Education: How good must you be?: Sarah Strickland meets a model student turned down by five universities

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WHEN Stella Faulkner received her fifth and final university rejection letter she was devastated. Stella is a student any university should be eager to snap up: an academic high-flyer who plays flute and violin in two orchestras, sings in the choir and is an elected school council representative.

With eight straight A grades at GCSE, an excellent reference from her college and good predictions for her four A-level subjects, Stella applied to five universities to do her chosen subject.

Now, rejected by all of them (in two cases without even an interview), she is left feeling confused, upset and uncertain about her future. Her parents are perplexed as to how and why their daughter appears to have fallen by the wayside. Stella is one of an apparently increasing number of strong applicants being rejected by universities. What is going wrong?

She applied to read English, a popular choice, at what she considered to be some of the best universities for the subject: Durham, Exeter, Nottingham, Oxford and York. 'We had a higher education conference at college, and the visiting English tutor said that if you had high grades, you might as well apply to top universities, because you had nothing to lose,' she says.

Neither York nor Nottingham invited her for interview, explaining in standard letters that they were heavily over-subscribed with applications from excellent candidates, all with high predictions.

Stella, like most candidates, did not know what her predictions were, because schools keep them confidential, but she believed they were high - three As and a B.

In fact, King Edward VI Sixth Form College in Stourbridge, West Midlands, predicted A for English, A/B for Classical studies, B/A for German and B/C for music. Her parents are baffled as to why such uncertainty is allowed to arise. 'How can students pitch what universities they are applying to if they don't know their predictions?' they ask.

The family now wonders if Stella is an innocent victim of political rivalry between universities. 'I knew Oxford and Durham were hard to get into, but I didn't think the other three were quite as prestigious as they turned out to be,' Stella says.

'I think they didn't like being put on the same list as Oxford and Durham, although they won't say that. Nobody told me the places I'd put down were incompatible, so I was shocked when all the rejections came. My friends can't believe what's happened. They have all been offered places and they're only doing three A-levels. I thought doing four would count for a lot.'

Mrs Faulkner believes that a great injustice has been done. 'Stella is a good, well-rounded person. I just don't understand it, it's ridiculous. The college has always said what a high-calibre student she is. Maybe she shouldn't have been so fussy, but she has worked hard. There is nothing in the prospectuses that says 'We are prestigious, don't apply here unless you are a genius'.'

Last year about 395,000 candidates competed for 230,000 places at 150 higher education institutes, with about 5,000 admissions tutors deciding whether to reject them or make an offer.

Simon Willis, admissions officer at York University, says that with 2,000 people applying for 130 places to do English, 'tough decisions' had to be made. About 700 were called to an interview for English this year.

Nottingham University no longer interviews, making offers solely on the basis of applications. Thurlac Turville-Petre, senior reader in English, says his department received more than 1,900 applications for 60 places in single-honours English. 'We are not likely to make offers to candidates with predictions lower than two As and a B,' he says. 'That's just to make a start.'

Tony Higgins, chief executive of the polytechnic clearing system, and the future corporate affairs chief executive of the new Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, is not surprised by Stella's case. 'She has applied to study a very popular subject at universities that are in great demand,' he says. 'Candidates have to adopt a strategy and apply for places that ask for slightly lower grades as well.'

Rumours abound that some universities discriminate against hopeful students who also apply to Oxford or Cambridge. 'It's a tactical game and it shouldn't be,' Mr Higgins says. 'How can a candidate tell what an admissions tutor's prejudices may be? Some might feel that a candidate who has applied mainly to traditionally middle-class places with high intakes from the private sector is not for them.'

Clearly, candidates face a complex set of unclear and unwritten rules and need as much advice as they can get. Malcolm Dere, secretary of the Standing Conference on University Entrance, fears there may be a gulf between those 'in the know' (likely to be affluent and middle class) and unknowing outsiders.

Philip Eyles, Stella's former principal, says she was one of the college's most able students and it was not for them to tell her she should not apply to good universities: 'For a girl of that ability, I think there was a reasonable expectation that she would get into somewhere on her list.'

Mr Higgins believes the present admissions system is due for an overhaul. At a recent higher education conference he asked: 'Can the gentlemanly rules introduced in the early Sixties cope with the jungle of the Nineties?'

If schools adopted a four-term year ending in mid-June, and universities started their courses later in the year, students could apply for places knowing their results. Admissions tutors then would base decisions on hard evidence rather than notoriously inaccurate predictions. Pupils should also be able to see their references.

Some headteachers want a system under which universities would not be aware of other institutions to which candidates had applied, ensuring that applicants were judged on merit alone. Mr Higgins is confident that there will be changes.

But for students such as Stella, the only hope now is to study hard, pass the exams and then enter the clearing system or reapply next year. At least they will know their results and have a better idea of what they are up against.

(Photograph omitted)