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Providing Assistance to High-Achieving Students

By Stephen Spriggs

Each graduating class produces several standout students with high aspirations and dreams of attending one of the top-tier universities around the world. Encouraging and supporting these students as they chase their dreams can help educators themselves feel fulfilled, but how exactly can they offer guidance without interfering too much with the students’ own process?
Here, Stephen Spriggs, managing director of William Clarence Education, offers insights about various ways teachers can support students with their dream university applications.
Getting through the admissions process at a prestigious U.K. university or U.S. college is all about positioning a candidate to stand out from the crowd. It’s not just about applying for a place in a degree program, but becoming a unique contributor within a diverse academic community.
The application processes for top-tier U.K. and U.S. universities can be very daunting and it is important to get a head start on these at least one to two years prior to graduation to develop a winning academic and extracurricular strategy. While grades play a large role in applications, they are not the decisive factor.
In your position, the first step will be to identify those who are either already aiming for a university such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, or Stanford, or those who have the potential to do so. Providing a solid base for those students from which to launch can be just as important as preparing them for upcoming examinations.
Exam season
The core testing ground for all students will be set exams and coursework. GCSE grades, while important, aren’t always mandatory for admission to a top-level university in the U.K. but are important for U.S. universities. Getting excellent GCSE results across all subjects (not just a few) shows determination and a strong work ethic from a young age. The better these results, the more likely it is a student will be accepted.
In the classroom, create an environment of open questioning, allowing students to air their thoughts on any given matter. The more open-ended learning opportunities offered in reading, social studies, and science, the better. This allows high-achieving students to take their work to a deeper level, and is incredibly beneficial for all students. Foster achievement and independence in high-achieving students by encouraging self-monitoring and self-teaching. Students can collaborate with teachers to help define their goals, monitor their own progress, and build organizational skills that will help them achieve. Projects that draw on a broad range of higher-level thinking processes and provide opportunities for real-life learning experiences lead to more enjoyment in learning for all students.
Consider cluster-grouping high-achieving students for more in-depth group assignments. This will enable you to easily provide dif¬ferent assignments and content. If there are not enough students in your class¬room to create a group, work cooperatively with other teachers at your grade level to try to accommodate the needs of your most advanced students.
Beyond what’s outlined on the core syllabus, students should be encouraged to expand their reading. Allow choice, so that high-achieving students can explore subjects in greater depth, can ask deeper questions, and can move their thinking from the factual to the conceptual realm.
Face to face, the old-fashioned way
Interviews are a vital component of the decision-making process for universities, as they provide an opportunity to get a better sense for the person behind the grades while assessing their fit within the institution.
Of the various interview prep techniques, staging mock interviews is perhaps the easiest to arrange and the most effective. Teachers with experience in such situations can run their own mock interviews, but administrators may wish to bring in outside experts who can conduct a day of interviews, helping students to identify areas of improvement. Some teachers may wish to bring in outside experts who can arrange a day of interviews for all students to devise their arguments and go through their weaknesses.
Non-academic extracurricular activities are important in the application process, both in the personal statement and during interviews. Teachers and parents should encourage students to participate in activities that both demonstrate leadership and a commitment to communities. Can they be encouraged to step up and take on more of a leadership role on their sports team or in their debate club? Discuss with students volunteering opportunities with local charitable organizations.
School counselors may be able to speak with admissions officers at various institutions who can offer some level of guidance regarding the specific criteria sought in a given application year. They won’t be able to offer specifics, but speaking one-on-one may provide some useful insights.
Most universities will have local outreach activities; those near the top of the rankings, such as Oxford and Harvard, will likely run their activities further afield, so it’s always worth looking into what’s happening around you. UCAS experts in the U.K. are available to assist with applications to Oxbridge colleges.
One thing to consider throughout the application process is that it’s often not just the child who is feeling the pressure; parents and guardians can also find this experience challenging, further adding to the already hefty burden involved when applying to a top-tier university. Holding school events that include parents and guardians can clear up misinformation and aid in creating reasonable expectations, soothing tensions among applicants and their parents.
In the end, any additional assistance you can offer students and their families during the application process will be appreciated. Small gestures, such as those described here, can alleviate some of the stress involved.

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