Tales from the classroom: UCAS - a teacher's perspective

The Autumn term is always a very busy time for students who are preparing their applications and personal statement ready for the October & January deadlines. So what's it like for teachers then? Our teacher blogger shares the other side of the story.... 

UCAS. Four letters which are going to rule your life for most of the next year. Most sixth formers have no idea what they stand for, and a few teachers are just as ignorant. For the record, it stands for Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. The title came from the amalgamation of UCCA (Universities Central Council on Admissions) and PCAS (Polytechnics Central Admissions Service) in 1993, a date which will seem like pre-history to you but like yesterday to some of us who have children older than that. Its job is to process university applications in the UK and its very name on an email sends shivers of either fear or anticipation down the spines of most applicants.

Meet your new postman: UCAS 
It’s a common misconception on the part of applicants that UCAS is the body responsible for the decisions and offers or rejections they receive. Not so. UCAS is merely the postman. Its job is to save time and co-ordinate the thousands and thousands of applications each year that every university receives, but it has no power to influence any outcome and universities are pretty keen to make sure that they hold all the cards. For UCAS, it’s definitely a case of ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ if the University of Bognor Regis turns you down for its BA Hons in Underwater Basket-weaving. You can take that up with Bognor itself.

So much for the history and the overview. What about the personal stuff? I’m not going to tell you much about the side of the form that you, the applicant, fill in. There are wikis on TSR to tell you that, and if it’s not disloyal to say it here, there is pretty extensive advice on the UCAS website itself which you would be well advised to look at very carefully indeed.


Here's what teachers do

No, what you want to know about is the stuff teachers do, isn't it? How do we write references, check the content, steer people in the right direction? Not gonna lie, this is dull stuff, but there’s a fascination about knowing things you don't officially get to see, so here’s what we do.

First of all, we manage expectations. When it comes to choosing the right five places to apply, many students just don’t know where to start. The standard advice is: one or two aspirational choices, two or three comfortable ones and one or two emergency backups, to a total of five. There are more students who are unrealistic about the top end than the bottom end, in my experience. It can be a thankless task persuading a student with ABB predictions that Oxbridge, LSE and Imperial are out of his reach. We are crushing his dreams and it’s all our fault. The nagging, pleading and frankly embarrassing begging we get to raise predicted grades is an occupational hazard of the teaching profession and it gets very old, very quickly. However, despite a belief that teachers only go into the job to trample down the adolescent masses with hobnail boots, predicted grades are a very complex business and teachers take them very seriously.

The yearly predicted grade saga 

There are a few factors to take into account with predicted grades, and one of them is their credibility. Teachers are asked for predictions several times, long before the actual results come out, and these predictions tend to shift as they reflect current performance. The actual AS result is a crucial factor in determining the final predicted grade, and it may well be, for example, that a student has put in a solid grade B performance all year, and then gets a C in the AS exam. Whilst the original performance might have merited an A prediction for the purposes of the UCAS application, once the AS result is out, there is no way an A prediction is a credible piece of data for university admissions tutors to work from. A jump of two grades is too high. A B prediction is OK, as a rise of one grade is regarded as doable, but the teachers may feel that the exam has revealed weaknesses which are going to cause the candidate serious trouble in the future as well, and so they go for a C prediction. Everything hangs on the individual, so what may have been predicted for your friend may very well be totally different to what you are predicted, and there will be reasons for it.

Teachers have to account for their students’ performances. If you predict Pupil X an A and he gets a D, questions are asked. It’s a really fine juggling act to predict a grade that will be both accurate and beneficial to a candidate’s application and at the same time, realistic and not likely to result in investigation if it’s not achieved. What do you do? Rely on gut instinct 90% of the time and pass the buck to your head of department the rest. They are paid to take the flak.

Honesty is always the best policy 

It’s really important to be honest about predicted grades. It’s only human nature (well, mine, anyway) to want to give the kid the best chance of getting an offer. However, it is actually a form of torture if you enable a student to get an offer using inflated predicted grades which s/he then cannot meet. To have a longed-for offer snatched out of your hand on results day is excruciating and far worse than having not got the offer in the first place. Beware of begging for grades you can’t achieve. It only causes heartbreak. And don't lie to yourself, either. You WON’T work an extra eight hours every day and give up going out of the house for the next six months and you know it.

So, we manage expectations. But what else do we do? We write references............

Mrs Kinetta will be back next week to share the highs and lows of writing personal references for pupil's UCAS applications.

Mrs Kinetta is a secondary school English teacher who writes for The Student Room under a pseudonym. 

More on TSR: 
Heaps of resources to smoothly guide you through applying to uni
Post your question in our Applications and UCAS forum 
Speak to one of our personal statement advisors 
Writing an excellent personal statement in 10 easy steps 
Create your Personal Statement with our brilliant builder tool 
Everything you need to know about applying to uni