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There is much that schools can do to prepare students so that they can head to university with their ‘eyes open’.

Posted on: 26 Jan 2017

Suzie Longstaff, Headmistress at Putney High School, highlights the importance of helping students to choose the right universities and courses to prepare them for undergraduate life.

Recent research from The Student Room revealed that more than a fifth of students enrolled at university would have chosen differently if they were given a second chance. Students surveyed cited lack of research, university location as well as pressure from teachers, parents and peers as the key factors for making the wrong choice. Twenty per cent of students sampled said they would have chosen differently had they sampled their course and university before enrolling.


It is vital that schools help students to choose the right universities and courses and prepare them for undergraduate life so that they are not taken by surprise and later come to regret their course or university choice. There is much that schools can do to prepare students so that they can head to university with their ‘eyes open’.


As a previous Head of Sixth Form, I am fully aware that the step up from school to university is large and the challenge for students of choosing the right course and university must not be underestimated. At the same time, surviving away from home for the first time, living and working independently and developing a new social life can be difficult and these challenges have the potential to impact negatively on students and their perceptions of their undergraduate experience.


Providing the ethos and environment to enable Sixth Formers to bridge the gap between school and university is an important part of preparing them for the future.


One of the first questions I ask a potential undergraduate is – what do you really enjoy? What inspires you? Students should always choose a course because they are passionate about that subject rather than because they feel they ought to take a particular route. A level studies, and university courses, are an opportunity for students to run away intellectually, to dig deep into their subjects – but it is imperative that students really do love what they are learning.


Put simply, do what makes you smile. In this way, a pathway will open up which excites you. I’ve known a student to opt for a Fashion Design degree at ESMOD, Paris, and then go on to Imperial College to read Mechanical Engineering. She thoroughly enjoyed every moment of both courses and acquired a broad and relevant skillset along the way.


At Putney High School, we empower students to make the right choices in a number of ways. Our Sixth Form teaching is designed around university seminar-style learning ensuring that smooth transition from school to university which is so important. Pupils are stretched and challenged as they take on Extended Project Qualifications and super-curricular activities such as Model United Nations society. Subjects are explored in great depth through discussion groups as part of our ‘Hot Topics’ talk shops so students gain a real understanding of the demands and delights of university level study.


Similarly, an Alumnae Liaison Officer links recent leavers studying at universities such as Cambridge, Durham and UCL with current students, giving prospective students a true insight into what university life is really like and more particularly, what it is like to be a student reading that course at that specific university.


Providing dedicated advisors ensures that pupils are less likely to make financial and emotional mistakes when they move on to higher education. For example, at Putney, we have a ‘World Class Universities’ Coordinator, US Universities Coordinator, Head of Medical applications as well as a Head of Careers.


We encourage all pupils from Year 9 upwards to think ambitiously and globally about their future destinations. Within the curriculum, pupils take part in activities that give them a flavour of different career opportunities, as well as entering competitions or gaining prestigious industry scholarships such as Arkwright Scholarships for engineers.


Recently, alumna Aimee di Marco, Specialist Registrar and Clinical Lecturer at Imperial College London, shared her career journey. Her message is one which should resound with all pupils making decisions about their future: "Don't be limited by your own idea of what you can or can't do." It is up to schools to ensure that pupils are given skills, support and knowledge early on so that they have the time to explore all the options that might be out there for them.

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About Suzie Longstaff

Suzie Longstaff is Headmistress at Putney High School, a girls' school in South West London.