So I’m back, as promised, to start talking about the stuff that actually matters when applying to uni.
Your last two years of school (should you choose to stay, rather than go into an apprenticeship) are known as College or (for historical reasons) Sixth form; Year 12 (11th grade) being Lower Sixth and Year 13 (12th grade) being Upper Sixth. Most people use these names interchangeably, so I probably will as well. You’ve been warned.
Not all schools will have a separate college for Sixth Form but they tend to be considered relatively seperate from the rest of the school, usually with a different uniform or no uniform at all and special privileges like cutting in front of year 7s in the lunch queue (absolute time saver when I forget to do my homework) or even having an entire building dedicated to relaxation and study spaces (AKA: heaven).
Depending on where you live, some colleges (aside from the independent/private/public – whatever you want to call the ones not run by the state – schools) might require minimum grades at GCSE to be accepted, somewhat akin to what the universities are apparently looking for (anywhere from 5 Cs 6 Bs, probably).
But, more importantly, at Sixth Form you do something called A-Levels.
There are also some A-Level equivalent courses like Pre-U and BTEC:
I don’t know much about BTEC but I believe it is usually for people wanting more vocational courses like Business and Social Care but aren’t usually recognised by top universities for most ‘conventional’ courses (yeah, there’s a ridiculous number of Engineering departments that don’t accept BTEC Engineering as a qualification, unless you don’t mind spending an extra year there). Because of this, BTEC tends to be seen as a ‘discount’ version of a ‘full fat’ A-Level and the butt of quite a few jokes.
Pre-U, on the other hand (the course I’m doing for all my Maths and Physics) is essentially Cambridge University’s attempt at making a “more challenging” version of A-Level, complete with its own grading system, with the top grade (a D1) being higher than an A* (*facepalms while screaming* WHY?). It wouldn’t be surprising to hear that it’s usually the more ‘prestigious’ and ‘posh’ schools (like Eton and Westminster) that tend to feel the need to offer them…
A lot of people who do it seem to think they’re superior to A-Level students, but (given how little you need to score to get a high grade, if you can even do the questions, that is) they’re just trying make themselves look smarter.
With the only textbooks available, if they even exist for your subject (looking at you, Further Maths) being 700 page, £50+ collections of what looks like vomit on paper, but on closer inspection are riddled with multiple errors that shouldn’t even have made it through Word’s spell check, let alone Cambridge University Press’s quality control, I wouldn’t even wish Pre-U on my worst enemy. I’m only doing it because my school gave me no choice in the matter. Anyway, I digress.
Most people aiming for university will end up doing just A-Levels, but quite a few (like me, unfortunately) will end up doing a mix of A-Levels and Pre-U (or A-Levels and BTEC). But it’s ok if you don’t understand because over half the country (including university admissions) doesn’t either.
Some schools also offer a complete alternative in the form of the International Baccerlaureat (IB), which is more similar to European school systems (and, I’m told, the American system?), but that’s its own thing (Google it, if you want).
Not going to go into the details since they recently had some crazy reforms (that we’re still finding things out about), but long story short, you do 3 or, more rarely now, 4 subjects (depending on your choice of workload and/or university course requirements) that are vaguely related to your desired degree at university. There used to be this thing called AS alongside it. It still exists, but universities don’t care about it anymore so schools don’t tend to let you sit it anyway.
For example, if you want to do Engineering (like me), you need to do Maths and Physics (preferably with Further Maths – I’ll explain), but if you want to do something like History, the universities might only require History and maybe at least one other similar essay subject, like English Literature, Politics or Psychology.
Further Maths is a slightly confusing subject, but long story short, it’s essentially like Maths on steroids. Most people say they do ‘Double Maths’, referring to the fact that we spend twice as much time doing maths as our counterparts that do just Maths on its own (oh, how I envy you). The only people who tend to do it are
losers people wanting to study maths heavy subjects at uni (like Computer Science, Engineering and, most obviously, Maths) or really, really like complex numbers and statistics (hate statistics).
Like GCSEs, you sit A-Levels in May/June and you get your results on a Thursday in mid-August (a week before GCSE results).
So, if they come out so late, how does your university get your results, you ask? That’s what UCAS is for…