Going West to get the best

DUBAI — Mashid Rafiei couldn’t be bothered by the scramble for places currently taking place at universities in the UK and the US.

By Afshan Ahmed

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Published: Tue 31 Aug 2010, 10:45 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 11:14 AM

Armed with a perfect report card that boasts 2 A*’s in Art and Design and English Literature and an A in Media Studies, getting into a university of her choice was always on the cards.

Bags packed, the student who completed her A level-Advanced Level General Certificate of Education-is set to fly out to New York to begin her honours degree in Fine Arts at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

“This was my first choice,” said the 16-year-old who attended the Dubai British School.

“I actually got offers from all my top choices.”

This year the British education system increased the competition level by a notch and added a new grade, the A*, to skim the best from the bunch vying for spots at high ranking universities.

Those who secured the grades to enroll at their ‘dream’ university may find it easy but the remaining will find themselves in the race to clinch the limited seats.

Sanjeev Verma, director of Intelligent Partners, higher education consultants in Dubai, advises students to follow the three tier system – the Dream, the Target and the Safety Net- when applying to universities.

“The word Dream speaks for itself,” he said.

“It’s the university you aspire to get into.

“The target is what you expect to get into with the expected grades.”

“The Safety Net is your last option in case the other two do not work out.”

Applying to at least two universities at each level is necessary to avoid losing out on a place completely.

“You never know how results pan out.

“Once the results are out you cannot reapply as time is short,” he added.

UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admission Services) has noted this year to be the most competitive for university admissions in a decade with 660,000 students applying to UK higher education institutions.

The British Embassy in Dubai saw a 24 per cent increase in student visa application between January and June this year in comparison to the same period last year when 208 applications were processed.

The weakening pound and the tendency for people to study during a recession may also have influenced the increase according to a spokesperson at the embassy.

The rush for places is on and with more students achieving high grades, the A* is considered a benchmark of the best candidate.

According to David Fenwick, Deputy Head of secondary at the Dubai British School, A* is the goal of students who have their sights set on Ivy League Universities.“It definitely allows universities to differentiate between the very best students,” he says “Universities like Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard are looking for students who can get that grade.” “And the most ambitious students always rise to the expectation and challenge.”


Having completed her AS, Advanced Subsidiary level in Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Economics, Swetha Mavuru will begin her preparations for the 2011 A-level examinations in a few months.

She has already started the university application process though.

“I am applying to four universities in the US and to five in the UK,” she said.

However, her aim is to get into Cambridge for chemical engineering.

“The requirement is an A* and two A’s and I will be striving for that.”

Mavuru thinks the new grade will make her work harder and increase her focus level.

Ranju Anand, whose son has secured a seat at the Imperial College London said the initial grade system provided a wide marks band that did not really distinguish the potential of ace scorers.

“An A grade encompasses all those who receive between 80 and 100 and that is quite wide,” said the mother of Ritvik who graduated from the Cambridge International School with 4 A*’s.

“The new grade is for the high caliber students and it keeps the fight on.”

However, Rafiei said students cannot just bank on high scores as university officials rummage through numerous applications to narrow down to multi-talented candidates and those that represent the ethos of their institution.

“Sometimes you may have the grade but still do not manage to get in,” Rafiei said.

“Now universities look at applicants in a more subjective manner including your personal statement and portfolio.”

Many students are feeling the pressure with around 200,000 estimated to lose out on a place at UK universities after the clearing system, a process that matches a candidate with a suitable vacancy on higher education courses, ends in September.

Counselors recommend that students avoid waiting till the end to apply to US and UK universities. “The preparations must begin a year in advance,” Verma suggests.

While UK and US are the most desired destinations for education, some students opt out of the scramble and look locally or home for options.

High school graduate, Basant Elshimy decided to put off her plans to go abroad for her undergraduate studies this year and instead enrolled at the American University of Sharjah.

“I wanted to finish my degree here and for the next step of my education I plan to move to another country,” said the student of the Al-Mizhar American Academy for Girls.

Elshimy who posted a score of 1800 in her SAT (Scholistic Aptitude Test), like many others was also dictated by cultural norms that made her seek a local option.

Sulaima Taji, who will have to take that decision next year, has decided to move back home, to Syria for a career in medicine.

“It’s hard for me to go abroad without family and medical schools in Syria are quite good,” she explains.


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