The poll of 100 admissions officers – 80 at UK universities and 20 at US institutions – says universities are also looking for evidence of a student’s positive attitude towards study and an ability to think and work independently.
However, excellence in sports or involvement in community or voluntary activities are not particularly valued by admissions offices, according to the research commissioned by ACS International Schools, which polled around a third of all UK admissions department heads.
Ninety-seven per cent of admissions officers said good written English would be vital to an application, while 88 per cent said passion for a subject is very important.
Only 44 per cent of officers look for a reasonable grasp of maths, while 30 per cent felt prior work experience is important.
“Students spend an age crafting their personal statements so it’s useful to see exactly which attributes really hit the mark with admission teams,” said Jeremy Lewis, head of school at ACS International Schools.
“Much seems to boil down to an ability to communicate their passion and a drive to work hard though it’s interesting to see the very strong emphasis placed on good written English, suggesting perhaps that this is not always a given.”
Student attendance at university taster days and outreach events also had a limited impact on admissions decisions, the poll suggests.
Just 20 per cent of officers look at this detail before a decision is made, while 73 per claim they do not look at it at all.
The use of contextual data also appeared limited. Seventy-eight per cent of officers claim they do not look to see if an applicant’s parents had undertaken a degree, while 16 per cent will look at this factor “after a decision is made”.
“It is interesting to note the apparent low attention paid to social mobility factors suggesting perhaps that most universities would prefer to stay above the political fray and select candidates on ability criteria alone,” said Tom Walton, collegecounsellor at ACS Egham, one of the group’s independent schools.
Only around a third (35 per cent) claim to look for evidence of success despite a student having a difficult background.
Admissions officers also value students who have studied the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma over the two main post-16 qualifications in the UK – A-levels and Scottish Highers, the study also says.
Sixty-seven per cent put the IB Diploma top of their list of qualifications that help students to thrive at university, compared with 25 per cent for A-levels and 7 per cent for Scottish Highers.