Soft skills as important as A-levels, says university admissions expert

UEA’s Richard Harvey says A-level students should use their time to get university-ready

A-level students should use the coronavirus lockdown to learn university-friendly skills like lecture note taking, according to an admissions expert from the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Prof Richard Harvey, UEA’s academic director of admissions, said that A-level exams cancelled due to Covid-19 shouldn’t stop students getting into university – but urged students to avoid the ‘dangerous skills gap’ which could see them falling behind when they get there.

Prof Richard Harvey

“We’re not worried about people having the right grades to come study with us, and neither should students,” said Prof Harvey. “We admit students from over 100 countries around the world and not everyone has a perfect record of grades, we look at so much more than that.

“Besides, I find that grades at A-level don’t always predict how well people do at university. Having those so-called soft skills like being able to take notes in lectures, articulate questions, and use data, are kilometres more important to get on and do well in most degrees.

Channel your energy into developing the soft skills you could need at university, rather than worrying about your grades

“My advice is use the time you’re spending at home over the next couple of weeks (or months) to make sure you don’t fall into this dangerous skills gap. Channel your energy into developing the soft skills you could need at university, rather than worrying about your grades and what they’ll mean for you. It’ll put you in much better stead for wherever you end up, and doesn’t hurt if you do go down another path.”

UEA is offering a free massive online course (MOOC) on ‘pre-university skills’, which has already been taken by over 70,000 young people. Revision skills, referencing, analysis and structuring thoughts and ideas are included in the course, which involves three hours’ study a week for six weeks.

Dr Harriet Jones

Dr Harriet Jones, a lecturer in biological sciences at UEA and Pre-University Skills course leader, said: “The few months before exams are always the most crucial at A-level, when learning steps up a gear. Your revision becomes intense, you consolidate your knowledge and continue learning independently, so if students miss out on this period they could be losing out on some of the skills that would help them in higher education.

“Studying at university is very different to school. So many students just turn up to a lecture, listen and leave, for them it is not a learning experience and they can end up struggling. This year’s A-level students will benefit enormously if they take time to do the course and work on these skills, so they can get the most from their experience right from the start.”

Following the cancellation of A-levels, the exam regulator, Ofqual, exam boards and teachers will together decide students’ grades, with outcomes expected before the end of July. Ucas has extended the May offer deadline for undergraduate applicants by two weeks, and Universities UK has confirmed HE providers will take a flexible approach to admissions.

“We are actually quite familiar with calculated grades,” said Prof Harvey. “I remember a case where the examiner forgot to turn-up and so the A-level agency had to extrapolate the results. We are pretty sympathetic in those situations.”

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