Almost half of the admissions officers (49 per cent) surveyed for a report on behalf of the ACS International Schools group of private schools said that “independent enquiry” was the quality they prized most when assessing personal statements on university applications.
Only 22 per cent listed “in-depth subject expertise” as the most valued quality beyond exam performance, the report says.
Six per cent of the 78 university admissions heads polled said they wanted applicants to talk about “developing self-management skills”, while just five per cent were most impressed by applicants who wanted to “nurture an open mind”.
“Universities are looking first and foremost for students able to challenge conventional thinking and [they] want to see clear evidence of this above all else in the qualifications and written submissions they receive from university applicants,” said Jeremy Lewis, head of school at ACS Egham, in Surrey.
“The research sends a stark message to young people applying to university: your capacity for free and rigorous thought matter above all else,” he said.
The research also reveals that 26 per cent of admissions officers were looking at more contextual data than in previous years, including an applicant’s social class or their GCSE results.
Admissions officers rated the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, taught by ACS schools, as the most demanding qualification for encouraging independent enquiry, according to the report. However, they rated A levels marginally higher in terms of “developing in-depth subject expertise”.
Asked to score each qualification on a range of qualities out of a maximum five points, admissions officers gave an average of four points to the IB Diploma Programme for “encouraging independent enquiry”, compared with just three points for A levels.
Meanwhile, only two-fifths of admissions officers said the A* grade at A-level has helped restore rigour to exams. Asked about plans to involve Russell Group universities in the design of A levels, 44 per cent were against the move and 36 per cent in favour.