Seeing Stars

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Cambridge has controversially made its first ever A*A*A* offer. The Tab considers the implications for applicants.

Cambridge has controversially embraced the new A* grade and, unlike Oxford, now has a standard minimum offer of A*AA. 

But this week the first ever triple-A* offer for Cambridge entry was made, to an unknown student incorrectly named elsewhere as Joseph Steadman, a Selwyn law applicant.

He actually had an offer of A*A*A, because his school did not allow students to take modules in year 12 and so Cambridge wanted to be sure of his academic credentials.

The  A*, which requires 90%+ at A2 level and a minimum of an A-grade overall,  is seen by many as a welcome way to tell people apart.

But The Tab can reveal the current generation may not like the news a plain A grade is no longer satisfactory for Cambridge – had our offers been the same as Joseph’s, a full 30% of science students would not be here today. Worse, only about half of arts students would have done well enough!

Are we truly academically inferior, or is asking for such astronomical marks just proof the system doesn’t work, and A-levels are too easy? Grades have risen for 27 years on the trot but Cambridge may be making a mistake in trusting a new one before it has been tried and tested.

Colleges are stumped for ideas though – in many subjects the use of aptitude tests has shown mixed results.

The BMAT, which Cambridge requires medical applicants to take, matches degree performance – but not how good a doctor someone turns out.

Josh Scott, 2nd year medic and University Challenge contestant thinks “It’s all a big joke. Soon enough we will have A**** grades and ridiculous offers that mean kids have to learn reams of boring facts at the expense of being normal”.

Cambridge has avowed admission policy to widen participation but asking for grades at the very top of the spectrum may well freeze out applicants from state schools, who inevitably will have lower grades than their paid-for counterparts.

Some experts have argued that A-level grades are in fact good predictors of future success

Our admissions system already accounts for this with GCSEs – where coming from the worst school can effectively give you 4 more A*s than someone from the best, but it looks like it’s going the other way for A-levels.

The actual science says that independent school applicants do worse at uni, so making it harder for the best of the poorer schools is a massive step backwards in every way.

But, A-levels may yet be the best thing we have. Studies by Prof. C McManus of UCL says that “A levels predict degree class, dropout, and repeated years” as well as success at work.

"The government has shockingly recommended an A** grade – maybe that is just going to have to be the future for people that want to study in our most prestigious universities."

  • englishstudent

    oh the incessant knocking of the arts student, because we obviously just read a few poems and make shit up…
    i would have got 3a*

    • Actualsubjectologist


      an oxymoron, shurely?

      • blergh

        You failed to mention that Mr. Steadman comes from not only a state school, but a comprehensive. One of the best comprehensives in the country, yes, but still a comprehensive.

      • Arts Student

        Don't be an idiot. You could have done with paying a bit more attention in English yourself. Perhaps it would even have taught you to spell "surely". Arts subjects are, if anything, more difficult than sciences due to the necessary creativity and the impossibility of looking up the answer to your essay question in a scientific journal.

        • lazy B.A.stard

          "Perhaps it would even have taught you to spell "surely""

          'Mmm…is it possible that she doesn't realise the misspelling was deliberate? Can it be? Should I tell her? But she must know. But then why is she asking this question with such apparent sincerity? Mmm…'

          "Arts subjects are, if anything, more difficult than sciences"

          Aha. Ahahaha. OK. When was the last time there was a car accident (or, y'know, any situation at all) and someone screamed, "OH MY GOD, IS ANYONE HERE A POET? SOMEBODY CALL A POET!!!!!!"

          • Arts Student

            It serves no purpose, to misspell "surely". You also assume I am female, it seems, which rather goes to show your deep-seated preconceptions about arts students. As it happens you are wrong on this count too.

            As for your bizarre example, I don't suppose this has ever happened. That said, I doubt they would call for a mathmo either. Are you telling me that the only proper subject is medicine? By the same token, I doubt anyone has ever called up a medic to ask for advice on literary criticism, thus all non-literature students might as well give up. I am sure you will see that this is an illogical argument to employ…

          • englishstudent

            Firstly, my comment wasn't intended to polarise humanities and sciences or imply that studying English is somehow 'better' than studying, for example, NatSci. What does annoy me is the lack of respect often directed at my subject, as though it isn't intellectually rigorous or merely requires saying 'yeah, that poem is nice'..
            I find your comment about the car accident a bit ridiculous. Were we to reduce all the academic study in Cambridge to what might be useful in an accident, we would be left with Medicine, possibly not even that. Should we only study what might be pragmatically 'useful'? Yes, let's not examine Italian art/Theology/proficiency in different languages/ exploring other cultures/ a sensitive appreciation of literature. Obviously none of this has any inherent value in the carcrash of your argument.

    • Simran Singh

      Dear englishstudent, if that is your real name,

      This was based on statistics, not merely the fact that us scientists (in particular, medics) are far more intelligent and worthy than people who read a couple of books then chat shit.

      You might have, but half of your compatriots would not have.

      Thanks for commenting!


  • Hmm

    "kids have to learn reams of boring facts at the expense of being normal"

    …says the University Challenge contestant.

    • Andy

      I fear that some of the claims made in this article leave a little to be desired in terms of having solid evidence to back them up.
      The stats about what % of current students would have been admitted if the offer were 3 A*'s when they applied should not have too much read into them – many students currently at Cambridge (and other top Universities) were in the situation where they only needed to get D's and E's at A2 level in order to get their A's overall – so I know many who openly admit that they did much less work in their 2nd year because they could breeze to their required grades, based predominantly on their AS marks alone.
      I totally agree that the A* does need to be closely monitored to see how it plays out in practice, and what impact the policy does have on the ground in terms of the proportion of students from different backgrounds achieving the top grade, but it is impossible to make bold statements about it – bearing in mind the fact that no-one has actually been awarded this grade yet.
      You can also not make sweeping statements about state school students being at risk of being 'frozen out' because of the A* – again there is no evidence available yet to say that state school students will fair any better or worse than their counterparts at independent schools (and I'm sure if you went to some of the top-performing grammar schools in the country, many of their highest-performing students will achieve at least 1 A*) especially when you consider that there have been changes to the course structures of many A Levels and the introduction of the stretch and challenge questions, and so previous year's results are not directly comparable.
      You must also remember that Cambridge is in a better position than most, because it has access to UMS marks for AS Level exams, and so admissions tutors can make their own predictions, so it's not a simple case of having to rely on predicted grades or just making a random guess. Indeed, a handful of colleges used to make UMS offers before the A* even existed.

      One final point – the Cambridge system does indeed look at a candidate's performance in the context of the environment in which they have achieved this, but that is not the same as saying that they effectively are regarded as having '4 more A*'s' – Cambridge Admissions does not work in such a clinical fashion – as I mentioned before, it's about looking at their achievement and potential once all factors have been considered. Also the article does not mention the fact that the A* allows for flexibility (so if the individual circumstances merit it, then an AAA offer could be made, whilst as has been seen, higher offers can also be made where in the past those candidates may well have been rejected because there was not this option of setting challenges through the examination system in the case of uncertainty as to whether the student should be admitted or not – just like happens with STEP for Maths – it is a challenging exam which filters out who receives their place and who does not)

      • Simran Singh


        You make some very valid points, and obviously the admissions system here (with the extra money and time it has at its disposal) is one of the fairest in the country..

        But the 4 A*s thing IS that clinical, there is a strict mechanism whereby a persons GCSEs are given a number (1 for an A*, 0.6 for an A, nothing for anything lower) which is then adjusted according to the average gcse score of the school. Check it out, it's in the Admissions Handbook, clear as day.


        • Anonymous

          My offer was equivalent to 2A* and 2A last year (they just spelt it out about the 90% rather than calling it A*) so it's nothing new. To be honest, I don't think you need that sort of grade to come to Cambridge and A-level will never be a great reflection of how well you'll do here, so why put unnecessary stress on people?

          • anon

            getting 90% is not the same as an A*. an A* is specifically 90% in the A2. i probably would have got 1-2 A*s even though i got 90% overall in all four A levels because if you got high AS levels you could just doss about for a year getting low As (if that). now people actually have to work in the upper sixth!!

            • Anonymous

              Yes. the "A*'s" in my offer *were* for 90% in A2 and 80% overall, which as I understand is what is required to get an A*. I wouldn't have worried otherwise since I wouldn't have needed a particularly solid A in any of my subjects to average 90% overall.

          • BoardofGovernors

            Well, OK, but what's the alternative? If the pool of candidates with AAA grades is massively larger than the number of people Cambridge can accept, how are they to differentiate within that category?

            • Raymond Li

              I hate this obsession with A* grades. The admissions staff of Cambridge of all people should know that learning facts and regurgitating them does not prepare them sufficiently for university, which is precisely what this new A* grade will do.

              Why isn't the university putting more emphasis on the AEAs? I did mine in history and that was an examination that was not far off from the exams that I took here. The AEA history exam relied a lot more on argument and the ability to deploy historical evidence to support it. These exams would provide a better indicator of a good university student and should be used as part of an offer.

              • Andy McGowan

                I think that one of the things that mitigates this issue is some of the changes to the structure of the A Levels. As well as changing the number of modules, there are new initiatives such as extended projects, which involves doing extensive and independent research, but more importantly for the context of this debate, is the optional 'stretch and challenge' questions which allow candidates to go beyond just answering the question and will allow the brightest students to critically analyse the subject and to also link in things from other modules, which they would not necessarily have been able to do before.

                The University did indeed like AEA's (and I think that where they are available they are useful for students in that particular subject) but with the exception of maths (which will be around for another year or so), the AEA's were abolished last Summer. Another issue was that some schools did not offer AEA's or only offered them in one or two subjects, and so the University would not have been able to put them as a requirement for entry.

        • Andy

          Sorry – You're right on that point – the handbook has added extra content since the last time I saw it. From my reading of it, this would be used as a rough guide, and of course GCSE scores are just one of the many factors considered in the process.
          In practice, the majority of students who go to schools achieving a score of less than 20 on that scale, would, as it says apply through the Special Access Scheme and thus have that taken into account even more so.

    • blergh

      …which means that, even if his offer is not as sensational as it may appear, it's still a step in the wrong direction.

      • Andy

        Some people may disagree – but personally I think that the focus in terms of the contextualisation of academic results for the purposes of admissions should be on the quality of the school, not the type of school.
        There are some comprehensives who outperform some independent schools.

        • englishstudent

          I am sure there are many medics, engineers and NatScis who can read literature in a sensitive and informed way, just as there are many Arts students who were not, as it happens, complete dunces at science. I don't see where this need to denigrate different areas of study comes from.

          As it happens, I am going into teaching. I assume it's 'useful' in your book if schoolchildren can read??

  • natsci

    they make it sound like this is a new thing – some of us were made offers last year of up to 4 x 90% (the equivalent of A*A*A*A* ).

  • impartial

    where do the statistics about arts students and scientists in the article come from?

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  • linds

    the telegraph's coverage of this was incredibly shoddy. joseph must have got a bit of a shock if the first he heard about his apparent offer was in the national press!

    to be honest I'm surprised even half of arts students would have got 2 A*s.

  • easy peasy

    the point is people didn't need to get +90% in all their exams so they didn't.

    i'm sure most people here weren't working themselves to death to just scrape past 80% for an A… anyone can up their game if they have to

  • Hitchin

    The university have taken into account that it is harder for arts students to get high UMS scores. For example information taken from the prospective student part of the Downing College website.____"for the 2009 – 2010 Admission round, A* grade will not normally form a part of the standard conditional offer for entry to read any Arts subjects at Downing. For Science subjects (Engineering, Mathematics, Medical Sciences, Natural Sciences, Veterinary Medicine), the situation is slightly different. We have examined recent results and, since UMS scores for scientific subjects tend to be higher for strong candidates, we will be setting a standard offer of A*, A, A in these areas"

  • scotty

    I'm surprised that no mention has been made of the fact that the standard offer for Scottish applicants at many Colleges ( Trinity, Queens,Churchill and Pembroke, if not more) is now A1, A1, A2 at Advanced Higher. Last year just over 100 pupils in the whole of Scotland achieved A1, A1, A2 so statistically this is a very harsh offer.

  • Just sayin'

    BREAKING: mass induced comatose in Cambridge today as scotty mentions incredibly boring fact.

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