by Jane Dowden, Education Innovations Manager

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The UCAS application process can be a daunting time for students, as they pull together their academic and extracurricular achievements to secure a spot at the university of their choice. Yet 2020 will stand out as a particularly challenging year for the UK’s A-level students. With the majority of schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Education Secretary made the decision last month to cancel the upcoming GCSE and A-level summer exam series.

Students will be awarded grades based on their performance in mock exams and other assessments thus far, with the option to resit exams once schools open again. Understandably, it is a worrying time for those preparing for the 2021 UCAS January deadline. Many students have expressed concerns around the accuracy of their predicted grades and fear they will miss out on their preferred university as a result, especially given the lack of clarity around how university admissions will take place. In these difficult and uncertain times, we can agree that reassuring students and supporting them to build an effective UCAS application during remote learning is the priority.

It’s not just about the exams

So how can we help students? Now is the time to emphasise to students that UCAS is not just about the academics. While students might be anxious about the impact of exam cancellations, it is worth noting that only 49 per cent of university admission officers believe A-levels encourage independent inquiry, and 89 per cent said not being able think and learn independently is a key factor impacting student’s ability to thrive at university.

University admissions are looking for well-rounded, independent individuals with a genuine interest in learning, and this will be particularly true for the 2021 applicants. For this reason, project-based work which allows students to take ownership of a task and enrich their subject-specific understanding while building up their soft skills, are highly desirable to reference in UCAS applications. Arguably, Project-Based Learning (PBL) will be even more sought-after in admissions next year in order to ensure all students who have been remote learning, or who may struggle to learn via traditional methods or who might not have access to a good quality education, have an equal chance of success in university selections. 

The value of project-based learning

We should encourage students to take advantage of the time at home and take up a personal project which can bolster their UCAS application. Furthermore, making this easily accessible with low-cost and low-resource activities is crucial. This ethos is at the heart of our CREST Awards. We have developed the nationally recognised scheme for students to lead their own STEM based project work, enabling them to actively engage with their subject interests, build up their skills and apply their learning in real-life contexts. These interactive projects remain free and available on the CREST website for all to access as before.

Communicating the value of project-based learning to students is important as they hone their UCAS applications and seek ways to make their personal statements stand out. Ideally, this should be started as early as possible to ensure completion by the UCAS deadline. University applications require students to demonstrate evidence of how they have developed their skills, whether this is via an example of an independent study they have done, or a certification to show they have attained a distinction in a subject area. Project-based learning can be a fun and dynamic way for all pupils to enrich their subject engagement and give their applications every chance of success.  

Creating a standout UCAS application

It can be tricky for even the most enthusiastic and hard-working students to translate their passion into a 400-word personal statement without evidence. Project-based learning, therefore, enables students to build upon their interests and create something tangible which they can be confident and proud to discuss in applications. For instance, a student who is curious about the environment and sustainability might wish to take up a project where they can explore climate change issues such as air pollution levels, or the impact of droughts on local communities. The student can independently deep dive into a hypothesis, plan and gather evidence, analyse and ultimately reach their own conclusion, all from their own home. The experience is great for deepening pupils’ subject-specific knowledge and ability to take ownership of a project, enabling them to flourish as self-directed and creative thinkers. The experience might give valuable insight on the ideas the student will want to develop at university, and even inform the career direction they will want to take afterwards. These are all admirable skills and experiences to reference in UCAS applications and beyond.

A stand-out UCAS application will demonstrate that the pupil is critically engaged with the subject, and evidence-based work helpfully gives students a specific example which they can reference in university interviews. Since reflection is another key element of project learning, it means students will be prepared to talk about how their projects link back to skills they have developed. There are a range of PBL schemes which are respected in the education sector and wider industries, with certain schemes especially recognised by UCAS. Most PBL can be run in schools, at home or at extracurricular clubs so that it is accessible to all students and gives them the freedom to learn at their own pace.

Linking skills to evidence

An effective UCAS application can be a complex task to complete, not least because formal qualifications are just one element of the process. The best personal statements will balance academic and extracurricular achievement to showcase the student as a well-rounded individual, with project learning and certifications demonstrating the student’s passion for their chosen subject and willingness to enrich their learning. During this period of remote learning, it is vital that schools are supporting students to plan and facilitate at-home learning projects, guiding them towards the appropriate resources and letting them take ownership of their learning from start to finish. By starting now and helping students realise the importance of extra-curricular and project-based evidence of skills when applying for university, they will have more time to gain experience and develop their areas of interest before the UCAS deadline.

With A-level exams cancelled, it has never been more important for students to go beyond the curriculum and demonstrate a real passion for their chosen area of study in their UCAS. Project-based learning and certifications which can take place at home are invaluable as they demonstrate that students have gone the extra mile to enrich their subject knowledge, and develop key skills such as teamwork, creative thinking and problem solving in the process.

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This article first appeared in FE News on 29 April 2020.