Image of university students

 by Jon Cheek
, posted On 19 Sep '18

Unconditional offers – how can students can use them to their advantage?

One of the biggest changes to the undergraduate admission system in recent years is the increase in the volume of unconditional offers that are being sent to university applicants.

What are unconditional offers?

Previously unconditional offers were commonly associated with mature students who had their grades 'in-hand'. I took a gap year and had one. They were also used for creative subjects with a portfolio style application process.

But now, progressively since around 2013, they have been offered to students before sitting their level 3 exams. UCAS reported over 20% students this year received at least one.

Over 20% of students get one?! That sounds loads, right? But do consider students will usually be selecting five UCAS choices, so the chances of a student receiving one per application is far lower – and certain institutions and course types will not make unconditional offers as a matter of practice.

The government is keeping an eye on this – so I would be surprised to see the upward trend continuing.

Many in the education sector (including schools) see unconditional offers as a concern. Most notably in the potential for a student with an unconditional offer to wind down and not fulfil their level 3 potential once their university admission is guaranteed.

I would encourage those schools to be clear on the advantages and disadvantages of unconditional offers – and my top five tips for students, and schools advising them are below:

My top tips when advising students on unconditional offers:

1: A student should only consider an unconditional offer if this is their first or second choice UCAS option from their initial application. There are many reasons to pick a course and university. I don’t think the type of offer they receive should be one.

2: Providing (1) applies. Unconditional offers are an opportunity for a student to plan their future earlier by getting ready for their university transition before sitting their exams. Students accepting one should use this for that purpose.

3: An unconditional offer may mean less exam stress (with one form of weight off their shoulders) but do remember year 13 is likely to be the most important academic year of their lives to date. Their A Level (or equivalent) grades will be used in all future job applications. They are incredibly important. Students should not therefore use unconditional offers as a reason to wind down - in fact they should do the opposite. They should exceed the standard offer and reward the faith the school and university have in them when compiling predictive grades, their reference and the university subsequently assessing their application.

4: If a student has an unconditional offer (even if they reject it) they should remember to use unconditional offers as a timely confidence boost before they hit exam season!

5: Students should also note that not all institutions make unconditional offers. And some course types certainly will not offer them. Students should not be disheartened if they do not receive one.

Grades in hand v unconditional offers. It is a no brainer!

If a student still isn’t convinced – perhaps these scenarios will provide greater food for thought. Grades in hand will always win:

- Gap years. Say a student decides last minute to take a gap year. In these circumstances they generally won’t be able to defer the unconditional offer so the following years university application will be with grades in hand. The unconditional offer will have been and gone.

- Universities (and other organisations) offer great part-time work opportunities where a student can top-up the maintenance loans they receive. University stuents will all be in a smilar positon applying for these - but their level 3 grades will make them stand out. These job opportunities will ask for grades during the application process.

- When a student graduates they may look at graduate level jobs and of course jobs are no longer ‘for life’ – those level 3 grades will be used in every job application in the future I would expect. This applies to postgraduate university applications too.

- Take another scenario, a student with an unconditional offer starts a course and instantly knows it is not the best one for them. Their conversation with an admissions tutor about switching would be even more problematic if they didn’t attain the standard university offer for a programme because their previous offer was unconditional.

Closing comments

Unconditional offers being made before level 3 qualifications are completed are controversial - for obvious reasons. I have my own thoughts on them (which doesn't matter so I won't go into that). But they are not going away - so it is important students use them to their advantage. Hopefully this guidance will help along the way.

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