Changing to post-A Level university entry – why admissions tests are still important

by Andy Chamberlain, 27 July 2020
Admissions office sign

In recent weeks, the debate over university admissions procedures has again come to the fore. This has been prompted partly by the impact of Covid-19 on education, but also because of growing concern that admissions based on predicted grades and personal statements can, perhaps unintentionally, disadvantage certain student groups.

The Office for Students (the Higher Education regulator for England) is consulting on proposals which include post-qualification offers or applications for full-time undergraduate admissions.The aim is to provide a clear and transparent route into higher education, where students cannot apply for a course without the required grades rather than gaining a place based on predicted performance and a personal statement. Grade prediction has always been an inexact science, with some studies demonstrating that disadvantaged students’ grades are often underpredicted. The value of the personal statement is also under discussion. Millions of students every year work hard to craft the ideal submission, often helped by teachers and families. But this means that students with little access to the right support are often unable to create a well written statement which truly shows their potential.

Post-A Level university application will certainly remove ambiguity regarding a student’s performance, but it does not solve every admissions problem. Highly competitive courses will undoubtedly continue to attract many more applicants than places, and every applicant will now have the required grades. Fair selection again becomes a challenge. Could the answer be greater use of admissions tests?

Post-A Level university application will certainly remove ambiguity regarding a student’s performance, but it does not solve every admissions problem.

Admissions tests are designed to differentiate between the most able students by measuring candidate potential, thereby also enabling greater inclusivity.

Medicine was one of the first subject areas to introduce admissions testing, as admissions tutors wanted evidence not just of subject knowledge but also of skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and communication. These are skills which a student needs to flourish while at university and in a medical career. Launched 17 years ago, BMAT (the BioMedical Admissions Test from Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing) was a pioneer in this field and is now an integral part of the admissions process. By providing a measure of student potential as well as knowledge, BMAT can also help improve student retention rates and enable greater diversity within the student body, in turn helping make the profession more reflective of the society in which it works.

Admissions tests are now used by institutions around the world for entry to a wide range of subjects, not just the most competitive. Admissions teams use these tests to uncover additional information which A Levels cannot provide, and which can indicate whether course and student are the ideal fit. And it is not just A Levels – students now apply to university with a wide range of qualifications, particularly international students. Or, if they are applying with A Levels, it can sometimes be in a range of subjects. So admissions tests help ‘level the playing field’ for all students, irrespective of their background, educational history including qualifications, or country. Despite current restrictions on travel, universities will continue to welcome international students – whether online or in person – and admissions tests help provide a comparison of different education systems by providing a piece of information common to all.

So admissions tests help ‘level the playing field’ for all students, irrespective of their background, educational history including qualifications, or country.

Whatever the future of university entry, it’s clear that admissions tests should remain an important part of the process. The information they provide helps admissions teams select the right students, and also helps the students themselves confirm their decision to take a specific course. The changes being proposed are driven by a need for greater fairness in university selection , the same need that initially drove admission test development. For this reason, admissions tests can only become more relevant if these changes are implemented.

Andy Chamberlain, Head of Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing

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