One sixth-former argues that universities should offer places after A-level results, as another waits in trepidation for that envelope

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The Independent Online
I have never played the pools, nor purchased a National Lottery ticket. However, earlier this year, my whole future was determined by a chaotic, unjust and brutal lottery - the university application system.

With my predicted grades of two As and an A/B, the thought of being rejected by a university had only crossed my mind when discussing Cambridge. I had been led to believe that with such near-perfect grades, I could go to any institution. However, I never guessed that the growing number of 18-year-olds with equally as impressive estimated grades would mean that absolutely nothing could be taken for granted. I had certainly never anticipated that out of six applications, the only two offers I would receive were the ones I had never considered taking up.

Ever since my GCSE years I had aimed to study for a degree in Government at the London School of Economics. I carefully selected my A-level subjects so that I would be well-prepared for a political degree; and when I received my predictions, I never seriously thought that they might not accept me. Even so, I took my tutor's advice and used the remaining five spaces on my UCAS form to apply for various courses with lower grade requirements than the LSE.

As my chosen course at the LSE required the A-level grades of an A and two Bs, I was stunned when I was rejected almost immediately. The reaction of my Sixth Form College was also one of bewilderment and they wrote to the Admissions Tutor demanding an explanation. We were only told that the tremendous popularity of the course had resulted in well-qualified candidates being rejected. However, they confessed that as they had over- admitted in 1995, it had been necessary to reduce the number of places for the next year.

This highlights the deficiencies of the current system. Universities always make more offers than they have places on the assumption that some will not make the grades. However, it is incredibly difficult to accurately predict how many students will fulfil their conditional offers. This can lead to a lower-than-expected intake of students, or, as in the case of the LSE, an over-admittance for which the following year's students are penalised.

I firmly believe that if students applied after their A-level results, the universities would not be faced with such uncertainty over numbers. There would also be fewer candidates for each course as students would not need to apply to six different universities to cover themselves for disappointing grades. This would mean less competition for courses.

The battle for university places cannot become more fierce than it already is. At Leeds University, I was one of 700 candidates for 40 places on the Communications course. With the required grades of three Bs, Leeds had been a back-up choice I had never intended to accept. Four months after my application had been processed, I was asked by the university to change to Broadcast Journalism. I wrote a letter to the Admissions Tutor explaining why I had chosen Communications. The following morning he phoned me to tell me that my application had been successful. However, he admitted that my letter had played a crucial role; it had set me apart from hundreds of other top-grade candidates. Although I chose not to take up the place, it frightened me to think of how close I had been to missing out at Leeds too.

But Birmingham University really was mission impossible. In 1994, 1,328 people had competed for 12 places on my chosen course. I could not see how such a tiny percentage of the applicants could be fairly selected on the basis of predicted grades. It would indeed be a lottery.

I received no correspondence from the University until early May, when they confessed that they simply could not make up their minds, therefore I was invited to an open day/interview two days later. Furious at the ridiculously late notice of this request, I phoned them to explain that I could not make it on the specified date. A week later, I was informed that my application had been unsuccessful. With relatively low grade requirements for this course, I suspect Birmingham's problems had arisen out of the fact that they were unsure as to which applicants saw the university as their first choice and which had merely used it to fill up the spaces. If students were to apply after A-level results, this would not be such a problem.

So I have lost out on this year's university lottery, but I have decided to gamble on. If I do get my three As, I shall re-apply in the autumn and hope that the odds are more favourable next time.


My heart pace accelerates and my palms become clammy at the mention of A-levels. Virtually every phone conversation in the past week has included momentary panic, nervous chatter and disbelief. I can't believe the dreaded day is finally here!

The countdown is over. Once, I could work out the weeks or days till the results came out, now I'm counting the hours and minutes. The endless UCAS application forms and the exasperating "Personal Statement" exist only as a distant memory. I have survived the numerous interviews, chosen my university, and sat the examinations, but can I survive the results?

Despite constant reassurances from friends and family, I am a nervous wreck. The only other occasion when I experienced similar emotions of fear, dread and anticipation was two years ago when my GCSE results came out. After a restless night I rose, feeling exhausted both mentally and physically, but when I collected my results, all previous anxieties seemed trivial and pointless.

The pragmatic side of me reasons there is no point in panicking - the examinations have been marked and all the worrying in the world will not change the results.

A comforting factor is the expectation that this year A-level results will be better than ever, a consequence of the new, modular examination system. (This is of little reassurance, as I did not sit any modular exams.)

However, in spite of all this logical reasoning, I am afraid I will not get the grade I know I am capable of achieving in Ancient History. This is a result of one paper ending disastrously when I became distracted by the school orchestra playing Shostakovich and a mobile phone bleeping in the last half of the exam.

I hope to study Ancient History at University College London, and eventually become a journalist. I feel that, theoretically speaking, A-levels are entrance examinations into university or college. Today they will determine my future, and the next three years of my life.

So, until I open that envelope, all rational thinking will be suspended. Only my plans for the pub will remain definite, whether to celebrate, or drown my sorrows, I'll know at 12 o'clock.