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Preparing boys for competitive universities

Preparing boys for competitive universities featured image

Although I have written relatively recently in my blog about universities, my attention was drawn back to the subject by the publication of the QS World University Rankings by Subjects just over a week ago. These rankings make good reading for British Universities with UK institutions in first place in 13 out of 48 subject categories worldwide. I am pleased to say that Loughborough University features, cementing its global reputation as the leading institution for Sports Science, but some less heralded destinations were also highly-ranked, with Sussex top for Development Studies and UCL first for Architecture and Education. In turn, this made me reflect on what is considered an elite university in Britain. We talk a great deal about Oxbridge, but the best courses in particular subjects are often elsewhere. How can we best prepare boys for applications to the most competitive universities, wherever they are located?

Parents considering Loughborough Grammar School often ask me about the number of boys who leave to attend Oxford and Cambridge Universities each year. Although I am happy to quote the figures, my response is always qualified by pointing out firstly that our priority is for boys to attend the institution offering the course that best meets their needs. The reputation of the particular university is important, but we should understand that the achievement of a place for Medicine or Dentistry or at Imperial College or LSE is comparable in terms of prestige. A couple of boys in each year group show an interest in the US Ivy League (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell etc.). What all top courses have in common is that they expect their undergraduates to have excellent grades at A Level (and, to a lesser extent at GCSE) and to provide evidence of serious motivation for their chosen subject.

The question I hope to answer today is “What does my son need to be successful in an application to one of the country’s top universities?” Good grades can be taken as read. Beyond this, it’s all about showing one’s motivation for the chosen subject. The best thing an academically ambitious boy can be doing at school in Years 7 to 9 is participating in our lunchtime and after school academic activities. He must be developing his intellectual curiosity in as broad a range of disciplines as possible, so that he acquires a love of and a thirst for learning. We have created an independent academic project as part of the Thomas Burton Award in Year 10 precisely so that all boys have the opportunity to explore an area of personal interest in greater depth. Those boys who relish such a task may well be destined for our elite institutions.

Although top grades at GCSE, and grade A/A* predictions at A Level are required for all the most competitive courses, being an examination machine, expert at learning material supplied by one’s teachers, is insufficient. The academics who interview prospective undergraduates at Imperial or Cambridge are not merely looking for students who can retain the information they have learned and recycle it. They are looking for boys who think deeply about their subjects, who seek out links with other areas of their learning and who are intrigued by what they don’t yet know and understand. I believe that it is virtually impossible to manufacture a student with these attributes. If your son is bright, but really isn’t particularly interested in independent study, he is unlikely to thrive in a university environment that demands it. If we have high expectations of our sons, we would be better advised to encourage them to participate as broadly as possible in their early years at the Grammar School in order to maximise their exposure to interesting and unusual ideas across the curriculum. If your son talks about something he has particularly enjoyed, can you help him to think about what he might do to explore the area further? Is there a museum you could make a beeline for during the holiday? Can you identify any interesting documentaries on the wide array of TV channels at our disposal? These are the best ways to nurture a spark.

By the time boys reach the Sixth Form, creating a strong applications profile is very much the name of the game. It is interesting to note that virtually all of our successful Medics and Oxbridge scientists this year have been heavily involved in a range of STEM activities. It’s slightly different for Arts students, for whom evidence of intensive reading is a much more important factor. All boys with ambitions to access the most competitive university courses should seriously consider the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ). This is the equivalent of half an A Level, and is undertaken from Summer Term in Year 12, just as boys are preparing their UCAS applications. It enables them to investigate an area of personal interest in depth, with the support of a staff mentor, very much prefiguring the tutorial relationship that exists in many of these universities. The annual presentation evening of EPQ projects is one of the highlights of my academic year. I find it an absolute privilege to listen as boys share the conclusions of months of in-depth research and analysis into every imaginable subject. This year’s EPQ Presentation Evening is on Monday 18 March from 5 pm. Year 12 students considering the EPQ are urged to attend, but equally we would be delighted to see some Year 11s who are considering their intentions well in advance!

Although I have stressed that this advice applies equally to boys applying to all competitive university courses, I do think that Oxbridge ambitions are to be encouraged. Rightly or wrongly, an Oxbridge degree gets you noticed in the job market. However, these iconic institutions have suffered a great deal of negative press recently and I regret that some boys are discouraged from applying when they read about how Oxbridge has ‘too many’ students from privileged backgrounds. In this country, there can be a great deal of jealousy over the successes of others, which we can be quick to attribute to various forms of bias, whether overt or sub-conscious. Oxford and Cambridge are not for every bright boy who passes through Loughborough Grammar School, but anybody with a genuine intellectual curiosity nurtured by our teaching and co-curriculum should at least find out more.

QS World University Rankings by Subject 2019


Country Number of top 10 departments
United States 234
United Kingdom 137
Switzerland 22
Australia 18
Canada 15


Netherlands 12
Italy 6
China 4
Sweden 4


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