Make sure you’re the cream of the ad­mis­sions crop

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

As if there were not enough hur­dles in the way of get­ting to univer­sity, more and more stu­dents are find­ing they have an ad­di­tional bar­rier to ne­go­ti­ate, in the form of an ap­ti­tude test.

Univer­si­ties are in­creas­ingly us­ing th­ese tests to dis­tin­guish be­tween ap­pli­cants, and the signs are that they may be­come more wide­spread over the next cou­ple of years.

Most ap­ti­tude tests run in Oc­to­ber or Novem­ber, and while they are de­signed to as­sess skills rather than knowl­edge, there are steps stu­dents can take to give them­selves the best chance of suc­cess.

Ap­ti­tude tests cover the full range of sub­jects and although their use varies be­tween univer­si­ties, almost all can­di­dates to study medicine and re­lated sub­jects – such as vet­eri­nary sci­ence and den­tistry – can ex­pect to take one be­fore they are in­vited to in­ter­view. And for them, a good per­for­mance is vi­tal.

“We use it as an ab­so­lute cri­te­rion and it is very im­por­tant that stu­dents know that,” says Prof Tony Freemont, head of the med­i­cal school at the Univer­sity of Manch­ester. “If you don’t get a cer­tain score, then you are not con­sid­ered for medicine.”

That cut-off varies each year, but stu­dents who fail to reach the re­quired level for their cho­sen univer­si­ties will ei­ther have to switch to another course or reap­ply and take the test the fol­low­ing year.

Manch­ester, along with most med­i­cal schools, uses the UK clin­i­cal ap­ti­tude test (UKCAT), which aims to as­sess stu­dents in a num­ber of ar­eas, in­clud­ing the abil­ity to sift data and weigh ev­i­dence from dif­fer­ent sources, as well as rea­son­ing skills and judg­ment.

“The big­gest prob­lem we have is how to choose be­tween groups of ex­cep­tional young peo­ple,” says Freemont. “The rea­son we use this test is that it re­ally does se­lect peo­ple who are able to hit the ground run­ning when it comes to study­ing medicine.”

Some univer­si­ties, in­clud­ing Ox­ford and Cam­bridge, run an al­ter­na­tive as­sess­ment, the bio­med­i­cal ad­mis­sions test (BMAT). This cov­ers sim­i­lar ar­eas to the UKCAT but also ex­am­ines sci­en­tific knowl­edge – al­beit to GCSE level – and asks can­di­dates to write a short es­say.

Stu­dents sit the test ei­ther in their school or col­lege or at a des­ig­nated test­ing cen­tre. Past pa­pers are avail­able for both tests.

“Fa­mil­iar­ity with the pa­pers makes it [the test] a lot eas­ier,” says Andy Pul­ham, head of sci­ence at the Royal Gram­mar School, New­cas­tle (RGS).

The pro­lif­er­a­tion of ap­ti­tude tests has spawned an in­dus­try in spe­cialised coach­ing, and this year for the first time RGS brought in out­side ex­perts to run an in­ten­sive two-day prepa­ra­tion course for stu­dents tak­ing the UKCAT.

“We found a lot of stu­dents were go­ing out­side to get ex­tra help, so this year we said we would get peo­ple in,” says Pul­ham. “Be­cause there is a lot of log­i­cal think­ing in the tests it might not seem there is much you can do to pre­pare, but there are tech­niques you can use.” Th­ese in­clude prac­tis­ing es­ti­ma­tion work and strate­gies for elim­i­nat­ing an­swers in mul­ti­ple-choice ques­tions, he adds.

RGS also runs its own cour­ses for stu­dents tak­ing the BMAT, as well as for ap­ti­tude tests in other sub­jects.

It is not just medicine that re­quires stu­dents to take a pre-en­try test. Although Ox­ford and Cam­bridge no longer have en­trance exams, the majority of ap­pli­cants to both can ex­pect to take an ap­ti­tude test, re­gard­less of the course.

And as well as Oxbridge, around half of all univer­si­ties are now us­ing ex­tra tests in at least one sub­ject. Some set their own, while in­de­pen­dently run ex­am­i­na­tions in­clude the law na­tional ap­ti­tude test (LNAT), the think­ing skills as­sess­ment (TSA) and the math­e­mat­ics ap­ti­tude test (MAT).

Some are taken be­fore the in­ter­view, while oth­ers form part of the in­ter­view process.

Around 90 per cent of ap­pli­cants to Ox­ford sit a test of some sort, ac­cord­ing to the univer­sity’s di­rec­tor of ad­mis­sions, Mike Nicholson.

This process is a way of whit­tling down can­di­dates to a man­age­able num­ber, but the tests are only one el­e­ment in de­cid­ing who to call for in­ter­view, along­side such fac­tors as GCSE re­sults and A-level pre­dic­tions. “It al­lows us to do an ini­tial short­list­ing but it doesn’t fix things in stone,” he adds.

The type of prepa­ra­tion stu­dents can do varies ac­cord­ing to sub­ject. The physics ap­ti­tude test has a pub­lished syl­labus, while for the TSA, used for ge­og­ra­phy, psy­chol­ogy, eco­nomics and man­age­ment, stu­dents might find it help­ful to prac­tise ex­tract­ing in­for­ma­tion from ta­bles, graphs and statis­tics, Nicholson says.

In all cases, stu­dents can ex­pect to be asked to ap­ply their knowl­edge to un­fa­mil­iar or un­usual sce­nar­ios, rather than sim­ply re­gur­gi­tate what they have learnt. “It is about their abil­ity to think crit­i­cally and an­a­lyse in­for­ma­tion,” Nicholson adds. “We’re not try­ing to repli­cate the in­for­ma­tion we’re al­ready get­ting.”

As St Fran­cis Xavier Sixth Form in south London, stu­dents sit­ting the his­tory ap­ti­tude test, for ex­am­ple, are given the op­por­tu­nity to prac­tise analysing source ma­te­rial, a key el­e­ment of the exam.

“We don’t know what source ma­te­rial will come up in the ac­tual “You also learn that you are never go­ing to fin­ish, so it is about try­ing to get as much done in the time as pos­si­ble. Go­ing over past pa­pers is the best prepa­ra­tion but there is no point in do­ing too much. Once you have got the skill you just have to go in there and do it. You can pre­pare, but don’t over-pre­pare.”

At Mill Hill School in north London, ex­tra lessons to pre­pare for the tests start in the lower sixth. “We work on ex­pand­ing sub­ject skills and en­cour­age fur­ther read­ing and dis­cus­sion,” says the deputy head, Alex Frazer.

This ap­proach may be­come more common as there are signs that ap­ti­tude tests could be­come more wide­spread, thanks to a com­bi­na­tion of more un­con­di­tional of­fers and un­cer­tainty over how re­forms will af­fect GCSEs mean­ing univer­si­ties will look at new ways to dis­crim­i­nate be­tween stu­dents.

“At the mo­ment they tend to be at the higher end of the aca­demic spec­trum, but we sus­pect they might take in a wider aca­demic range as a broader tranche of univer­si­ties start us­ing them,” Frazer says.

It may not be long be­fore it’s not just as­pir­ing medics and Oxbridge can­di­dates who have to take ap­ti­tude tests in their stride. ucas.com ukcat.ac.uk ad­mis­sion­stest­ingser­vice.org

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