My grades aren’t up to my favourite university’s typical offer – should I still apply? | Oxford Royale Summer Schools

You have your sights set on going to a particular university, but you’ve just found out that their typical offer is tougher than you were expecting.
If your heart sank on reading this information, and you don’t think your grades will be up to it, what should you do? The answer to that clearly depends very much on your own circumstances, but with a bit of help from this article, you should be able to come up with a course of action that will enable you to reach a positive outcome.
 

Your predicted grades

You should by now know what grades you’re predicted to achieve in your A-levels, based on your AS results, so you can assess the discrepancy between the offer and what you’re predicted. It’s likely that the universities you’ve been looking at, or even already hold an offer from, are after grades that are somewhere in the ballpark of what you’ve been predicted, as you’ve hopefully been looking at universities that would suit your level of academic ability. If you think you may miss out on making the grades in your offer by a small amount – ABB instead of AAB, for instance – you’ll need to be able to convince the university (and yourself!) that you can bring your grades up. If there is a significant discrepancy, you need to work out why. Is it because personal circumstances have adversely affected your predicted grades? Or have you made the wrong choice of university? We’ll look at these possibilities in more detail shortly.
Predicted grades aren’t the only aspect of your application that count, of course. Your GCSE grades are also important, and your personal statement and academic references even more so, because these are what give admissions tutors an indication of your interest in the subject and attitude towards academic study. But predicted A-level grades (and your actual performance at AS level) are the university’s way of ascertaining your current level of academic ability, so they are a major consideration in making offers.

Have you made the right choice of university?

If there is a large discrepancy between your predicted grades and your favourite university’s typical offer, you need to ask yourself some pretty searching questions. In a situation like this, it’s important to be objective and realistic. It’s easy to get so absorbed in the process of applying to a particular university that you can’t see the wood for the trees. If your grades aren’t what the university is looking for, could it be that you’ve perhaps made the wrong choice of university? Universities set high entrance requirements because they want to select students who will be capable of handling the workload they will be given, and capable of achieving the academic standards that will be expected of them.
Be brutally honest with yourself: do you really want to go to this university if the workload is going to be too difficult for you? If you did happen to be given a place on the basis of a lower offer, would you end up struggling with the academic side of things and have a miserable university experience? The admissions tutors don’t want that any more than you do, so think carefully about whether a different university (with lower entrance requirements) might actually be better suited to you.

The university’s perspective

Conditional offers aren’t there to try to exclude you out of malice. They’re there because universities have a limited number of places to fill and they need to ensure that those places are taken by students who are suited to the demands of the course, and by those who will achieve academic results in keeping with the university’s expectations. Bear in mind that universities do look at your application as a whole, and if you come across as exceptional in other areas, this may be enough to cancel out the detrimental effect of lower-than-desired predicted grades, at least for less popular courses.
With many courses very over-subscribed, universities may be reluctant to lower their offer for you, as they already have more than enough students who will meet the offer conditions. This means that even if your predicted grades may only narrowly have missed out on the required grades, you may find it difficult to secure a place, particularly if you drop below ABB. It’s also unlikely that you’ll be allowed to take up your place if you get ABC and your offer is BBB. You may stand more of a chance of the university being lenient with your grades if the course is under-subscribed.
For more popular courses, a university may also make you a higher offer than you’re predicted to achieve because they like you enough to make you, effectively, their ‘insurance’ choice – they make more offers than places because they know that some students won’t make the grades and some will exceed their predicted grades.
 

Deciding on a course of action

If you’re dead set on applying to this university and you’re convinced it’s the right choice, your course of action naturally depends on what part of the university application process you’re at. Specifically, are you:
Thinking about which universities to apply to?
Holding an offer you don’t think you can meet?
The rest of this article takes you through different possibilities for what to do next.

Do you think you can bring your grades up to the necessary level?

How far away from the target grades are you? If it’s only a question of lifting your predicted grade in one subject by one grade, it may well be feasible. Talk to your teachers for this subject and get their thoughts on what you need to do in order to bring your grade up. Work out a plan for extra study and you may be able to put yourself on track to achieve a higher grade (you just need to show the university that you can do it, but more on that shortly).
If you have lower predicted grades than you’d like across all your subjects, have you identified a reason as to why this may be the case? If so, is there anything you can do about it? For example, your work during term time may have suffered due to illness or a family problem, in which case you may be able to work extra hard to make up for lost time. If your predicted grades are lower than you’d like simply because you’ve been lazy and haven’t studied hard enough, then again you may be able to put in some extra work now to make up for having not done enough up to now. But, realistically, it may be too late. If you have no such reasons, and your predicted grades simply reflect your academic level, it may be that you’ve made the wrong choice of university; it would be a good idea at this point to start looking at universities with lower entrance requirements.

Your personal statement

If your predicted grades are lower than the typical offer made by your first-choice university, it’s a good idea to mention them in your personal statement and try to explain that you think you can bring them up to the required level, and how you’re planning to do it. You might add a few words of explanation if there’s a good reason for which they’re not as high as you’d like (such as illness in the family), and you could also point to other evidence of your academic ability as proof that you’re worthy of an offer (such as your GCSE results). If you have stunning GCSE grades and a strong personal statement, a university might be more willing to err on the side of leniency with your predicted grades – particularly if your academic references are also strong.
 

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.
 

Choosing a firm and insurance point

You face a tough decision if you’ve been made an offer that you’re not sure you’re capable of achieving. Do you go with your favourite university, even if they’ve made you an unrealistic offer? If you do, you face the prospect of a huge amount of pressure to achieve the grades, and the extra stress may actually make your grades go the opposite way. Or do you accept a lower offer from somewhere else, and give up your dream of going to your favourite university? Again, it depends on how much of a discrepancy there is between your predicted grades and the offer, but the university will have made you the offer knowing what your predicted grades are, so they must have some confidence in you.
One way of looking at this dilemma is that the whole reason why you have a firm and insurance choice is because you might miss out on the grades for your first choice. So, you could still pick your favourite (the higher offer) as your firm, and choose a sensible insurance choice that you genuinely wouldn’t mind going to. Work hard for your A-levels without placing too much pressure on yourself, and prepare yourself mentally for going to your insurance choice; then if you do end up getting the grades for your first choice, it will be a bonus.
Even if it’s not your first choice, chances are you’ll still have a great time. That said, if there’s a big discrepancy and you really don’t think you stand a chance of achieving the offer grades, no matter how much work you put in, then it might be better to discount this offer and choose a firm and insurance from your remaining offers. Only you can decide how much your first choice university means to you, and whether or not you could truly be happy with going to one of your other choices. Bear in mind, however, that the vast majority of students end up loving the university they go to, whether or not it was originally their first choice.
If your only offers are for grades you don’t think you can make, your other option is to decline those offers and try your luck with UCAS Extra, which allows you to apply for other courses, one at a time, that haven’t yet been filled. There’s more information on this here, but bear in mind that this is a risky strategy because you may end up with no offers at all (and, having declined those offers, you can’t then go back to the universities to beg them to give you the offer back). If this tactic proves unsuccessful, there’s also Clearing, for which universities often lower their entrance requirements to fill up remaining places (these tend to be the undersubscribed courses and universities, so you may not find exactly the course or university you’re after).
 

Re-applying

If you really want to go to one a particular university above all others, but your predicted grades aren’t sufficient to get you an offer this time round, you always have the option to reapply next year. There are several reasons why you can be in a stronger position second time round:

  • You’ll have actual rather than predicted grades, giving the university something more concrete to go on.
  • If your grades ended up not being quite what you were hoping for, you can retake.
  • You’ll have a year in which you can get a job, travel, and undertake various activities relevant to the course you’re applying for. This means that you’ll approach your second application with a bit more maturity, as well as relevant experience to show the admissions tutors how interested you are in your subject.

Whatever you decide to do, approach it realistically. The last thing you need as you’re preparing for A-levels is an undue amount of pressure to achieve more than you’re capable of, as this is far more likely to have a negative impact on your grades. Find a university whose academic expectations you feel comfortable with, complete your A-level studies to the best of your abilities, and then look forward to starting life at a university where you’ll fit in.