How to prepare for admissions tests so they don’t stop you applying to the course you want to

Darllenwch yn y Gymraeg

By David Jones (Teaching and Learning Manager, The Scholars Programme, at The Brilliant Club) @BrilliantClub


In September 2015 the first wave of A-level reforms began in order to “increase the rigour of qualifications”. While there has been a mixed system between the old and new A-levels since then, students entering Year 12 in September 2017 will be studying the new A-levels in every subject.

At this year’s Seren Conference, Cambridge Assessment will be running sessions specifically focussed on how to make the most of their revision materials to tackle admissions tests, with outstanding academic master-classes and expert information, advice and guidance also available on a range of other topics.

What do the reforms mean?

Whatever you think of the A-level reforms, and you can certainly find plenty of debate both for and against them, they will have a real impact on the way that A-levels are studied and assessed. They have also contributed to changes in the ways that universities assess candidates. In practice these reforms impact on students in two main ways.

  1. Under the new system there is less coursework and a mainly exam based system of assessment.
  2. In England, AS-levels will no longer count towards student’s final A-level grade.*

What does this mean for university applications?

While the Welsh A-level system has undergone a less radical transformation, the changes implemented by the English government have already begun to impact on university admission processes with the University of Cambridge bringing in admissions tests for students applying for 2017 entry. Regardless of the A-level structure in your Sixth Form, therefore, English universities may well be using additional assessments during your application journey.

What are admission tests?

Admissions tests are designed to help universities make decisions during the admissions process. Although many universities do not require admissions tests, students wanting to study at Oxford and Cambridge or subjects such as medicine and law are likely to have to (a full list of test can be found here on the UCAS website).

Many of these admissions tests are written by examining bodies such as Cambridge Assessment, the oldest exam group in existence and the only one attached to a university.

How should you prepare for admissions test?

Admissions tests can be a daunting prospect and it often appears very difficult to find information on how to tackle them.

For this very reason, Cambridge Assessment have made a host of past papers and exam specifications available to access for free. If you are thinking about applying to a university or course that requires an admissions test, their admissions testing website is a great place start (although be aware that some tests, such as UKCAT, are not administered by Cambridge Assessment so do check carefully which test you are being asked to sit).

Cambridge Assessment page for test-takers provides a host of links to each assessment that they run where you can find past papers, specifications and marking criteria. Here are a couple of examples:

BMAT (for applications to medicine**)


ELAT (a pre-interview admissions test for studying English at Oxford and Cambridge)


How best to use past papers:

  1. Familiarise yourself with the types of questions that are asked
  2. Begin by answering without timing yourself: plan you answers and refer to books if you need to
  3. Mark your answer using the mark scheme and identify what you did well and areas to develop
  4. Write an improved ‘model’ answer
  5. If you can, ask a teacher for support and feedback
  6. Build up to writing under strict exam conditions – remember the key thing is to get your essays as good as they can be before you practising your speed

What next?

The Seren Network annual conference in Newtown is aimed at both students and teachers. The Welsh Government and Seren Network is covering transport costs for sixth form students and interested staff to attend the conference. Students will attend sessions by academics on topics beyond the A-level curriculum that can support university applications, while teachers will receive latest top tips, resources, and research on helping students to university, including a panel sessions with top UK unis.

For more information and to sign-up to attend, click here.

*In Wales, students’ AS-level grades will count for 40% of their overall A-level grade.

**Some medicine courses require the UKCAT instead. Further information about that test can be found here.

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