I’m writing this from North Carolina in the US. I’m visiting a number of universities on behalf of my school, and while I have been here it has struck me that there are a number of misconceptions in the UK about unconditional offers for university places for American universities, and the fact that more UK universities are now making unconditional offers.
According to Ucas, 40,000 unconditional offers were made by British universities to students last year. The chances are that some of you reading this article are holding an unconditional offer. Almost certainly, some of you reading this won’t have one but are wishing you did.
But in my opinion, the way unconditional offers work in the UK is very different from how they work in the US, and I’d like to explain why.
First, passing exams is an important life skill. The exams you take in the final term of school, whether they are A levels, BTEC or the International Baccalaureate Diploma, won’t be the last tests you face. There will be tests throughout university life, and we face them regularly in our working and personal lives too.
Unconditional offers can often undermine this process as they may mean that students are less likely to take exams seriously.
Although the exams at the end of school feel like the most important point in our lives – and there is no doubt that this is a crucial time – it could be argued that success or failure, happiness or unhappiness at university is even more important, especially in the context of career and job opportunities. This is why learning to cope with and excel at exams, and doing yourself justice at school level, is such an important foundation.
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Second, the unconditional offer may be for a university that isn’t the right fit for you. We know there’s a problem with university dropout rates. We know that courses vary enormously. It's important to ensure that you go to a university that is the best fit for you.
If the unconditional offer is the best fit, that’s fantastic. It may help you to think about a university that you wouldn't have thought of before and you may end up loving it. Another bonus is that it can help to take away the worry of final exams.
It’s becoming more and more common, but is it right for most students? Or is it more about the university getting bums on seats?
There is a misconception that in the US they always offer unconditional offers, but this isn’t true.
The US takes a holistic view of applicants, looking at many more qualities as part of the application process. They look at grade point average (GPA) across your academic career; at your sports and clubs activities, for example; and also have teacher references and student statements, although each university will have its own slightly different approach to applications.
In the US they want to see consistent performance and to see the final transcript of your last term at school. Some universities make it very clear that if you don’t achieve the standard required you’ll be put on academic probation in your first term; or they may revoke their decision to offer you a place.
The students are aware that they need to continue to do well. There can’t be a large drop in grades. Going from an A to a B may not cause a problem but an A to a C might do.
Another big difference in the US is that the student can have very significant cash incentives to do well. Not cash in the way you might immediately think, but advanced credit for grades achieved. Good exam results in any of the well-respected exam systems such as the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, Advanced Placement or A levels can give exemptions from whole courses, even whole years of study.
An example might be that if you get a 6 or 7 in English in your higher level IBDP (equivalent to an A or A* in A level), you don’t need to take English composition in your first year at university. Some of our students will secure a full year of credit, taking them from a four- to a three-year course. It should be noted that Harvard University does not offer any credit.
The more you understand the differences between the style of university in the US and the UK, the more you appreciate the differences in how you apply to study in them. This includes understanding the differences in applications and also what the different offers may mean.