Unconditional university offers – are they good or bad?

There’s been a trend in the last few years for unconditional university offers – but are they good or bad?  As a parent it can be a stressful time supporting a teen through the university application process and getting your head around this type of offer, so I thought it would be useful to share some thoughts.

How many unconditional university offers are being made?

From media coverage of the issue you might think that unconditional university offers are being doled out left, right and centre and this can be worrying and confusing for parents supporting their offspring to make the right choices.

But according to research from UCAS just 7.8% of all offers made to 18-year old applicants in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales in 2019 were unconditional. This has increased from 7.1% in 2018 and there has been year-on-year growth for a few years now, but that’s not a big percentage by any means.

There are two types of unconditional offer:

    1. A completely unconditional offer – this means that based on predicted grades and the application the university wants to make an offer that is not dependent on final grades
    2. A conditional unconditional offer – this is an unconditional offer only if you make that university your first choice, otherwise the offer will become conditional on grades

Why do universities make unconditional offers?

With the introduction of tuition fees, universities became much more commercial enterprises, effectively competing for students’ money. Cynics would say that universities making unconditional offers are trying to secure as many students as possible to prop up their bottom line, but the low number of offers suggests that isn’t the case.

Another way of looking at this is that universities make unconditional offers to students they think are exceptional, who they would really like to study at their institution. The competition is high between universities to attract top talent to choose them.

This theory is backed up by comments from the University of Bradford in this article from Independent School Parent. The University of Bradford stressed that it only makes unconditional offers to the most academic, and that it offers incentives for them to continue to work hard in the form of scholarships.  My own personal experience with my son resulted in four unconditional offers, this was though based on his personal statement, an interview and tutors looking at the quality of his design work in a portfolio as he was applying for a creative design course.

Bear in mind also that some unconditional offers will be made to students who already have their A-Level results, perhaps because they are a mature student or have decided to take a break from studying before going to university.

What’s good and bad about an unconditional offer from a university?

The good things about unconditional offers include:

    • Removing the uncertainty about where the student will be studying in September, allowing both student and parents/carers to plan ahead (booking accommodation, exploring the city/campus, researching, preparing for the move to university)
    • Reducing the pressure on exam performance – although this can also be a drawback
    • Relieves a bit of the stress – it allows the student to focus on their studies and not be consumed by the overwhelm and fear of going through the clearing process

The bad things about unconditional offers include:

    • Tempting the student to go to a particular university when another university or course would have been more suitable, the lure of the certainty can be compelling but could lead students away from their real first choice.
    • Students fearing that the offer means the university isn’t as good as others – I have had students start to worry that the best universities won’t give unconditional offers. This isn’t always true with many leading universities are making unconditional offers for the best candidates.
    • Giving the student an incentive to take their foot off the gas with studying for exams. A recent article in the Telegraph highlighted a speech by Gavin Williamson (who was Education Secretary in 2019) who said that a report by The Office for Students (OfS) found that that applicants who accept an unconditional  offer are more likely to miss their predicted A Level grades by two or more grades.

However, this final potential drawback does not reflect my personal experience with my son actually achieving better grades than predicted despite the unconditional offers. His college responded to his offers explaining the risks of accepting an unconditional offer, and as parents we talked to him about how not achieving his full potential in his exams might have an impact.

We discussed how he needed to get the best grades he could to keep his options open in the future. We pointed out he may want to switch courses in future and would then need certain grades, or that he might choose to drop out of university completely to enter the world of work when his A-Level results would be considered. We pointed out that his A level results will stay on his CV for a long time.

Questions to consider about an unconditional offer to go to university

If your son or daughter is in possession of an unconditional offer – congratulations! First of all, see it as a huge compliment that the university wants your teen to choose them and have clearly been impressed by their application. Compliment them on their achievement and encourage them to see it as a positive that the university wants them, but before they rush to accept, here are some things to talk about.

    • Discuss the reasons the university made an unconditional offer. Did the offer come with a personal letter explaining? Maybe like my son they are applying for a creative course, took an exceptional portfolio of work to an interview at the university and the offer has been made on the strength of that. If there are no personal reasons attached to the offer, it might be worth further investigation
    • Is the university making the unconditional offer really the right one for them? Refer them back to their list when they applied. What was their preferred course on application? How did their choices change when they visited the open days or attended the interviews? Is the course the one they would have chosen, or would they be compromising if they go there? Does the university itself meet their other criteria, whether that’s how far away it is, the type of accommodation available or other things such as employability rates after graduation?
    • Help them to check that the offer really is unconditional. Or is it only unconditional if you accept that university as your first choice? Help them to resist any tempting bribes and focus purely on the course and their feelings about which place they felt suited them best
    • Discuss how they manage the incentive not to work as hard as if the offer was conditional on grades. Ask them what plans they can put in place to stay motivated so that they achieve the best they can in their exams. Gently remind them of the importance of their A Level grades if they change their mind and explain these grades are still important post-graduation when applying for a job. They don’t want to regret not achieving their very best
    • Encourage them to talk to their tutors at college to get their advice and input too

Ultimately, the best thing you can do is fully support their decision once they’ve made it and continue to support them to achieve their best

What is your experience of supporting your teen with their university choices?  How did unconditional offers impact on either their decisions or exam performance in your view? I would love to hear some of your personal stories.

If your teen is thinking of applying to university and you want help and advice with their personal statement or thinking through their university offers get in touch to find out about the support I offer. Give me a call on 07765 894040.

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