There’s more than one way to get a place on your dream course

You don't need stellar A level grades to land the university place you were hoping for. David Kernohan has the receipts

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

In England this year sees the national grade profile for A levels return to the boundaries that prevailed for the decade before the pandemic.

What that means is that this cohort, though undoubtedly equally as smart as their older siblings, will see lower grades awarded for the same level of effort and understanding when compared to those who gained level 3 qualifications in 2020, 2021 and (to an extent) 2022.

It’s a peculiarly British disease. No other developed nation spends the last two years of school with such narrow and specialised courses capped off with high stakes all-or-nothing examinations. And with a full return to norm-referenced grading (the “mutant algorithm” of lore), the performance of peers is as important as your own performance.

When you’re 18, your A level grades – and the potential futures they may and may not unlock – feel all-important. Certainly everything we tell young people makes them feel like the difference between a B and a C is the difference between a good university course and a not-so-good one: between lifetime success and lasting disappointment.

The places you’ll go

However, a cursory glance at the enrolment of any course in UK higher education tells a story that prospectuses and search engines do not: there are many, many, people successfully studying courses that do not have the grades that you might expect. A less than stellar performance at level 3 doesn’t necessarily mean your life is on hold, much less your dreams shattered.

How do they get there? A number of options. Once a provider has gone to the trouble of making you an offer – and once you’ve accepted it firmly – something pretty catastrophic would have to happen for you not to be accepted. Even if the grades in your hand don’t match the grades on your offer don’t hesitate to give your firm (and insurance) place a call (or contact them in other ways). If it is really a “no”, be aware that clearing has lost the stigma it had in the nineties, and just about every provider (including the one you didn’t get a place at!) will have opportunities in many subject areas if you move quickly on results day.

Beyond that we have the foundation year – perhaps not as big an option in years to come following the government response to the HE Reform consultation, but a great way to kick off study in the university you want if the grades weren’t quite there. The Access to HE qualification – designed specifically to prepare you for higher level study – is a well-trodden and high-quality alternative if you don’t mind waiting another year.

Maybe university study is something you want to come back to later in life? As a mature students your A level grades are irrelevant. Your skills and aptitude are far more likely to matter.

The truth of the matter

I’ve whipped up some data magic to help illustrate that all kinds of people advance to even the most “selective courses”. Instructions are below.

[Full screen]

How to use this visualisation

This is a big visualisation, so I strongly suggest using a larger screen to get the best out of it – and the sheer amount of data involved (every higher education course in the UK!) means it may move slowly on occasion. You need to start off by selecting some grades in the boxes on the top left, and the subject areas you are interested in using the controls on the top left. The two pink boxes below confirm your grades and tell you how many UCAS tariff points these are worth, and also shows you the number of courses in that subject that currently have students on with approximately your grades or below.

The next chunk helps you find out where these are, and what qualifications people have on them. You can use either the filter (the pink box above the map) or the map itself to identify providers of interest – the latter also allows you to draw a box on the map to select a range of providers in an area. This updates the list of courses on the right – you can scroll down this using the scroll bar.

Click on a course of interest to update the two bars at the bottom of the map – these show you the proportion of students with each type of qualification on entry (the top one) and the proportion in each “bucket” grade points (at the bottom). These sometimes refer to a collection of courses (or one course over two years) rather than a single course – the aggregation you are looking at is shown above each bar.

Unistats data is simultaneously wonderful and frustrating – you may find data issues as you explore (proportions that add up to more than 100 per cent, for example). This is the actual data that underpins Discover Uni, so errors are from the source rather than from this dashboard.

11 responses to “There’s more than one way to get a place on your dream course

  1. Oh god not you too! Please don’t encourage applicants who miss their grades to “call”. We made decisions on their applications well before results day and those decisions show on their UCAS Hub. There’s no point in them calling and it wastes a massive amount of their and our time!

    1. Strange response. Many years ago, I and some of my peers got places on our intended courses by taking this step. Last year my neighbour’s daughter did the same. So DK’s advice seems accurate. Hopefully not everyone will treat potential students the way you do, just because you’re too lazy to pick up the phone and do your job.

      1. Really? Did UCAS say you were rejected and then you called and they changed their minds? Or was it the common situation where UCAS showed no decision and you called up and were told the decision was to accept you?

        Professional admissions processes don’t change decisions based on begging phone calls. We operate fair admissions not favouring those who are willing and able to call up.

        It’s such a common bullshit myth that it’s even perpetrated by HE staff outside admissions making our jobs harder.

  2. One university that we visited actively encouraged us to call if the results were not as expected on the day. It’s these mixed messages that leave students and parents hugely confused.

    1. Yes – as seen in the comments here lots of academic and non admissions staff like to repeat this myth.
      90% of near miss applicants will have a final decision showing on UCAS on Thursday morning and shouldn’t be clogging the phone lines.

  3. Not all Unis feel this way. If you missed your grades, please do call! The fact that you made it this far means you have something important to bring to Uni. If you missed the grades for your first choice, there will probably be another course that you can be offered and we’d love to discuss your options!

    1. In which case you can leave a message on weblink to those applicants to call about alternative courses. No need to encourage rejected applicants or accepted applicants to clog the phone line!

    2. It’s also a but rich to delay decision making for applicants you plan to reject for their main choice of course to try to fill up your other spaces.
      That can seriously damage their chances of finding a place in clearing to study the course they want to study instead of helping you meet your financial targets.

      Painting this as being in the best interests of applicants and not for you is disingenuous

      1. What about if there are genuine exceptional circumstances that meant that the student had not gained their expected results? Is that not worth a conversation for their first choice course?

        1. Exceptional circumstances would normally have been notified to universities in advance (and should also have been submitted to exam boards).

          If they hadn’t been (AND if UCAS isn’t showing accepted anyway) then we’d normally expect a phone call from the school to explain the circumstances not from the applicant. Unfortunately there’s a small minority of applicants who try to game the EC system with sob stories which means many universities are sceptical of claims that aren’t backed by a school or evidence. Universities like Bristol have specific forms and deadlines for ECs to be taken into account that lapsed months ago.

  4. I note from some anonymous comments from admissions staff above that some providers are less keen than others to have students call them in situations where applicants have slightly missed their grade, though other providers are keen. I’ve made some tweaks to the text above to reflect this.

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