Whilst meeting academic requirements remains the most important aspect of university applications, institutions are increasingly placing emphasis on the demonstration of extra-curricular activities in personal statements, according to new research published today by World Challenge.
However, there is still vast differentiation between exactly how and when non-academic experiences come into play in the admissions process, causing confusion for schools and students. There is an even split in perceptions amongst universities as to whether the current process places enough emphasis on extra-curricular activities with 46.2% agreeing and 44.6% disagreeing.
More than half of universities (58.5%) believe that it is now more important for students to demonstrate experience beyond academic achievements in their university applications compared with 10 years ago, with only 4.6% saying that it is now less important. This is in the context of education policy changes which prioritise traditional academic learning over broader skills development.
Traditional universities in particular are becoming more concerned with taking a holistic approach to reviewing a student application, largely attributed to widening participation, the de-coupling of A-levels and the growing focus on student employability post-graduation. Modern universities on the other hand are proud of having a strong tradition of looking beyond academic grades to spot potential.
The findings come after Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s announcement that £5m in funding will be put into developing children’s ‘grit and resilience’, following her insistence that expanding character is as important as good grades.
Universities surveyed corroborated Morgan’s belief of the importance of character development. Institutions cited commitment, strong communication skills, independence and motivation as desirable attributes in prospective candidates.
The research also found that how these experiences were demonstrated in university applications carried almost as much importance as taking part in the activities themselves. Universities are looking for students to reflect on experiences and demonstrate evidence of the skills gained rather than lists of activities taken part in.
Universities were unwilling to identify any particular activity as being particularly valuable, instead emphasising the need for students to focus on experiences that are going to be relevant and directly beneficial for the course that they are applying for.
The key findings of the report were as follows:
- 97% of universities and students surveyed said that it is important for prospective students to demonstrate their involvement in extra-curricular activities in their personal statement.
- 58.5% of universities think that it is more important for students to demonstrate extra-curricular experience in their applications compared with 10 years ago.
- The top three 'soft-skills' that universities are looking for are communication (64.6%), planning/organisation (46.2%) and independence (38.5%). Students perceived the most valuable 'soft-skills' to be communication (45.3%), responsibility (40.7%) and team-work (39.3%).
- Extra-curricular experience will increasingly be taken into consideration by admissions tutors following the decoupling of A-levels from AS-levels, given the unreliability of predicted grades.
- As graduate employability contributes to university rankings, admissions tutors are using extra-curricular experience as a tool to enable them to recruit the most employable students.
- Extra-curricular experience is also increasingly being used by admissions tutors to help them widen participation, where academic grades may not necessarily be an indicator of potential.
- The real value of extra-curricular experience is seen as not only helping students to stand out and secure a place at university, but also to prepare them to succeed at university and on into the workplace.
"This research has shown that whilst having the required academic grades remains the most important factor in securing a university place, universities are now placing more value on broader experiences and life skills," said Matt Eastlake, Group Managing Director at World Challenge.
"The challenge for students and teachers is to know exactly what universities are looking for due to the range of different perceptions throughout the sector. Overall the general advice is that students need to really think about what extra-curricular activities are going to be most relevant and have most impact on their personal development. It is about quality over quantity; not necessarily filling your time with every opportunity possible but focusing on a couple of really key activities that will best prepare you for where you want to go in life."
The research consisted of over 50 qualitative interviews, corroborated by over 400 quantitative responses to two online surveys. Interviewees and respondents were formed of representatives of HE bodies, heads of admissions and student recruitment at UK universities, heads of sixth-form at UK schools and colleges and students either in their first year at university or currently applying through UCAS.
A copy of the full report, Giving You the Edge: What is the Real Value of Extra-curricular Experience in the University Application Process, is available to view for free at: www.world-challenge.co.uk/university