A Complete Guide to the EPQ | Oxford Royale Summer Schools

The time for you to apply to university is fast approaching, and you may be starting to think about how you’re going to make your university application that little bit more eye-catching. If you have the prospect of a long summer stretching before you and you have no other plans, why not use the summer months to give yourself the best chance of a successful university application? In this article, we introduce you to one way of doing this: the Extended Project Qualification, or EPQ. You may not have heard of it, but we’re going to show you that there are lots of reasons why it’s worth considering.

What is the EPQ?

The Extended Project Qualification, or EPQ, is offered by many schools, and it’s a standalone qualification that’s a bit like a mini-thesis. You’re allowed to choose whatever topic you like – it doesn’t even have to be related to your A-levels – so it’s about as flexible as you can get. It’s unlikely to be included in your university offer, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a respected qualification; it’s certainly no General Studies. Most people start their EPQ over the summer between AS and A2 levels.

What do you have to do to get an EPQ?

You’ll need to register for the EPQ through your school, assuming they offer it. Once you’ve chosen your topic (more on that later), your task is to conduct detailed academic research into that topic. You then have two options:
1. You write a 5,000 word report.
2. You create a ‘production’ or ‘artefact’ and write a 1,000 word report.

Why bother with the EPQ?

So why bother with it, when you already have A-levels to worry about? Well, at a time when it’s increasingly difficult to make your university application stand out, what’s needed is a qualification that highlights the academic skills that admissions tutors are looking for. The EPQ is just such a means of proving that you have talent in the very same areas needed to succeed at university. It’s an academic exercise that has direct relevance to the way in which you’re likely to study once you get to university, as it involves conducting research, just as you would for a university thesis. It’s also a great talking point on your personal statement and in university interviews, demonstrating your enthusiasm for the subject and giving you the chance to show off your knowledge of a particular area of the discipline.
As well as the obvious research skills the EPQ helps you develop and demonstrate, it has many additional benefits, as it confers on you a range of other useful skills and demonstrates your suitability for undergraduate study in numerous ways. These advantages include:

  • It helps you develop the ability to conduct your own, self-directed programme of study. You’ll be planning your own work, and nobody is going to be there to tell you what to do (though you’ll have a supervisor who’ll be able to give you rough pointers).
  • It shows you to be self-motivated, as you’ll need to have the discipline to see your project to fruition – even though it’s the summer and you’ll have plenty of distractions.
  • It demonstrates that you have the initiative to pursue your own academic interests. Admissions tutors will love this, because that’s exactly the initiative you’ll need at university.
  • It develops your knowledge of your subject beyond the A-level syllabus. This gives you a deeper understanding of the subject and places you at an advantage over those who’ve merely done the A-level.
  • It teaches you how to make use of different research materials, not just A-level textbooks. You’ll learn how to use a library for research, and get used to the idea of writing footnotes and bibliographies, which you’ll have to do at university.

What’s more, it doesn’t just help you with applying to university; it’s a satisfying thing to do for your own sake, simply because it allows you to explore a subject you find interesting, in depth. Leaving aside the fact that you’ll come out with an extra qualification, it’s learning for learning’s sake, and you can revel in the fact that you can devote your time to studying something you genuinely find interesting. This will probably make a refreshing change from the classroom, in which there will inevitably be subjects forced upon you that you’d rather not bother with.

What kind of things can I study for my EPQ?

The beauty of the EPQ is that you decide what you study. Of course, in view of the fact that you’re applying to university, it would make sense to select a topic that ties in with the subject you’re planning to study at university (hopefully you’ve decided this by now!). Below you’ll find some guidance on how to choose what to study and whether to choose the longer thesis or the ‘production’ option.

Choosing your topic for a 5,000 word report

When you can choose pretty much any topic you want, it can be difficult to figure out what to do. It makes sense to choose a subject that’s related to what you’re aiming to study at university, as this is an extra way of demonstrating your enthusiasm for the subject, and the fact that you possess the research skills needed to excel in it. It’s also a good way of keeping your mind active and thinking about your future university subject over the summer, ready to write a brilliant personal statement come the start of the new school year. The topic can’t be too broad, or else you don’t stand a chance of doing the topic justice; for example, there would be far too much to cover if you chose the First World War (as a whole) as your topic. A much narrower research focus is needed, to allow you to explore one aspect of a bigger topic in plenty of depth. For example, in the First World War example, you’d stand a better chance with a very specific aspect of the war, such as the Christmas truce, or the Zeppelin attacks on England, or the role of a specific type of aircraft, such as the Sopwith Camel. To give you another example, let’s say you were aiming to study music at university. Trying to address an entire period of classical music, such as the Baroque period, might be a bit of a tall order in a 5,000 word thesis. Even picking the life and works of a famous Baroque composer, such as Bach, might be quite an undertaking. But you could find a lesser-known Baroque composer to research and write about, about whom less is generally known. Or you could research a particular (unusual/antique) instrument and the works written for it during the Baroque period. You could even look into the different kinds of venues used for musical performances during the Baroque period. Ultimately, you’ll need to come up with a specific research question to give direction to your research. For example, taking the Sopwith Camel example above, your question might be “To what extent did the Sopwith Camel shape the outcome of the First World War?” Your question will need to be approved before you can start work.

Choosing your production or artefact

If the thought of writing a 5,000 word report fills you with dread, your alternative is to choose a production or artefact instead. You’ll still need to produce a written report to accompany it, but it’s much shorter, at 1,000 words. What you can do for this is just as flexible as the longer report option. Here are a few examples:

  • A musical performance or recording
  • A mobile phone app
  • A website
  • A piece of software
  • A short film
  • A short story
  • A model of something
  • A piece of art
  • An invention
  • A charity event
  • A fashion show

Ideally, if you’re applying to university, you would choose something that’s in some way related to your future university course. For instance, if you were going to be studying art, then a piece of art would make sense as your chosen EPQ project. A short story would tie in nicely with English Literature, while a musical performance would demonstrate your capabilities in music if that’s what you’re aiming to study at university. Your future career aims may also lead you more towards this option rather than the 5,000 word report, as you can use your project to build up relevant experience for your CV. For example, if you want to go into the fashion industry, then organising a fashion show is an obvious fit. If your ambition is to work for a charity, organising a charity event will be invaluable experience as well as giving you an extra qualification. The benefits of the EPQ, then, go far beyond simply having an extra piece of paper to add to your collection of certificates.

Conducting the research

This may be your first big piece of academic research, so you may be wondering where on earth to start with such an undertaking. You will have a supervisor who’ll be able to teach you the skills you need and point you in the right direction. Some general tips for conducting effective academic research may come in useful. For example, try to make use of as many different resources as you can when you’re conducting your research, including primary and secondary sources, books in the library, the internet, and so on. As you go along, keep a bibliography and record everything you’ve read, including specific page numbers. Be critical of your own methodologies in collecting data, if that’s what you’re doing, and consider the strengths and weaknesses of your methods. These are things you’ll need to get used to thinking about when you go to university, so the EPQ is an excellent warm-up.

How is the EPQ marked?

You’ll need to get a grade between A* and E in order to be awarded the EPQ – anything lower than an E means you don’t get the qualification, so it’s slightly different from A-levels in that respect. Looking at the AQA Specification, there are a number of ‘assessment objectives’ used to decide your final grade, the weighting of which is divided up as follows:

  • Manage – 20%. This covers your ability to come up with a project idea and plan how you’re going to achieve it, using “a range of skills, strategies and methods to achieve objectives.”
  • Use Resources – 20%. This covers the research phase and how well you’re able to select, organise and deploy relevant information. It also looks at your ability to analyse data, including your ability to see the connections between things you’ve observed, and your appreciation of the “complexities of the topic”.
  • Develop and Realise – 40%. This aspect means how well you’re able to carry out your project and see it to fruition, using a range of appropriate skills and technologies.
  • Review – 20%. This means how well you evaluate every aspect of your project, such as whether you’ve achieved your objectives, and how well you’ve performed throughout the project. It also reflects your ability to “Select and use a range of communication skills and media to present evidenced project outcomes and conclusions in an appropriate format.”

The mark scheme makes it sound scarier than it is, as mark schemes always do. But if you’re looking for an interesting project to get your teeth into, you can’t do much better than the EPQ thanks to the excellent preparation it gives you for thinking like an undergraduate. It’s a fair bit of work, but the rewards – both in terms of university preparation and personal enjoyment – make it more than worth the effort.