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Private Candidates: How to successfully apply through UCAS

Applying for university as a private candidate can sometimes be overwhelming, stressful and confusing. You don’t fit the mould of a ‘normal’ student, and you don’t have a school guiding you through the process. As a private candidate myself, I know the struggle. So here is a quick and easy guide on some of the most important things a private candidate should remember when applying through UCAS.

Be sure of all your deadlines

Private candidate 
UCAS application

When you are part of a school, they will normally keep you informed on all the important deadlines, whether internal or external. You might not have that luxury as a homeschooled student. But that’s not at all a problem, as everything you need to know is online.

Make sure that well in advance, you write down all the important application deadlines relevant to you. This includes, but isn’t limited to:

  • The deadlines for registering for admissions tests
  • The deadlines for completing admissions tests
  • The deadline for submitting your application

On top of this, you should set your own internal timelines. For example:

  • The date which you start working on your personal statement
  • The deadline for when you finish your personal statement
  • The deadline for receiving predicted grades and your teacher reference
  • The date which you start preparing for any admissions test (if you have any)

As a private candidate, you need to do this in order to stay on track and make sure everything gets done.

Plan how you are going to obtain predicted grades and a teacher reference

This one was a real obstacle for me, and I hope to help you avoid my mistakes. How does a home schooled student obtain predicted grades unless they do school online? It’s a tough one.

For me, I decided to reach out to the school I used to attend (and that my siblings still attended), and ask for help. Essentially, a few teachers sent me a series of tests in my A-level subjects, which I completed and sent back. Based on my performance, they sent me predicted grades. I also did one of my subjects with an online homeschooling program. If this sounds like it might be an option for you, I highly recommend it. Predicted grades coming from an ‘official’ school is much more credible.

However, arguably the best option would be enrolling with an online homeschooling program, as they are well equipped to handle private candidates.

Private Candidate
UCAS application

But maybe you have another way that you would like to get predicted grades, perhaps from your home tutors. If you aren’t sure how viable this is, don’t hesitate to email the universities you are interested in to ask them. At the end of the day, they will be the ones making the decision whether to admit you, so they know best. Additionally, they have your best interest.

As for the teacher reference, choose wisely who you are going to ask. Don’t ask a parent. Whoever sends in the reference should preferably have an official school email, i.e [email protected], not [email protected] This is something you will have to consider early on, as there should be someone with an official educational position that knows you well enough as a student to be able to write a reference for you.

The most important tip, however, is to start planning this as early as possible. You don’t want to find yourself a month before the application deadline at a loss as to how you are going to muster up reliable predicted grades!

Be prepared with the details of your exam centre

First things first, as I am sure you know, you will need to register at an exam centre to write your final exams. Do this early on so that its out of the way, and you don’t have to worry about it. This should not be a problem as there are plenty of exam centres that accept private candidates.

When putting in your grades and subject qualifications (including pending ones), you will need to include the details of the exam centre, so have these at hand. There isn’t an option to click that indicates you’re a private candidate so instead:

  1. Select the exam centre
  2. Specify your ‘time of attendance’ as the period of exams, for example, May-June 2019
  3. Select PT (part time)

While this doesn’t explicitly indicate that you are a private candidate, admissions officers will see this and understand what it means.

If you were involved with an online school, you can include them as well as the dates you attended. If not, then don’t worry, you don’t have to list any schools besides the exam centre.

You don’t need a buzzword

You may have heard this term thrown around before. Don’t worry, you don’t need it. When students apply through schools, their school provides a buzzword to use as a part of the application. You don’t need one, and it doesn’t put your application at a disadvantage.

In conclusion, don’t panic! There is no reason that you can’t have an excellent application as a private candidate. All it takes is some preparation. Good luck!

Private candidates: What to do now that A-level exams have been cancelled

A-level exams have been cancelled. Again. 

Private Candidate, cancelled A-level exams

We all thought that we were leaving the drama of Ofqual algorithms, and teacher-based grades in 2020, but it looks like 2021 might hold the same fate. And let’s be honest, no one had it worse than private candidates.

As a private candidate myself in 2020, I understand the fear, and uncertainty of navigating A-levels through the pandemic. I also understand that there is not a lot of information for us out there. So, I hope to change that by sharing my best attempt at outlining the possible paths forward for private candidates in the murky waters of 2021.

A quick recap of what happened in 2020

  • On the 18th of March, 2020, the UK government decided to cancel all A-level examinations that were supposed to take place in May. 
  • There was not a lot of time to make alternative arrangements that accommodated everyone. 
  • It was decided that Ofqual (an examination supervising body) would use an algorithm based on predicted grades and past school district performance to provide grades in the place of external exams. 
  • On results day, there was major upheaval and distress in response to what was perceived as unfair grades
  • So the algorithm approach was abandoned, and teacher-based predicted grades were used instead
  • Basically… it was a mess

But what about private candidates you might ask? Well, you aren’t the only one asking.

Private candidates were unfairly disadvantaged by the scheme because Ofqual was unable to provide alternative arrangements in time. They claimed that only those with a pre-existing relationship with their exam centre might be able to obtain grades from said exam centre. But come on, are you kidding?

Needless to say, private candidates barely scraped by, and some didn’t at all! In fact, there were many private candidates counting on taking their exams in 2021 instead, and now that’s no longer an option.

So how can 2021 be different? 

There is more time to come up with a plan

The 2020 exam cancellation was announced in March, whereas the 2021 cancellation was announced in January. While this is still short notice, its certainly an improvement on time.

The government has already come up with four potential plans specifically for private candidates

Here is a summary of the four potential options:

  1. Private candidates will be given papers by exam boards to complete (along with coursework). These will be marked by the exam boards, allowing them to issue a grade based on the candidates performance
  2. Private candidates will work with a school willing to asses the student, at the same standards they would use for their other students
  3. Exam boards will run exams normally, but only for private candidates, in appropriate venues, in summer 2021
  4. Exam boards will run exams normally, for private candidates, in appropriate venues, in autumn 2021

For the full report released by the government, click here.

So now on to the reason you’re here, what can you do as a private candidate in 2021? Here are some actions you can take:

(1) Contact a nearby school, or a school you previously attended

Private Candidate, cancelled A-level exams

While this may not be an option for some, it might be one of the best solutions at the moment. In 2020, I reached out to the school that I used to attend and they were generous enough to help provide me with predicted grades. They did this by having me write a series of tests.

Since everyone, including schools, are aware of the vulnerable positions students are in, they might be understanding and help private candidates where they can. You will only know if you reach out, and really, there is nothing to lose.

Think about reaching out to a school you attended in the past, as they already know you. Or maybe you can reach out to the school attended by one of your siblings. And if neither of these work, simply reach out to whatever schools are closest to you. I know it sounds like a lot of effort, and you may get turned down a few times. Just be persistent anyways.

(2) Contact an online school

These days, there are plenty of online schools, in fact, you may already be in one! These programs are designed for private candidates like us, so they won’t a stranger to your needs.

Even though most of these schools prefer students to begin with them at the start of the academic year, these are unprecedented times and one would hope they are willing to make a few exceptions. Explain your current position to them, and go from there.

I worked with an online school named Wolsey Hall Oxford to obtain a predicted grade for one of my A-level subjects in 2020, and had a great experience with them. Essentially, I did all the work of learning and studying, and they would provide a series of tests for me to complete, after which I would receive feedback on how to improve. Not only were they able to provide a predicted grade, but they also contributed to my teacher reference. Click here to check them out.

(3) Contact the universities you have applied to

If neither of the first two options worked, you can always contact the universities you applied for directly. The universities are well aware of the current situation, and have an interest in making the process as easy as possible for their future students.

When contacting the universities, explain to them that you are a private candidate without the option of obtaining official predicted grades from a school. You could potentially offer alternative solutions, such as having your tutors (if you have any) provide predicted marks. While the individual universities may not be able to directly assist you, it’s possible that they may provide some guidance.

(4) Stay informed and watch out for updates

Private Candidate, cancelled A-level exams

We’re all hoping that the A-levels situation is going to be handled better than it was last year, and it seems as if we are off to a good start. The government has already provided information on what they might do, and they should share their final decision soon.

It’s possible that they choose to hold the exams as planned, but only for private candidates. In which case, you have nothing to worry about except continuing to study hard! So whatever you do, stay informed and keep an eye out for any updates.

(5) And finally, don’t panic!

I know how easy it is to go into a stress spiral, trust me. But ultimately, the best thing you can do for yourself is to stay calm and know that everyone is in this together. Don’t stress about the things you can’t control, and do your best on the things you can control. No matter how dire it seems right now, everything will be okay.

8 Reasons to ‘self-study’ A-levels

As someone who self-studied the better portion of their A-levels, I am very familiar with that initial temptation to drop out of school and tackle studying from home instead. In fact, it turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. So here is a quick look at some of the reasons that you might also want to consider self-studying.

(1) Complete control over your own schedule

Without the restrictions of mandatory school hours, you have the luxury of designing your schedule around your own needs. This includes choosing what time to start studying, and what time you finish.

A-levels

If you find that you work better in the morning, then you can squeeze out your hours then and have the afternoon free. Or, if you are a productive night owl, then you can enjoy a nice lie-in in the mornings and save your energy for working in the darker hours.

You also have control over how long you work between breaks, and how much time you spend on each subject. For example, I was able to spend many more hours on the subjects I found the most difficult (physics!), instead of wasting valuable time on the subjects I already understood.

Some people find that shorter study sessions with lots of short breaks work well for them, whereas others like long hours of work before longer breaks for leisure. Traditional schooling doesn’t give you the option to choose, but studying from home will.

(2) Freedom to choose methods of learning

Time spent in a classroom is entirely controlled by a given teachers style of teaching, whether or not it caters to you as a student. It would simply be impossible for one style of teaching to match each and every student.

Self-studying allows you as the student to decide what methods of learning work best for you, and stick to those. For example, I spent a lot my time summarising the textbook chapters, seeking out online tutorials on concepts I didn’t understand, and then moving to past papers as soon as possible. I didn’t waste my time on projects or practicals because I knew that I didn’t learn well from those.

Additionally, you have control over the tools you use. Instead of having to write on paper all day long, use a laptop at home!

(3) Timeline is entirely based on your learning pace

A-levels

In every classroom, there are the students that are always ahead and forced to move at a slow pace, and there are the students who can never seem to keep up with the pace held by their teacher and classmates. Self-studying will give you the option to learn entirely at your own pace, meaning no time is wasted on going too slow, and you aren’t compromised by having to go too fast.

(4) Opportunity to improve your self-discipline

I won’t lie to you, studying from home requires quite a lot of self-discipline. But this is not at all a bad thing. Self-discipline is arguably one of the most important skills you can ever learn. It is one of the key differences between those who succeed and those who don’t. The good news is that you don’t have to be born with it – you can learn it!

Studying from home will teach you to take your time and your work seriously. It will teach you to study even when you don’t feel like it. It will teach you to work on the difficult concepts instead of just the easy ones. It will teach you to have enough respect for yourself and your future, to work hard and reap the rewards. This leads us on to the next point…

(5) Shows universities that you are already cut out for independent study

When a university sees on your application that you self-studied A-levels, they will be wildly impressed. It immediately says to them that you are truly self-disciplined with a stellar work ethic.

The jump from school to university is difficult for many students as they are going from an environment where teachers hold their hands and guide them through all their work, to an environment where most of the studying is left up to the student. Having self-studied A-levels is a clear indication to universities that you are already prepared to handle the independent studying characteristic of universities.

(6) Everything you need is online

A-levels has been around for a long time, and there are many students who take it. Therefore, it’s developed quite a strong online presence. There are so many great quality resources online that can aid you in your course, including online tutors, courses, youtube videos, lectures, past paper archives, notes and much more. I found pretty much everything I needed online during A-levels.

To study one of my A-level subjects, I used a distance learning program to keep me on course. I highly recommend looking into one of these options as it provides some structure, support and reliability. Check out Wolsey Hall Oxford here.

One of my favourite online resources for A-levels is SaveMyExams, a past paper archive that categorises over 10,000 exam questions into each of the chapters you would normally see in your textbook. Check it out here.

(7) No unnecessary pressure from classmates

A-levels

Healthy competition from your classmates can be a great way to work harder and motivate yourself. That being said, the competition isn’t always healthy.

At the end of the day, the only person you should really be competing with is yourself. Self-studying eliminates the pressure instilled by comparison to others, and allows you to focus on improving yourself and working harder for the sole reason that it is in your own best interest.

(8) No unwanted infringements on your time by your school

Now this one might be a bit controversial as I am sure there are mixed opinions on the subject. Personally, I felt restricted by all the time spent in school assemblies, school ceremonies, compulsory sporting matches et cetera. Now I know that many students enjoy these activities as it might all just be a part of school spirit, but for those of you who don’t, there is a way to get this ‘lost’ time back.

Studying from home will allow you to allocate all your time to studying, and the things that are important to you! The truth is, if you don’t manage your own time, someone else will, and that happens in school.

Disclaimer: While there may be a lot of tempting reasons to consider self-studying, it is not a realistic choice for everybody

It is no secret that studying from home requires a lot of commitment, discipline, and motivation. It also requires that a student is comfortable learning material on their own. There is absolutely nothing wrong with admitting that you would learn better in a school environment with a teachers assistance. In fact, thats the entire reasons schools exist!

So if self-studying is something you would be interested in, take the time to consider whether it would be a realistic choice given your learning style, your home circumstances, and your access to resources.


Still unsure? Don’t worry, there are more exciting posts on self-studying coming soon!

How to choose the right combination of universities to apply to through UCAS

When applying for university in the UK, UCAS only offers five slots. That means you have to be really careful about which five universities you choose. Five options may not seem like a lot, but if you choose them wisely, five will feel like the perfect amount. Here’s how.

Universities

First of all, let’s take a moment to understand how we are going to classify universities.

Reach

A ‘reach’ university is one which has entry requirements that you would have to work relatively hard to achieve. This normally means that the entry grade requirements are slightly higher than your other options, or it might just be that this university has a more selective reputation. Ultimately, you would be aiming and working towards gaining admission at your reach option.

Target

A ‘target’ university is one which you have a reasonably good chance of getting into based on their entry requirements and acceptance rate. You should feel confident that you could (if you put in the work) get into this university. This is the university you will most likely attend, if all goes well.

Safety

A ‘safety’ university is one which you should get into no matter what, even if you don’t get the grades you expect. That being said, the entry requirements should be slightly below what you are predicted to score. Having a safety option is key because you can’t always predict how the admissions process will play out, so it gives you a degree of comfort in knowing that you will get into at least one of your chosen universities.

I have put together two different formulas for filling those five uni slots.

Formula #1 – The conservative approach

  • Reach
  • Target
  • Target
  • Target/Safety
  • Safety

This approach is considered to be the more conservative approach as it only includes one reach option. Some may argue that a ‘conservative approach’ wouldn’t include a reach at all and be limited to only target and safety options However, I am of the belief that everyone should aim a little higher and stand the chance to achieve greater than expected.

The upside of this formula is that you have ample target and safety options, which means you are likely to receive a comfortable number of offers to choose between. The downside is that you only have one chance to get into a reach option, and if you miss it, you are only left with targets and safeties.

Formula #2 – The ambitious approach

  • Reach
  • Reach
  • Target
  • Target
  • Safety

This approach includes two different reach options, which means you are hoping to work hard and stretch yourself to go above and beyond. Having two reach options will arguably increase your chance at gaining a place at a higher ranking university (which is a very exciting prospect).

You still have the benefit of having two target options that play nicely into your abilities, as well as a safety school to catch you if things don’t go according to plan.

Important tips to remember

Universities

Make sure that you will be happy at any and all of the universities you apply to

Do not pick a safety school with the notion that you probably won’t go there so it doesn’t matter whether you like it or not. With only five options, it’s so important that you can see yourself being happy at each of the five universities, even if you don’t think you’ll have to go to one or more of them.

Doing this will ensure that the five slots are not diminished, and instead you are using all the slots to their full potential.

Be clear and honest about what reach, target and safety options are for you

The only person who suffers from making unrealistic choices is YOU. Be very honest about what a reach is for you (do not overshoot). Be very honest about what a target is for you (understand your own capabilities). Be very honest about what a safety is for you (it has to be a near guarantee that you will get an offer).

If University X is your friends safety option, do not be ashamed or discouraged if it is your target option. Applying for university is a personal experience that should be entirely determined by your own ability.

Take the time to accurately assess the chance of getting into a university

Your chance of making the right choices is significantly higher once you have taken the time to research the universities you’re interested in, their entry requirements, their acceptance rates, and what they look for in applicants. This will equip you to accurately label them as either reach, target or safety, in terms of your own application.

These are not the only formulas available

While these two formulas are what I feel comfortable recommending, they are not the only ones out there. I know of people who applied to three or more reach schools, as well as people who did not include a safety school at all. This decision is entirely up to you and what you feel comfortable with. Remember, it is YOUR application.

6 Reasons why you should take A-levels

You might be wondering whether or not you should jump the gun and take A-levels, a two year course at the end of high school. Perhaps everyone at your school takes it, and it seems obvious that you will too. Or maybe you are like me: you reach 15-16 years old, and you have the option to take A-levels, as opposed to some other local curriculum. Either way, as a student, it’s worth understanding the benefits and reasons for taking the renowned course: A-levels.

A-level

1.UK universities understand A-level grades

The application process is inarguably stressful, difficult and competitive (trust me, I know). Make it easier for yourself by studying A-levels, a curriculum that universities are familiar and comfortable with. UK universities have been admitting students with A-level grades for a very, VERY long time. This means that when they see an applicant with A-level letter grades (i.e AAB), they instantly know the students academic ability. This is in comparison to other arbitrary, smaller and less universalised curriculums.

Yes, UK universities have adapted for other curriculums and even have a select few mentioned on their websites, however, there is no curriculum they are more adapted for than A-levels.

2. You can take less subjects

The A-levels course is designed for a student to take 3-4 subjects. This is in comparison to other curriculums that require each student to take 7 or more! At first, this might sound like a way of doing less work. Unfortunately not. What it means is that, in high school, you can start specialising your subjects to cater to your interests, going deeper into each subject that you otherwise would have.

Instead of having to take x amount of languages, and x amount of sciences et cetera et cetera, you can just take whichever subjects interest you most. You could take maths, physics and economics, or you could take english literature, french and history. You could even take an odd combination like law, physics and geography!

I am sure we would all do better at school if we only needed to take the subjects we actually enjoyed. This is exactly what A-levels allows you to do.

This is also useful for later when you apply to university and you can show your interest in the degree based on the subjects you chose. A student applying for engineering that took maths, physics and chemistry at A-levels has already shown their value by proving their interest in studying engineering-related subjects. But this is not compulsory.

3. There are great resources online for A-level students

Given that so many students take A-levels, and that it has been around for so long, it’s presence is well-established on the internet. You will find more quality resources for A-level based learning than most other school curriculums. This includes anything from youtube videos, past paper archives, tutors, online schools, blogs (like this one) and more. Having the internet on your side is a major advantage!

In fact there are SO many great online resources that you could drop out of school and self-study A-levels if you really wanted to! (But we’ll save that story for another time).

One of my favourite online resources for A-levels is SaveMyExams, a past paper archive that categorises over 10,000 exam questions into each of the chapters you would normally see in your textbook. Check it out here: https://www.savemyexams.co.uk/

4. It offers some flexibility

The A-level course is split into two sections: AS (the first year) and A2 (the second year). You can either take all of your exams at the end of two years of studying, or you could take the AS exams at the end of the first year, and the A2 exams at the end of the second year. This choice offers some flexibility and allows you to decide which method would suit you best.

Additionally, you could even take one or more subjects only at AS level, and not take them through to the A2 (the second year). An AS level subject is a valuable qualification within itself. For example, I took three subjects all the way through to A2, but I only took English Language at the AS level. That still leaves me with four qualifications.

5. You can get a job with an A-level qualification alone

If university is not your thing, or if it isn’t an option for you, A-levels are enough to set you up for the future. There are plenty of jobs that don’t require a university degree; jobs that you can apply for with your A-level qualification alone. These days, you can even become a lawyer after only having completed your A-levels!

6. And finally, the subjects are interesting!

Because you might only take 3 subjects, you get to explore each of them in depth. It’s hard to fully submerge in any one subject when you are forced to take so many of them at school. However, A-levels lets you choose the 3 or 4 that you are most interested in, and learn about them in detail. The knowledge and skills developed in this intensive course is invaluable.

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