Education Quandary

'Our son is put off by the numbers who apply to popular universities and says he'll only apply to ones where he has a hope of getting in. Isn't this defeatist?'
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Hilary's Advice

Hilary's Advice

Remind him that although universities love to puff their own importance by bragging about how many would-be students are clamouring at their gates, those students are also clamouring at other campus entrances. A student who applies to, say, York, is likely to be also applying to Durham, Bristol, Exeter, Edinburgh and Leeds, and every single one of those universities will count him in their application figures. But at the end of the day, that single student is only going to take up one place, leaving others free for other people.

In fact your son is starting in completely the wrong place, and should put out of his mind what everybody else is doing. He needs to think first about what course he wants to do, and then about where would be good to do it. Then he needs to think about which of those places most appeals to him, and whether his predicted results mean he has a chance of getting into them.

Aiming too low is certainly defeatist, especially if he is doing A2 subjects which depend on the results of final exams - any student can put on a spurt at the end of Year 13 and do better than they had anticipated. Aiming unrealistically high, of course, will bring disappointment, which is why so many teachers advise pupils to go for a spread of "two high, two medium and two safe" applications to cover every option.

But ambitious students prefer to aim higher, arguing that they see no point in putting down universities they don't want to go to, and that even if they fail to get into any of their six most wanted places, the great circus of summer clearing is likely to throw up more interesting possibilities than the unwanted options they feel they would need to put down on their Ucas form if they were playing completely safe.

The important thing to hold in mind is that sheer numbers make the whole system a bit of a lottery - luck inevitably plays a part, and a certain amount of rejection and failure is something that applicants have to deal with.

Readers' Advice

Who is going to university here? Your son, or you? Isn't it up to him to decide where he wants to apply? When I applied for university four years ago, I couldn't believe how many parents were doing the whole thing for their children. They turned up to the open days, and hogged all the lecturers' time, and asked all the questions, while their sons and daughters sat there like little lambs. You should back off and let him make his own decisions. It's his life and he's an adult.

Greg Pallister, Lancaster

I did what your son did and immediately regretted it. I knew from the first day I wasn't going to be happy at the university I'd gone to, so I applied to change, and got into a place I hadn't dared try for first time round. It meant I had to start my degree again, and I lost a year, but I worked nights for six months and saved towards the extra costs, and it has all been worth it. Tell him to aim as high as he possibly can; otherwise, he'll always wonder about what might have been.

Stephanie Jones, Cardiff

Make sure your son goes and visits the universities he is interested in, and get him to speak to the students there. That will make it seem more real to him. He will realise that ordinary folk just like himself are at these places, and that the big name universities are nothing like the picture he has built up in his mind. As a former sixth-form tutor I know there are always one or two pupils who get wobbly over applying to university, often because, underneath, they are scared about going away from home and feel they are not ready to take this step.

Cindy Porrit, Lancashire

Next quandary

I have two friends who have recently started home-schooling their children, and they are really sold on the benefits. Like their children, my daughter is not really thriving at the local primary school, so I am interested in trying it too, but my friends are both trained teachers and I'm not. How much would this matter?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 15 March, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser