Straight A and still not OK

3,500 straight-A students failed to secure a place at university last year.

This year, despite a new A* (A-star) grade, a similar problem is occurring.

photo by mugley

photo by mugley

With 3 A* and 1 A, Amber Fox thought she would find a place to study Medicine.  However, none of the universities she applied to offered her a place.  Fast forward to clearing and there were no places to be had in her chosen field.

Consider this story for a moment.  Amber achieves impressive A-level results, she has identified a career path she would like to follow, and that career requires education beyond A-levels.  The natural course of action is, therefore, university.

David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, says that university should not be the only route to success.  A valid point.  He also states that the application process to university is a competitive one and not all applicants will be successful.

Unfortunately, competition for a place at university is an increasingly random process.  When someone with top grades is denied a place and cannot follow their chosen career without a degree, something is wrong.

Willetts explains the possibility of Further Education in order to work toward a degree.  But even this appears to be a false trail at the moment.  FE principal, John Widdowson, told the BBC that student numbers are similarly capped at colleges:

“It goes against the grain to be turning away well-qualified, enthusiastic students and say ‘I’m sorry, we haven’t got a place for you’.” [Source]

I wish Amber the best of luck in reapplying to universities next year, which is her aim.  Amber is not alone.  Willetts is aware that many straight-A students are falling out the system and that further understanding is required to improve the situation.  It remains to be seen what action is taken on this front.

The application process clearly can’t keep up with other changes.  To rely on personal statements and minor quibbles to sort out potential offers is unreasonable.  I feel uncomfortable when so much hinges upon so little, negating all the effort that came before.  Yet this is what it ultimately boils down to.

Admissions teams are not to blame here.  Popular, heavily fought courses are bound to be oversubscribed.  Despite the A* grade, admissions officers still find difficulty in choosing who to take on.

In following years, as top students reapply, they deny the next set of potential students.  And the cycle continues.

So what can make the system more reasonable?  Some argue that places should be offered after exam results are known, not before.  Others say the artificial cap on university places should be lifted.  There are many options, no absolute right answer, but plenty of room for improvement.

In a competitive field such as Medicine, I doubt all top students would find success even if more places were offered and those offers came after A-level results were released.  However, the situation wouldn’t feel as skewed as it is now.

In years gone by, a story like Amber’s would be shocking due to its unusual nature.  Now it’s shocking because so many young people must suffer in the same way.

For more on this story, Radio 4’s “The Report” is available to listen to for a week.


  1. Whilst I have every sympathy for students with top grades who do not achieve places on courses such as Medicine, it is important to remember that for a career such as this, academic ability and desire to follow that course cannot be the only criteria for admission. There are many people who can achieve a string of A* grades who would be wholly unsuitable as medics, even if they wished to follow that route. Medicine is a vocational career that requires a range of skills not just academic ability.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jon.

      I agree that the ability to achieve an A* does not give enough depth to assess someone’s overall range of skills. Therefore, if a more reasonable method of assessment was being undertaken, I would be happier with resulting outcomes.

      Medicine is a vocational route, yet it is only achieved through degree study and beyond. In that respect, I don’t believe a complete decision can be made based on the system of entry currently in place.

      If we accept the BMAT as an additional test for those wishing to study Medicine, is the BMAT enough to analyse the necessary skills required? Additionally, I imagine candidates who are rejected at application stage do not undertake the BMAT, although I haven’t looked into this.

      Whatever the case, the BBC states that one of the universities Amber applied for was Oxford. The director of undergraduate admissions at Oxford, Mike Nicholson, recently said that acceptance on a degree course “is a purely academic judgement”. Based on academic attainment alone, it doesn’t leave much room for an admissions team to choose amongst students who are all set for top grades.

      So while it’s right to highlight the necessity of skills other than those achieved academically, I cannot see how those skills are properly or sufficiently taken into account for those currently applying to university.

      1. I agree that with any really competitive career path, such as medicine, there will be people who could follow that route but will be unsuccessful in obtaining a place. In this particular context, each candidate is looked at extremely carefully and their applications scored objectively, and not just on their academic grades. Certainly, in our case this includes the score for the UKCAT (more Med Schools use the UKCAT rather than the BMAT), which forms part of the initial screening process, as well as the personal statement etc. We also use structured interviews as part of the process. Is it perfect? No, no selection process can be, but we certainly take great pains to evaluate the applicants’ suitability for medicine as a career and not just based on their straight academic performance, important though that is.

  2. “With 3 A* and 1 A, Amber Fox thought she would find a place to study Medicine. However, none of the universities she applied to offered her a place.”

    There are always many more candidates for medicine degrees than places available, as the article acknowledges. For a competitive course like medicine, there is little point applying unless you have a realistic prospect of achieving the academic entry requirements. Factors other than eventual grades will determine who get the places. Meanwhile, most of the many thousands who unsuccessfully applied for medicine will go on to achieve the grades that would have satisfied an offer.

    The NHS only has the capacity to absorb so many trainee doctors and will set the funding for medical degree places accordingly. According to the BMA, it seems likely that there will be medical graduates in 2011 with no foundation year place – see

    It seems, therefore, that there is little scope for further expansion of medical education. I would argue it is in the best interests of students to link the number of medical degree places to the predicted number of foundation year places, much as I appreciate it isn’t possible to be precise about the number of foundation places and availability of post foundation opportunities five years in advance. Of course, some will go abroad on graduation, though I would expect many of those intending to go abroad who are entitled to work in the UK will want to complete a foundation year in the NHS first. Is it not better to be rejected when applying for medical school than to work hard on a medical degree for five or six years and probably build up huge debts along the way only to find there are no foundation year places after graduation? If a sideways move is required after graduation, a medical degree is a specialised vocational degree tightly fitted to one job that may prove less attractive to employers than arguably more relevant degrees offered by other graduates in the job market.

    By all accounts, Amber is a talented student, but so are most of those who fail to get any medical degree offers. Every few years, the media seize on the story of a talented student who fails to get an Oxbridge or medical degree offer. These stories underline the calibre of those applying for highly competitive courses and the importance of thinking through alternatives, no matter how strong a candidate you are.

    She appears to have tried to get a medical degree place in clearing, which seems a forlorn hope. The universities will make sufficient offers to fill all their medicine places. After allocating places to those who met their conditions, I would expect any spare places to go to those who narrowly missed their conditions. It is no surprise that, as the BBC reported, the twelve medical schools she phoned after getting her results turned her away without asking about her grades. I question whether Amber has acknowledged that grades alone will not qualify her for medicine. As Jon points out, there is more to medicine than academic ability. Medical admissions tutors will only be seeing people with good academic results, amongst which they will be looking for those factors indicating aptitude for medicine and that distinguish the prospective student from their peers.

    All medical schools are highly competitive, though, according to press reports, Amber applied to Oxford, Imperial, Leeds and King’s College London, all of which seem likely to be amongst the most competitive. Having failed with an ambitious and ultimately risky application strategy, it seems that she did not have a realistic backup plan ready to implement if she wasn’t offered a place to study medicine. Certainly, she seems to have failed to act when she got the four rejections that made it certain she was not going to medical school this year. She could have used the months before results day to use her likely high grades to arrange something else, maybe by using the option of an additional UCAS option to apply to study a different subject at university. Alternatively, she could have arranged a profitable way to spend a year whilst reapplying for medicine; there are things to do even if paid employment turned out to be impossible to secure in the current environment.

    The BBC now report that she is considering signing on before reapplying next year. I haven’t yet had time to listen to “The Report”, but hope that she is thinking as widely as possible about her options, especially as she has now given wide publicity to her apparent failure to take realistic action long before results day. If signing on is her only option for now, I would argue that she has to do more than apply for jobs if she wants a realistic chance of a place to read medicine in 2011.

    The Internet may turn out to be her downfall in the jobs market. Many employers will Google for information about prospective staff. With so many people to choose from and her hope of only staying in any job for a year, she could well struggle to attract any employer interest.

    The media reporting might have put medicine out of reach for her. Though I doubt it was her intention to come across this way when she talked to the media, it is possible to construe her comments as “it’s unfair, there’s no medical school place for me when I’ve got the grades needed” followed by “there’s no job for me even though I have good grades”. Good grades have never guaranteed a university place or a job.

    Whatever transpires, I wish her and others in a similar position well. Sadly, there will always be those who wanted to be doctors and achieved the necessary grades for medicine for whom there is no place. Flexibility is always going to be important, especially when applying against stiff competition. It is an important life lesson to learn how to make the most of disappointment.

  3. It is shocking~ maybe the Medicine orientated ones could apply to unis in Africa, South America and Asia.

    There is an education movement barracking for free-open online ed by 2015.

    Hutchins (1970) noted that learning is not something that occurs in isolation for the individual, in fact in Ancient Greece, “It was the aim of the society…The Athenian was educated by culture”; it did not place somewhere separately within a defined time period (cited in Atherton, 2003).

  4. wow, i thought this only happens where i live but it seems like a global problem, no wonder more and more perfectionists appear everyday

  5. I find that there are a lot of people in my university who do not have the necessary skills to actually be there, but an ok grade in school allowed them to continue with education. Maybe starting at the bottem and weeding out people who shouldn’t (and don’t want to) be there is the way to go.

  6. “In following years, as top students reapply, they deny the next set of potential students. And the cycle continues.”

    It’s exactly the same situation in the market for graduate jobs.
    Now is not a good time to be a young person.

Comments are closed.