Education: How to read the signs on the road to university: Anne Daniel offers applicants some tips on using a new guide

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The Independent Online
University and College Entrance will replace the separate publications for universities and polytechnics that have been published in previous years. Buying both University Entrance and Polytechnic Courses Handbook last year cost pounds 27.95 (pounds 13.95 and pounds 14 respectively).

This year's publication has been sponsored by the Independent and Letts Study Guides, enabling the price to be held down to pounds 10, which Ucas hopes will bring it within the reach of parents and students, as well as schools and careers advisers.

The 1,200-page guide will be published in early June, and includes 40 pages of advice and 180 pages of university and higher education institution profiles, as well as information on courses.

It will be available from all good bookshops, or can be obtained direct from the distributors, Sheed & Ward, 14 Cooper's Row, London EC3N 2BH.

WHEN University and College Entrance is published next month it will contain more information than its predecessors. Not only will it include all first degrees, but also Higher National Diplomas and Diplomas of Higher Education. For each course there will be details of last year's numbers of applications and students accepted. Each subject table will tell you what combinations of A- and AS-level subjects are acceptable for entry, and what is required in Btec, International Baccalaureate, Scottish Highers and Scotvec qualifications.

The expected level of 1994 offers will also be listed. When the expected grade offers were first published, they answered a long- felt need and arguably gave potential students a better chance of identifying where their best chances of success lay. But when such information is down in black and white, there is a risk that students will assume that the whole process of university selection is more mechanistic and static than it really is.

Candidates and universities have different expectations of standard offers. To a candidate they probably represent the level you have to achieve to secure a place. For a university, the standard offer is a control mechanism to ensure they attract the right candidates in the right numbers to fill places efficiently and with reasonable choice.

Universities and departments use offers in different ways. Some departments feel the way they want to teach demands the kind of ability demonstrated by high A-level grades. In others, high grades reflect competition. Some departments, which do not interview candidates, pitch offers at a level that will generate a large number of applicants, to whom a large number of offers are made in the expectation that the right number of places will eventually be filled.

High standard grades indicate popularity more than quality. But, because many people misconstrue grades as indicators of quality, departments are afraid of deterring more able candidates by pitching offers too low. There are risks in offers which are too high, but they do give selectors more control over the system; they may prefer to go back and choose again rather than be committed to those with lower grades. But the emphasis is still on attracting applicants rather than on selecting students. When it comes to selection, the plot thickens.

Selectors are trying to judge an applicant's potential to succeed at, benefit from and contribute to a course of higher education. Grades are only one factor. The others, as revealed by what you have said about yourself in your Universities and Colleges Admission Service (Ucas) form, what your school said in its confidential report and how you came across if interviewed, will determine if you get an offer and at what level it will be set.

Looking at the balance of evidence, a selector might decide to deviate from the standard offer to either challenge or encourage a particular candidate. For example, if a report says a student is brilliant but lazy, he or she may get a higher offer to test willingness and ability to apply him or herself. On the other hand, a very strong candidate may get a slightly lower offer to encourage him or her to accept (but not so low as to insult]).

Published standard offers are estimates, based on predictions of what will happen and historical evidence (for example, how many people are likely to accept at that level). If things do not go as predicted, the level of offers given can change over the course of the admissions cycle.

Things can also change in August after the A-level results are published. The degree of flexibility varies greatly. Some courses will accept an equivalent points score; others may insist on the grades stated in the key subject or subjects. Some may have considered you a good bet from the outset, marking your form 'Offer BBB, accept BBC'. Others who turned you down may look again.

You can get an idea of the flexibility that exists by comparing the actual grades of past successful candidates with the standard offer. This information is no longer available in University and College Entrance, but is given in many college prospectuses as a range or average. If you can, find out what proportion of candidates receives offers. Two courses may make CCC offers, but one may make it to 70 per cent of applicants and the other to 20 per cent.

There are clearly considerable differences in universities' policies, practices and popularity. Published standard offers are only guidelines, not promises, and are perhaps more useful in refining your choice than in making it. Unless you recognise that the selection process is complex and dynamic, you could end up settling for something rather than aspiring to it.