The rise of the University Aptitude Tests and how to prepare for them

Posted on: 30 Sept 2014

Universities are increasingly using Admissions Tests to distinguish between candidates. Alex Frazer explains how best to prepare for them…

In the world of highly competitive university applications, ambitious Upper Sixth Formers are building towards their D-Day of 5 November – or sooner in the case of some disciplines. Over the past few years, the use of admissions tests – often referred to as ‘aptitude’ tests – has become widespread and standardised for aspirant medical students and those applying to Oxford.

Depending on their preferred destination, hopeful medics, vets and dentists must sit either UKCAT or BMAT, which are designed to test their biomedical, mathematical and clinical potential. The mix of skills needed for each test is slightly different, allowing candidates to apply to institutions where the requirements should play to their strengths. But, in both cases, a minimum score is a prerequisite for the application to be considered further.

Almost all Oxford undergraduate courses use a test, taken in schools on 5 November this year, to shape the field for interviews in December. Some are now well-known – such as the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA) for PPE and some similar disciplines – and some remain quite niche, like the Language Aptitude Test which assesses the ability to understand and manipulate an invented language and is taken by those applying to study a modern language ab initio.

While each Oxford course – regardless of the candidate’s first-choice college – now involves the same test or other pre-interview work, such as the submission of essays, Cambridge colleges have retained their freedom to determine their own assessments subject-by-subject. A glance at the requirements for a course like Engineering, for instance, shows a range across the colleges from ‘interview only’ through ‘test at interview’ to the TSA. Such a multiplicity of opportunity invites careful strategising for would-be Cantabrigians: college selection probably needs more thought these days than the relative merits of Tudor architecture versus Victorian.

People often ask whether, as these tests appear to measure aptitude rather than a specific curriculum, any purpose is served by actually trying to prepare for them.

The answer is yes: there is a strong argument that no such thing as pure aptitude exists – that all aptitude is developed aptitude, fed over the long term by good teaching, careful and studious work by the pupil, additional reading and that old-fashioned but still telling curiosity about the world around, both intellectual and material. As previously, when the interview was the single focus of preparation for Oxford and Cambridge, those likely to do well in their tests are those who have wanted to nurture their understanding and go well beyond examination requirements, certainly from the GCSE years onwards. Schools that attend specifically to the needs of their ablest pupils from quite a young age are certainly giving them an advantage for both admissions tests and interviews.

Candidates and their teachers need to work in partnership, ideally starting at a mid-point in the Lower Sixth, to get ready for the specific requirements of the test they are going to have to sit. In most cases, the tests build on the kind of subject skills that are being developed in the AS/A-level curriculum, but the demands of accuracy and depth will be higher and there will be specific additional elements to introduce.

One example would be the need to recognise certain tenses in French that are not explicitly required at A-level. Another, perhaps more taxing, is the essay requirement in the BMAT, requiring candidates to dust down and practise their extended writing skills, which were possibly shelved after GCSE depending on their AS/A-level subject combination. There are specimen tests available online, but it is also very helpful if schools have some demanding old textbooks and a good bank of A-level papers from the late 80s and early 90s – some of the skills involved then, no longer specifically tested at 18, do crop up in the admissions tests.

For some of the tests, like that Language Aptitude Test, specific preparation routes are definitely harder to spot, there being no A-level in a made-up language. But there is always something that can be found to help – in this case, decoding activities on the website of the UK Linguistics Olympiad. Generally speaking, equivalents for the less obvious tests should be identifiable by subject specialists.

Overall, getting ready for the tests must be a shared responsibility between pupils and the School. With eventual interviews in mind as well, plenty of additional reading will help enormously. The role of teachers should be to steer candidates towards reading matter that will enhance their subject skills and also encourage them to think and react individually – and then to discuss their reading with them, as all sorts of refinements to knowledge will arise from appropriately searching conversations.

While admissions tests are currently targeted towards the top of the academic spectrum, some suspect that they could have significantly more widespread use as public examination reform kicks in. With the likely absence of AS from the record of many applicants, and at least a period of uncertainty in trying to interpret numerical GCSE grades, a broader tranche of universities may well look to use tests to determine where to make their offers. The ripple effect of unconditional offers being made by an increasing number of universities shows no sign of abating. So we could be heading for a fourth-term situation in much of the Russell Group, which could be good for candidates but will doubtless lead the shorter-sighted among them to relax their A-level efforts in the Spring and Summer, leading to an inevitable cost in grades.

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