Tune in to their brainwaves

July 22, 2005

A candidate's potential is not always clear from A-level results, so make sure that you ask the right questions. If you don't, an inspired thinker could easily slip through your fingers, says Harriet Swain

An applicant's teachers say she's unlikely to get fantastic A levels, but she did OK in her GCSEs. She's clearly a wow on the netball court, the school - definitely of the bog-standard sort - says she's had some kind of family crisis and she certainly has a lot to say for herself.

How do you assess her potential as degree material?

I'm afraid you won't be able to ignore a poor set of A levels.

Tessa Stone, director of the Sutton Trust, says that traditional assessments of achievement must still underpin any decisions about a candidate.

But Penelope Griffin, head of widening participation at Nottingham University and professional consultant to the Schwartz Group, which conducted an independent review of admissions to higher education last year, says you also have to look beyond grades because of major differences in secondary school teaching quality.

She advises looking in detail at both the educational and personal context.

"People who have a busy extracurricular life - whether that's the Duke of Edinburgh scheme or looking after siblings because their single mother is at work - are showing great time-management skills," she says. "It is whatever people make of the opportunities available to them."

Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University, who led last year's review, has recommended more training and support for interviewers to help them deal with this kind of dilemma. For example, interviewers should be careful to employ structure - asking all candidates the same questions - and should ask objective rather than subjective questions, he says.

Peter Barham, reader in physics and science admissions officer at Bristol University, says that if A-level predictions are poor but GCSEs were good then it is especially important to look at the context - if possible, through interview. He says that you have to take into account what the school says and what is written in the candidate's personal statement, although he advises being wary even of this.

"You cannot say that just because a statement is written very badly that someone has no potential," he says. "It might be that they don't have an uncle or aunt who can write."

Stone says that there are many qualities that A levels cannot measure - such as enthusiasm. "What I would always want to look out for and test for, if I could, would be evidence of external engagement with the subject," she says. She suggests finding out what inspired a student to take up a particular subject - a visit to First World War battlefields? A particular book or building? A television programme?

Another key skill is flexible thought, Stone says. She says that it is important to see whether a candidate is able to adapt his or her thinking to cope with novel or unfamiliar problems, and has the ability to sift through and synthesise information.

Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge University, which sets supplementary tests in some subjects to assess for these skills, says it is important to look for evidence that candidates can think for themselves.

"It is about being presented with the relevant information and having to make sense of it," he says. He adds that a single question is no help but that by asking several, it is possible to build up a picture of a candidate's capabilities.

Even a wrong answer can be evidence that the candidate has potential, if the response is original, well thought out and shows imagination and an ability to tackle challenging ideas, he says.

Similarly, an answer surrounded by "ums" and "ahs" can still be interesting. "A well thought-out, incisive answer uttered with a lot of hesitations is better than a well-presented spiel that has no content or evidence of thinking behind it," he adds.

He says that the best questions to ask are those that can be approached in various ways, so that a candidate is not immediately doomed by setting off in the wrong direction. An important measure of ability is also how well someone responds to corrective hints.

"The ability to pick up on new information and adapt their thinking in the light of this is evidence of a nimble brain," he says. "We don't want people who get the wrong end of the stick and tenaciously hold on to it, no matter what," he says.

Geoff Layer, director of Action on Access and pro vice-chancellor for learning and teaching at Bradford University, says that it is possible to spot potential even in primary-school children through schemes designed to persuade them of the benefits of higher education.

Layer says that the key is to see who engages with the challenges set in these schemes, takes control of the situations they have been asked to tackle, and, most importantly, comes back for more.

When young people turn the various activities on offer into a programme rather than a one-off, it shows not only that they are committed but that they are clever enough to work out that showing their commitment in this way will be helpful, Layer says.

But Barham says that spotting potential is chiefly a matter of experience.

He says there are no simple answers - or at least not many.

"There are some things, but I'm not going to tell you what they are," he says. As soon as they become known - and picked up by candidates - they will no longer be useful.

Further information The Sutton Trust: www.suttontrust.com

Information about the Schwartz report: www.admissions-review.org.uk

Action on Access: www.actiononaccess.org

TOP TIPS

Take A levels seriously but not too seriously

Look for enthusiasm for the subject to be studied

Test flexibility of thought

Take account of the personal and educational context

Don't be distracted by nerves or hesitancy in a candidate

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