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Cambridge Admissions Office

Dr Geoff Parks, Director of Admissions for the Cambridge Colleges
Saturday, 14 April, 2012

Q. Why did Cambridge opt to use the A* grade at A Level in undergraduate admissions?

A. There were several reasons.

First, we have strong evidence that performance in post-16 public examinations is the single best predictor of academic success at Cambridge. Asking offer-holders to achieve the highest available grade in at least one of their A Level subjects explicitly recognises the importance of post-16 public examination performance in our admissions process.

Admissions Tutors would also like to be able to make more offers per place, so that more students are given the opportunity to prove themselves deserving of a place at Cambridge through their performance in post-16 public examinations. Given current levels of achievement at school/college, this can only be achieved by raising the level of our conditional offers.

Finally, we wanted to give our offer-holders a reason to work hard in Year 13. Some are tempted to take their “foot off the gas” in Year 13, because achievement of A grades is all but guaranteed, and then find it very hard to pick up the pace again when they start at Cambridge.

Q. Didn’t the National Council for Educational Excellence (NCEE) recommend that universities should not use the A* in its early years?

A. The NCEE recommended that predictions of the A* grade should not be used in admissions decision-making. There is an important difference between deciding whether or not to make an applicant an offer because they are/are not predicted an A* by their school/college and asking them to obtain an A* as part of an offer. For research purposes we have been asking our offer-holders for details of their uniform mark scheme (UMS) performance in their A2 units for several years. From this data, we knew that the students we were admitting before the A* grade was introduced were achieving the equivalent in UMS terms of A* grades.

When assessing applicants, Cambridge does not place any weight on whether or not they are predicted an A* by their school/college.

Q. Aren’t students from independent schools more likely to achieve A* grades?

A. There is no evidence of this among our offer-holders. The table below shows the number of A* grades achieved by Cambridge offer-holders taking A Levels in 2010 and 2011.

Year 2010 2011
School type Number of offer-holders Number of A* grades Average Number of offer-holders Number of A* grades Average
UK main-
1,623 3,959 2.44 1,613 3,977 2.47
UK indep-
1,039 2,817 2.71 1,171 3,107 2.65
Overseas 87 197 2.26 150 385 2.57
Totals 2,749 6,973 2.54 2,934 7,469 2.55

It can be seen that the average number of A* grades achieved by offer-holders from UK independent schools is slightly higher than that for their maintained sector counterparts, but this small difference seems to be entirely accounted for by the greater likelihood of students at independent schools being able to take Further Mathematics A Level, the subject awarding the highest proportion of A* grades by some margin (30%).

Q. Does achievement of A* grades at A Level predict academic success at Cambridge?

A. It is still early days, but our initial study shows that there is a statistically significant positive correlation between the number of A* grades achieved and success in first year examinations at Cambridge. If this is confirmed by further research, this will give us greater confidence in making more use of the A* grade in offer-making.

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