What do universities look for in students?

Every university follows different systems of admissions when awarding places.

The main requirement is usually the final grade of the A-Level equivalent stage and/or university entrance exams. Only in recent years has more importance been placed on other complementary factors in the university admissions process. Aspects such as students’ interests, passions, involvement in projects, entrepreneurial spirit, and skills and competences are becoming increasingly important when it comes to getting a place at a university.

Countries such as the UK and the USA have always been ahead of the pack in implementing these requirements. The UK requires a personal statement (cover letter) and a reference to be submitted with the application to the university of choice. In the personal statement, the student must demonstrate why they deserve to obtain their university place and, among other aspects, provide tangible evidence that demonstrate their passion for the degree and describe the skills and competences they’ve developed throughout their life (leadership, teamwork, etc.), beyond being strong academically. In the USA, the university application process is similar to that in place for English universities, although it’s slightly more complex, as students are required to write several cover letters.

Spain, on the other hand, is more traditional in their admissions process. Public universities focus only on marks obtained in the university entrance exam and thes average mark obtained between the 1st and 2nd year of the Spanish baccalaureate. Depending on the private universities one chooses, the process may consider other factors.

Changes in the university admissions process

There’s no denying that, over the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in competitiveness among candidates due to the following factors:

  • Increased investment in education by families, empowering their children with a more cross-cutting education.
  • The advent of new technologies and digitalisation that makes personal learning available to everyone (on platforms such as YouTube, Khan Academy, etc.).
  • New learning methodologies that make the student the protagonist of their own learning, actively involving them in the process.
  • The connection that universities and schools are gradually making with the skills and competences needed for the world of work.

The increase in competitiveness is coupled with a changing trend in the university admissions process. We’re noticing that universities are beginning to demand 21st Century Skills and Competences as well as requiring students to demonstrate enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity for the degree course they want to pursue. This new trend is already apparent in some Spanish universities (such as IE University) and most British, Dutch, and American universities, among others. At IE University, for example, students who wish to apply for a place must provide their CV alongside their admissions test results and academic transcript, including work experience and extracurricular activities in which they have participated. In addition, students are encouraged to include a portfolio and any diplomas or awards they have received that reflect their achievements and interests.

A good academic record is starting to become insufficient to get a place at university. Students should go a step further and demonstrate, through tangible experiences, their skills and competences, their involvement in projects, their entrepreneurial spirit, or their passions.

What are 21st century skills and competences?

21st century skills and competences are those “young people will be required to have in order to be effective workers and citizens in the knowledge society of the 21st century” (Ananiadou, K. and Claro, M., 2010). These skills and competences can be divided into three groups:

  • Learning and innovation skills
  • Information, media, and technology skills
  • Life and professional skills

The gap between schools, universities, and the world of work

The world of work is currently demanding a specific type of worker, with 21st century skills and competences. But the problem lies in the education sector, which, despite undergoing rapid transformation in recent years, is an area where change usually takes time to become established and embraced. As a result, there’s a widespread gap between what the world of work demands of universities and, in turn, what universities demand of schools.

The main problem lies with the traditional approach taken by schools, which tend to follow a model of memorisation and mechanisation. This model typically provides technical and theoretical knowledge about the subjects taught, but tends to neglect the development of 21st century skills and competences.

Like any change, transformation must take place from the bottom up. Schools should take charge of fostering 21st century skills in their classrooms, while relying on educational methodologies that encourage meaningful learning. Based on the ideas of the American theorist David Ausubel, meaningful learning is “true knowledge that can only come into being when new content has meaning in the light of existing knowledge”.

Schools that are starting to make “the change”

There are some schools that already stand out for having made an early start on this change and that are doing a good job of it. In Spain, for example, we could mention El Colegio San Francisco de Paula (Seville) or Colegios El Valle (Madrid) as educational centres that foster 21st century skills and competences. These schools offer more individual attention to students by providing them with a comprehensive education, as well as the development of skills that will be useful in responding to problems that students may encounter throughout their lives.

In the UK, for example, Park School and Brockwood Park encourage education beyond what is considered traditional, working on aspects such as creativity and responsibility through clubs and societies such as the Project Programme. The Steve Jobs School, located in Amsterdam and expanding to Belgium and South America, is another institution committed to personalised teaching through technology that enables students not only to learn but also to be responsible for their actions. Another group of schools able to implement 21st century skills and competencies in their classrooms is Big Picture Learning, where through the Upstream Collaborative they are trying to break down the gap between education and the world of work.

The way forward in schools

Schools need certain resources to be able to implement 21st century skills and competences in their classrooms:

  • High-quality teachers trained in new methodologies and digital skills.
  • Investment in training and new technologies.
  • Spaces designed to generate an ecosystem in the school that is ideal for implementing the new ways of learning in the classroom.

In retrospect, much progress has been made away from the traditional concept of education. That said, there’s still much work to be done and, as with any educational change, the transformation process will be more measured. The onus is on schools to bring about that change by being at the forefront of innovation.

At Virtus, The British Sixth Form College, they will continue to focus on everything that benefits students, ensuring that their learning meets the demands of today’s and tomorrow’s world of work. When it comes to education, it’s clear to them that: The future of education is everyone’s future.

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