Education Quandary

'My parents really want me to do four A-levels, saying that it will give me the edge in getting into university. But I want to do three. What should I do?'
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The Independent Online

Hilary's Advice

Your parents are both wrong and right. Yes, university entrance has become much more of a bun-fight since the numbers applying shot up. Admissions staff only have time to flick through Ucas forms, so anything that makes your application jump out at them will be good. But a fourth A-level is probably not that thing. A university might be impressed by it if you go to the kind of bottom-of-the-league-table school where getting any sort of qualification is an achievement, but if you go to a good private school, or a some high-performing state school or sixth-form college, the likely reaction will be: so what?

A better approach would be to think of a way to make your particular application really stand out. Could you do an Advanced Extension Award in the subject you want to study at university? This qualification is designed to stretch the top 10 per cent of pupils, so if universities see that on your form, they will know that you are in that bracket.

If you're applying for an applied course, make sure that you have relevant work experience in that field - hospitals, designing, computers, etc - to show that you have real commitment. And if you're applying for an arts subject such as English or history, start reading more widely around your subject and going to relevant workshops, plays, films and lectures, so that when the time comes to fill out your Ucas form you will be able to demonstrate (by skilful wording of your personal statement) that you are a person with a real passion for this area.

And keep up your other interests, too. If you play sports, do drama or music, or have made some commitment to community work, you and your school will be much more able to write you up as an engaged and able student with a lot to offer any university.

Of course, doing a fourth A-level because you don't want to drop a subject you are enjoying, or because you want to achieve something specific, such as improving a language, is another thing altogether. In that case, go for it. As long as it is not at the expense of getting high grades in your other three subjects.

Readers' Advice

You are too old for your parents to have any but the most minor part in your academic choices, so the school is right; it is up to you. And I'm not sure that your parents are right that a package of four A-levels is more attractive than three; my daughter's school confines its girls to three A-levels, with no exceptions. Yet the school is St Paul's Girls', and many go on to Oxbridge. So, do three A-levels and choose the subjects you really enjoy; your parents won't be doing the job you get as a result of the choices you make now.

Katie Mavity, Barnes

Only take three! I was in the same position, and decided to narrow down to three A-levels. I, too, thought that a fourth qualification would demonstrate greater ability, time-management skills, etc, but then thought, why would I want a university offer based on four grades rather than three? I was offered a place at Cambridge based on my three A-levels, whereas friends applying for the same subject were asked for an extra A grade because they were taking an extra A-level. I'm sure admissions offices will give you more credit if you use the extra time to develop soft skills and new interests. Go for quality over quantity!

Clare Lewis, Cambridge

I want to apply to medical school and have decided to carry on with four A-levels because I need the three sciences for my application, but medical schools are looking for people with broader interests. By doing my politics course, I can demonstrate that I have these, and also that I can handle a big workload and (hopefully) achieve across the board.

Simon Chun, Cheshire

Next quandary

Is it worth moving house for a good primary school? There is a great school a couple of miles from us, and we know families that are trying to get into the catchment area, but we are happy living where we do, and don't want the upheaval and expense of moving. On the other hand, we don't want our children to miss out, and our local schools don't seem to be much good.

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 1 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