Wednesday, 25 April 2012

A Grand Extended Project

One thing that, in my experience, advisers like to tell you to do when applying to university is to 'pad your application.' Like I said in my last post, these days just having good grades at A level isn't enough in lots of cases - you have to mark yourself out as an interesting and different applicant by doing something more.

I've talked loads about the way this can be done in terms of a personal statement - work experience, extra reading, research, all that. What I haven't gone into in so much detail is the extra qualifications you can take. At my school, we were offered the chance to take three different extra qualifications - the AQA Baccalaureate, the Extended Project, and the Young Applicants in Schools Scheme that allow pre-university students the chance to do modules with the Open University. I don't know much about YASS, although there's lots of relevant information about it here! However, I did decide to take the AQA Baccalaureate and the Extended Project, so I can share my experiences about each of those here.

The Extended Project Qualification is actually a piece of the AQA Baccalaureate, but it can be done separately, so I'll look at each in turn. The AQA Baccalaureate is designed to be a qualification that makes A Level study a little similar to the International Baccalaureate by adding elements like the Extended Essay in with the Extended Project. It is officially comprised of 3 main A levels, at least 100 hours of personal development through Enrichment activities, an AS level in General Studies, Critical Thinking or Citizenship Studies, and the aforementioned Extended Project. Depending on your A level grades and grades in the Extended Project/AS level, you can achieve a Pass, Merit or Distinction.

I personally think that if you're going to do the Extended Project it's definitely worth it to do the full AQA Baccalaureate as it's not much more work, to be honest. To go with your Enrichment activities you need to write an Enrichment diary detailing all your work under the three categories - work, community, and personal - and depending on your personal situation it's not that difficult to rack up over 100 hours of enrichment during the year. For example, included in my count is some of the work experience I've done already for my personal statement, my part-time job, helping out at a school Higher Education evening, running a club, performing in a play, being on the school magazine committee - the sort of things I would have done anyway, and all you need to do to clock up the 100 hours is write about it and the skills you gained from it. As for the AS level, I guess it depends on whether your school offers any one of these as a subject, but if you give yourself plenty of time I'd imagine you could self-teach Critical Thinking potentially.

The largest part of the AQA Bacc is therefore the Extended Project. This can be done either as a 5000 word research report, or as a 1000 word supplementary research report. I went for the 5000 word one, and I've loved doing it. I combined my interests in politics and philosophy into an essay on political philosophy, particularly the political philosophy of Thomas More and Niccolo Machiavelli. The fact that it's 5000 words long means it's nearer to the kind of essay that you might be asked to write for university, and it encourages you to do deep research - which I can say, as someone who is taking History A level, is very useful! You are allocated a supervisor from amongst your teachers and they help guide you through the process and check you're keeping on schedule, which I can say, as someone who can often be quite last-minute, has been very helpful. The freedom of being able to pick your own topic, as long as it's not something on the syllabus of a subject you're studying, is very nice as well.

So, I hope that has been interesting and informative! If anyone has any further questions about the AQA Bacc or the EPQ, hit the comments. Plus, if you've enjoyed this post or any of the other ones on my blog, I'd be very grateful if you could let UCAS know here!

Have a great week,


Monday, 23 April 2012

A(nother) Level

I'm sitting at my desk, floundering away and writing this instead of revising. The interesting thing is that my mind is on work and grades and university and school and all of that an extremely large amount of the time, but that does not translate to revision particularly often.

Anyway, one thing I've been thinking about recently is the general perception and treatment of A levels. If you type 'a level grade inflation' into Google, some of the top articles talk about how the exams are apparently a joke and disgraceful, and this is a view that isn't just restricted to the press. When you meet people get the odd few sniggering about your A level choices; once I told someone I was going to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics and they burst out laughing about how I was doing a 'wishy-washy' degree and ought to study something 'useful.'

As for A levels as a whole, people feel justified in putting them down because the pass rate keeps on rising. In 2011 the pass rate was at a record 97.8%, an increase of 10.1% from 87.7%, just 14 years previously. The general argument that I've read is that modules and retakes make things a lot easier, there is more teaching to the exam, that sort of thing. However, I would argue that this doesn't necessarily make things easier for A level students. The new A* grade, for both GCSE and A Level, helps to differentiate candidates further, and lots of people hold offers that require them to achieve the new A* grade which they would not have had to achieve a few years ago. Importantly, as everyone who has taken A level modules will know, it's not as if an 80% in an exam suddenly guarantees you an A; how well you do is very much dependent on what other people achieve also, because of the standardised UMS marking scheme. For example, for Maths, one of my subjects, the raw mark that delivers 80 UMS, an A, can be up to around 65/75 - whereas for Philosophy it can be around 55/90. That's 87% in raw terms compared to 61%.

In this way, there is no such thing as an easy paper because you're judged in relation to your peers. My Economics teacher always likes to joke about how we should only start to panic in an exam if we're finding it ridiculously easy, because apparently that means everyone else will be as well (I'm not sure that I agree with him, but the point stands....). Then there's the issue of the various insults people like to throw at particular subjects. Critical Thinking, for example, an AS level I took, is one of the more maligned subjects, yet I spoke to an academic at the university where I hope to study next year who said it was actually an A level that allows people to learn extremely useful, important skills and it is hindered mostly by its lack of popularity (though of course his view may not necessarily be shared by other academics). Also, if a university sees a subject as weak, it has the option of giving you an offer and then specifying which subjects they want you to achieve the grades in, in case they see one as being irrelevant or perhaps easier (one of mine did this).

Basically, I feel like it's wrong to say people can just trot off merrily into the sunset with weak applications and weak qualifications and just get everything they want 'unjustly.' I have learnt that there are so many precautions and requirements that students have to satisfy when applying to university; from the varying offers, to the personal statements, to the extra qualifications, to the specifications of offers.

...I don't know. It's an interesting topic of discussion. I'm not an expert, just someone experiencing the system. However it's something I'm really interested in so if you have any thoughts, even if they are in strong disagreement with mine, please feel free to leave a comment below!

In the meantime, I should get back to my revision. I'm wondering, how many other people find it absolutely impossible to revise without listening to music? I definitely need to feel like I'm enjoying myself in some way, even if most of my focus is on the page in front of my that I've been reading for the last 5 minutes without taking in a word. It takes away some of the monotony! However, I know loads of people find it completely distracting, so I guess it might depend on what kind of mood you're in.

Anyway that's it from me for the moment! If you've enjoyed reading this or found it helpful, you can let UCAS know here! As always, if you feel like sharing any ideas, thoughts, feedback and all of that, just let rip in the comments and I'll get back to you!


Friday, 13 April 2012

Accommodating revision

So, I've firmed. You'd think that would be the end of the matter, but of course UCAS is always weighing on my mind! First of all, I got a letter last week from UCAS confirming my responses to universities (I went back to check that CF, 'conditional firm' was the one next to the university I had actually picked as my firm way too many times to admit).

Secondly, it seems that my firm now has a file on me, which is a bit frightening! About a month or so ago I got a letter in the post from my college requesting various details, which I duly filled out. These included dietary requirements, medical details, all those sorts of things, and an extra letter about accommodation! Those of you who have followed my blog for a while will know that I got pooled post-interview to another college which was the one that eventually accepted me, so I have in fact never actually visited or stayed the night at the place where I might spend the next 3 years of my life, so this was a particularly interesting read for me.

From what I remember, there were about 6 different price bands you could go for, each described in a few sentences, which was a nice touch. I know some colleges don't give you a choice and you just take what you are allocated with when you turn up at the start of October, so it was nice to get some kind of idea about what we might be expecting. Perhaps the biggest bonus about my college is that it has one of the highest numbers of en-suite rooms in the university, but apparently the older students get dibs on these and then the ickle firsties have to scramble around for the remainder, so I'm definitely not expecting one!

Having received all that in the post, I filled it in, sent it back, and got an email more recently informing me that they needed a photo in order to "complete your file" which was a little nerve-wracking... Having had my fair share of horrific school photos, and knowing that they pretty much always turn out to be totally gormless and then unfortunately end up being used by the members of staff for the ensuing 12 months, I was a little nervous to respond!

Apart from that, the holidays have begun, and as always this means only one thing... or is supposed to, anyway... revision! Unfortunately after a good revision session prior to the mocks, I feel like I've slipped back into my wicked non-revising ways... I was away for the first week of the hols, and the busy days meant I didn't have time to do much apart from go out then sleep when I came back, so that was out. As for these next two weeks, I'm currently working 2 part-time jobs and for some reason my brain has convinced itself that if I have work on one day then I am unable to do anything except laze around for the remainder of the day. I've created a revision timetable like I did last time, but so far it's pretty blank. On the one hand, that means it's very representative of the amount of time I have actually spent revising... on the other hand, it's suddenly hit home that I only have 5 weeks left until my first two exams.... gulp!

Anyway, that's it from me. If you've enjoyed reading this or found it helpful, you can let UCAS know here! As always, if you have any comments, questions, criticisms, queries or rants, just let rip in the comments and I'll get back to you as soon as possible!