need to party like it’s ‘99, results in the time of their life when they finally are released into the wild night.
Compounding this hope is the fact that universities themselves are fiercely competitive, it is not in their economic or reputational interest for students to have a bad time. They will be keenly aware of the limitations of remote classes and I expect them to work hard to make up for these shortcomings. Perhaps tutorials will continue in person, welfare provisions will be enhanced, socialising in small groups will be enabled and encouraged.
Furthermore university towns rely on students to frequent their bars, restaurants, clubs and shops so for the sake of our battered economy and the thousands of associated jobs, they will want the students back in person, posthaste, stealing traffic cones and singing songs about tea drinking penguins as they meander home at 3am.
I’d like to caveat my argument thus far with the exemption of one demographic who I think would self-identify quicker than they would self-isolate. If your child is not academically inclined, if every essay has felt insurmountable and you doubted whether they would emerge from an exam hall alive, then this Corona-induced situation is the strongest get-out clause imaginable. With remote learning, excruciating tuition costs and an especially volatile graduate jobs market converging to form an unholy trinity, never has the pursuit of a vocation seemed as strong a prospect. One of my least academically successful friends is killing it as a personal trainer… and although I doubt she would regret one second of her three years spent drunk at Bournemouth, her degree has not aided her lucrative career enough to justify the time, (mild) effort or expense.
If you were questioning your child’s fit for a traditional university long before Wuhan’s wet markets hit the news, then this is the perfect time to reassess. Talk to them. When do their eyes light up? I can guarantee there is a course or apprenticeship to match whatever sparks a fire, no matter how esoteric or useless it may seem. Did they bore you with the minutely detailed analysis of their new Topshop skirt? London College of Fashion. Are they so obsessed with Call of Duty that they haven’t left their room in weeks? The Marines. (Or perhaps Games Design at Staffordshire University dependent on athletic ability). Have they neglected their coursework because they are in an electro-pop band? Brighton Institute of Music. Do they like money but are hopeless at time management? We need more electricians and plumbers. Be the coolest parents ever: allow them the liberation of choice, it will serve them better than having to dogmatically adhere to the accepted narrative of the conventional epistemic path.
I must now attempt to be ‘woke’ enough to check my own privilege: I do not underestimate the substantial financial commitment of a degree, exacerbated by the lack of Covid fee reduction, when the finances of so many are under strain. If you can afford it however, I think the cost: benefit ratio still pays dividends. Whilst the UK may suck at virus control, it excels at further education. Our institutions are some of the oldest and greatest in the world and I would urge anyone considering studying here from abroad to not be put off by the political blunderings that have caused international embarrassment. Much research is done into the value of a degree. Some is easily quantifiable: job opportunities, increased salary potential etc. Others are less tangible but arguably more important: friendships, living away from home, the expansion of one’s horizons. To be surrounded by bright, creative young minds is endlessly inspiring whether you are deconstructing psychotherapy in a seminar or drinking in a pub (still discussing Freud, possibly).
Both the opportunities offered during your degree and those resulting are amplified. On graduation I was flukey enough to be offered a job at Channel 4, a place on the BBC’s grad scheme and a place at drama school. In the final interview stage of all three, the panel were only ever superficially interested in my Law degree. What they all wanted to talk about instead was the play I had written, produced, directed and starred in, in my final semester when I should have been balls deep in the Law library. Children of the Underworld was a study of mass hysteria, a collection of dark tales and scenes that I staged in promenade at night in a brutally cold February. It was the first time a play had taken place outside the theatre but I just saw too much atmospheric magic in having my actors set their stories amongst the misty lake, woods and eerily magnificent buildings standing proud against a real life backdrop of stars.
Running around a frozen campus donning a long coat yelling ‘follow us, but take care, the ground is treacherous underfoot’ to the shivering audience my audacity had just endangered, like some Dickensian Russell Brand, directly translated into running around a muddy field with the BBC at Glastonbury yelling stage times at Ed Sheeran. I could not be more grateful for either of these experiences and the many, many more.
It is true that the greatest creativity is born from pain, that humanity progresses because it has to solve problems and the solutions generated don’t just push us beyond the problem, but on further. We are adaptable because we have to be, university life must continue because life has to continue. It may be a lighter experience for 6 months or so, but your time at university enriches your full life, not just the 10 week terms it occupies. It is greater than the sum of its parts. It endures: the knowledge, those places, the people, they echo down the corridors of your life, long after the books are shut, the caps flung and that joyous orange traffic cone has been returned to its rightful place on the newly quietened, the temporarily quietened street.
Bonas MacFarlane’s Director of University Admissions, James Higgins, offers advice to GCSE and A Level students who are looking ahead to the next stage of their education.
Choosing your degree
Choosing the right course for university can be a particularly stressful challenge for students. It is often the first time they are given control over what feels like a life-defining decision with an infinite number of choices – 37000+ to get somewhere close to the number of UK courses available. Lockdown offers a singular benefit: students now find themselves with a great deal of spare time. This time can be well spent if students make an effort to carefully consider all the possible options.
What lies at the heart of choosing the right course is finding an area of study that the student has a real interest in. As I put it, I want to find something that causes a reaction in them. Students often feel pressure to pick something related to a future career but this is only the correct way to pick a degree for a small number of professional fields. Let’s address this method first…
Future career… if that career is Medicine, Dentistry, Veterinary Science, Engineering (and possibly Architecture).
There will be a few other instances where it is necessary to base your decision on career but the main ones are covered here. The reality is that most graduate jobs do not specify a particular degree that is required to apply to their organisations. Students need to look at The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers so that they can begin to understand this.
Students may have a clear favourite subject that they are already studying or have studied. What I would urge them to do is to think a little more specifically about exactly what they do and don’t enjoy in each subject area. They may want to be a little more granular in their subject choice – so rather than studying English, a student might specialise in Literature, or Creative Writing, or Linguistics or Journalism…
This refers to my earlier point. We want to encourage students to notice what causes a reaction in them. This will get them to think outside the box to reveal subjects that they might not have considered for university before.
Can they think of famous people that they admire and what that might inspire them to study? Likewise, public figures that they dislike might also give rise to a course choice. I often use the example that thinking of Donald Trump might push me to consider a degree in Politics, Climate Change, Human Rights… what we want is a feeling to be caused in the student and for them to link that to a potential study area.
This is about getting students to reflect on how they spend their time when they’re not doing obligatory tasks. When they are not completing schoolwork, communicating with friends or doing chores, what are they up to? What kinds of documentaries do they watch, what sort of books do they read, what are they drawn to watch on Youtube, what do they do outside the house?
Read, read, read, and read some more
It is no coincidence that the lexicon permits us to say “I’m going to Oxford to read Classics”, or to read Mathematics or to read Medicine. There is a lot of reading to be done at university no matter the discipline. If a student cannot engage in reading around their subject in the few months running up to application, they might need to reconsider studying the subject for three or four years during their degree. Students should read around the subject to check for genuine interest – the added benefit is that this is the single best way to become a strong applicant for the very best courses.
A final note…
It is not easy for a student to pick their course and universities. Ultimately, they will begin to understand that they are not bound by this decision forevermore. Their life is unlikely to be linear and this should be embraced. There are many routes that they can take on this journey that may or may not lead to what they think is the destination. Students need to read and reflect on what holds their interest.
How to approach the UCAS personal statement
The personal statement is the key part of the UK university application process. I’m not suggesting that grades aren’t important – grades allow the student to be part of the conversation. But it is the personal statement that will allow them to stand out from the crowd.
It is perhaps the crucial nature of the personal statement that strikes most fear into a high number of applicants. However, if students have dedicated themselves to the process of reflecting on their interests and passions, they will find the drafting of their statement much easier.
The Four Ideas to include in the Personal Statement
I write the four ideas rather than paragraphs because I don’t want to be too prescriptive with the way in which the student expresses themselves – after all it is a personal statement. But students must understand how it is personal. It is not in the sense that the university wants to hear all about their personality but rather about the student’s personal relationship with the subject to which they are applying.
1) Where does the interest come from? What was the spark?
This is usually the idea that students find most difficult to define. The advice here is that students do not have to attempt to make this more profound than it is. It could be that they’ve determined their degree choice through reading during the past 6 months – so they should describe that process. It might simply be that it’s the subject that’s captivated them most since their GCSEs. It might have been a cool science experiment in Year 8, reading an article about Steve Jobs or seeing Dippy the Dinosaur at the Natural History museum. We need to understand what prompted the student to want to explore it further.
2) How have they demonstrated that interest?
Primarily this will be demonstrated through the student’s reading. We will want them to refer to specific texts and ideas and then to engage with those ideas critically. What do they have to say about an idea expounded by an author? What theories have they read that counter the idea? Finally, where do they come down on the issue?
3) Name a specific area of interest
Students should point to something specific (either taught in one of their current courses or discovered whilst reading) that they would like to learn more about. They can use this to grab the attention of a particular university. If, for example, Manchester focuses on a certain field that other universities are not so well renowned for and the student expresses that they have a desire to learn more about this topic, it could serve to pique the interest of Manchester.
The personal statement and the application to apply to the UK’s most elite institutions is overwhelmingly an academic endeavour – as is the experience of studying at one of these famous institutions.
If a student elects to write about an extracurricular interest, it would be advisable that this is closely related to the student’s chosen discipline or that it is, in some way, demonstrative of their academic prowess. It would have to be quite compelling if the activity or experience was not directly connected with the student’s field of study.
And a word on style:
Precise language and concise expression should be the applicant’s goal. Students should be clear that they know the meaning of each word used in their personal statement and that each sentence communicates exactly the intended message. Students should also aim to be as economical with their use of language as possible. It will lead to a clearer and more impactful personal statement.
What can GCSE and A Level students do to increase their chances of success?
Understand cognitive bias
Cognitive bias refers to you being able, in some small way, to still have an impact on your grades. Teachers are human (even though you’ve probably questioned it at points!) and their impression of you in the final weeks as they make their decisions on what grade you will be awarded will have some influence. So keep working and sustain positive interactions with them whenever possible.
Pick up a new habit or discipline
Once it is clear that you have done as much as you can to positively influence your grades, forget about them and focus on what’s next for you. Add a new skill, habit or discipline to your daily routine.
My key bit of advice here is to set the bar low in terms of the time you can commit to this each day. This will get you started and create momentum.
Try to carry out the new discipline at the same time each day or attach it to a pre-existing habit – e.g. straight after lunch go for a fifteen minute walk, come back in and write a reflection on how your morning went and what your focus is for the afternoon.
Receive your final grades and then deal with that reality
Results days remain the same:
GCSE – 20th August
A Level – 13th August
IB – 6th July
In most cases, I don’t think that students should consider sitting exams in the autumn or next summer.
Your focus here is ensuring you get to your next step – for many of you that will be A Levels or IB. So long as you are accepted on to the courses you are aiming for that is probably enough. If you score less than 6/7s in English, Maths or subjects related to the degree that you want to study, then you might want to consider resits.
A Level and IB students:
If things don’t go to plan, you will enter Clearing. The key message for Clearing is don’t panic! It is a fluid situation and remember, it is not a single one-day event.
Only accept an offer that you feel is right for you. If you’re not absolutely certain, take at least four or five days to look at different options as the picture changes each day. Suitable places do not necessarily become available on the first day of Clearing as it takes time for all students to go through the process of receiving grades and accepting their places.