Education Quandary: 'My high-flying son has been rejected by three medical schools in Scotland. Is this anti-English? Ironically, we live in Essex but are Scottish

Hilary's advice

I didn't think it could be, but I was wrong. Look closely at Edinburgh University's website and the bias is spelled out in the small print. The university gives "additional weighting" to applicants for some courses, depending on where they live.

Whatever you think of this, and a lot of people think very poorly of it, the fact is that there is growing pressure on places at all popular universities and it makes sense for parents to help their children take the most strategic approach possible to their applications. In this case it might have meant somehow procuring a suitably Scottish home address for the applicant. In other cases, different tactics can pay off. I know of one mother who says she successfully steered her well-spoken but grammar school-educated son into Cambridge by researching all the student data she could find and then pointing him towards a posh college in obvious need of more state-educated students to broaden its intake.

There are other things would-be medical students can do to help themselves. Smart applicants research early and well. They look at all the schools, not just the obvious ones or the ones their teachers suggest, and are prepared to consider the new medical schools such as those at Sussex and Warwick, as well as the established ones. They are also prepared to forego an attractive location if it means a better chance of getting in. In short, they are willing to do whatever it takes, knowing that a clutch of good A-levels is a guarantee of nothing.

But it is not at all unusual for good medical school applicants to be rejected by all the universities they apply for. The demand for places is extraordinarily high. Determined candidates often apply again the following year after using their gap year to gain relevant experience by working at some menial job in the health service. And many are successful, not only because they are more thoughtful and mature, but also because they have shown real commitment and have plenty to talk about in their interviews.

Readers' advice

As a graduate of Colchester Royal Grammar School in Essex, and, more recently, a British medical school, I am writing to propose an alternative theory for your son's disappointment. The answer to your question lies not in his nationality, but in your assumption that medicine is entirely academic. Perhaps it once was. The modern doctor is, however, kind, caring, empathetic and altruistic.

My suggestion would have been for your son to sacrifice a couple of hours revision a week (and perhaps risk losing the * from one of his A grades) in favour of expressing his humanistic side at a local nursing home or soup kitchen. Arriving at a medical school interview with a fistful of A grades, is a sure fire way not to stand out from the crowd.

George Goodchild, junior doctor, London

Over recent years, Edinburgh and other Scottish universities have become the destination of choice for hundreds of pupils from private schools in the south of England. Those of us whose own children struggle to get into their local universities fully understand why it is necessary to adjust the balance.

Jean Murray, Edinburgh

If your son really wants to be a doctor, crying racist will do him no good. Much better he takes the set back in his stride and aims to do another degree allied to medicine, or takes a year out and tries again next year. Those who give up at the first attempt are obviously not that committed to their career ambitions.

George Tannakby, Oxford

NEXT WEEK'S QUANDARY

Email your election queries to asktheindependent@independent.co.uk

What is the best way to keep children calm before exams? All my children are prone to exam nerves, and we had real problems when my son took his GCSEs last year. Now it is my daughter's turn, and we are dreading the build-up to the exams this summer term.

Send your replies, or any quandaries you would like to have addressed, to h.wilce@btinternet. com. Please include your postal address. Readers whose replies are printed will receive a Collins Paperback English Dictionary 5th Edition. Previous quandaries are online at www.hilarywilce.com. They can be searched by topic.

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