How to Maintain Your Students’ Focus When UCAS Offers Knock Them Sideways

Becky Kleanthous  · Apr 13th 2023

In a world filled with carrots and sticks, wouldn’t it be great if we could stop tripping over all the root vegetables and arboreal debris and somehow make the best of it?


Think along the lines of turning all that stressful mess into delicious carrot cakes and awesome treehouses.

When your students rip open the tantalising university-stamped envelopes from their doormats, or log into UCAS to see the conditions of an offer, the information contained within can change the way they view their current studies. A high offer might pull them up by the bootstraps, motivating them to get the grades, while an “easy offer” - whatever they perceive that to be - could have the opposite effect, providing a licence to coast through, eyes half-closed. And what about unconditional offers? At one time, the rarest of the rare, like the golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, these can crown the Charlies of the world as the next big thing (or, like Augustus Gloop getting stuck in the tube, could be the very catalyst to their downfall).

For the youngsters in your classroom, the world sometimes seems to start and finish with securing these offers, but for you, as their teacher, it’s essential that they reach the grades to the best of their potential. This remains true regardless of their UCAS offer. So how best to keep them on track when the offers might have them veering off in the wrong direction?

The high offer versus the complacent underachiever

Now, this might just seem like the ideal combination. Say Colleen has her heart set on Bournemouth, but when the offer comes in, it’s much more ambitious than she was expecting. She’s been treading water a little bit this year, skipping occasional homework and only half-listening in class. Suddenly, you have the ultimate carrot to dangle, with the aim of high attainment securing her place at Bournemouth. This is where the UCAS offer can work to your advantage, maintaining her attention and focus to pick up speed for this final part of the marathon.

Top tip: Do make sure she knows it’s actually, concretely possible. Half-hearted students might otherwise be put off by high offers and give up entirely, feeling faced with an ‘insurmountable’ challenge ahead, so go through the module assessments and weightings with her to show her exactly what she needs to achieve and where, based on what she’s banked so far. If it’s do-able, it could be just the nudge she needs.

The high offer versus the hard worker

On paper, there’s no problem here. A committed and diligent student is likely to power under their own steam regardless of the offer type, and a high offer can help to maintain the focus that they already have set in place. Watch out, though, because depending on their level of dedication, their stress levels might sky-rocket. Say Armeen has been putting pressure on himself lately, with exams on the horizon, and now his offer from Cambridge stipulates a full house of A grades. He might start to experience burn-out by overworking himself and placing too much importance on the ins-and-outs of the assessments, forgetting to have all-important down-time, get enough sleep, and socialise with his friends.

Top tip: Help anxious students keep their studies under control with suggested revision timetables providing healthy constraints. Speak to colleagues who hold pastoral responsibilities, such as his form tutor, to keep an extra eye out for his wellbeing during this period of pressure. Try to keep exam talk to a minimum so that it remains in his peripheries without clouding the other stuff in front of him.

The sensible offer

Such a subjective word, is sensible, and whilst it can accurately describe your first boyfriend, your Wednesday wardrobe or your moderate consumption of seafood at a buffet, here we mean that the offer is pitched entirely appropriately for your student’s personality and academic ability. Say Louisa has been a solid B candidate throughout her studies, scoring a C on a rare off-day, and she achieves an offer of BBA. This match of gentle aspiration-raising (the A) combined with the confidence-inspiring of the BB, should keep her just comfortable enough without falling asleep at the wheel. Plus, she’s been consistent so far, so personality-wise, you know she’s got it in her to double down and snag the A grade in one subject.

Top tip: In this scenario, don’t make too big a thing of the offer. Mention it only at key moments, such as if her attainment slides below what is expected, and keep it positive.

The easy or unconditional offer versus the complacent underachiever

This is every teacher’s worst nightmare. Look, universities, we know you have your systems and your methods and - presumably - your rationale, but giving an unconditional offer to a student about to walk into exams is a bit like providing legal immunity to a hungry toddler in an unsupervised bakery. So controversial is the unconditional offer, that in 2018, the executive director of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference made a plea to universities to end the practice entirely. Claiming that students “take their foot off the gas” when offered such easy entry, Mike Buchanan was concerned with the increase of unconditional offers being made. In fact, 7% of all UCAS offers in 2018 had no specific grades attached to them, as universities competed to snare as many students (and their fees) as possible, since the government removed the funding cap. Say Angus has been knuckling down and bagging himself a few A grades in amongst his more comfortable Bs, and then he achieves an unconditional offer from Durham. He might well breathe a sigh of relief and spend the rest of the year playing Xbox, coming late to classes and approaching exams with nonchalance. Then he’s staring down the barrel of a sea of Cs and Ds, having wasted everything he’s worked hard for up until now.

Top tip: Speak to your students about the value of their education, because it exists outside of the UCAS system too. Intrinsically motivated students will be happier and more highly-achieving, if they do it to prove something to themselves (rather than to others). Not only that, but A-Levels, Highers, IB and their equivalents will still appear on CVs and application forms in the future, and can easily be the deciding factor between two similar candidates vying for the same job. A student in this situation needs constant reminding of what they can achieve and why it’s worth it.

The easy or unconditional offer versus the hard worker

After exploring a mountainous range of pupils and possibilities, let’s end things on a positive note. A student who has been utterly responsible, organised and enthusiastic deserves a break once in a while, and who more than they could deserve an unconditional offer? Say Sarah has done her utmost to meet or exceed her potential in every subject. She’s stayed behind for catch-up classes, come to school when she has a cold, and always asks questions whenever she’s not sure about something. Now she receives an unconditional offer, and you can congratulate her warmly, knowing nothing can take away the opportunity that she’s worked so hard for.

Top tip: If you see her slipping into over-work mode, gently remind her that she can afford to balance her lifestyle without risking her university place. She will stay focussed, if that’s her approach to learning, but she can take off some of the strain that might have otherwise caused her to become frazzled or stressed during exam season.

We’ve got more on motivating your students throughout the year over here, but be ready for the swerves and bumps in the road whenever UCAS offers come through, and try to guide your students back on course using the tips above. And whether or not they end up as a lucky (or not so lucky) recipient of a golden ticket, if you keep doing your job well, you should still be in for a whole load of chocolates at the end of the year, as is a teacher’s prerogative. And isn’t that what it’s all about, at the end of the day? The Ferrero Rocher pyramids?

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