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Pre-Us: the low-down

by Leticia

The Cambridge Pre-U is a qualification similar to an A Level, usually taken after GCSEs have been completed. The course is best suited to students planning to go to university in the UK, and the exam board CIE (Cambridge Assessment International Education) which administers the Pre-U actually advises that students studying outside the UK should consider alternative post-16 qualifications such as the A Level or International Baccalaureate.

For the Pre-U, students can choose from a range of 24 Principal Subjects, including the core Maths, English and Sciences. This seems like a very small number in comparison to the number of subjects offered at A Level, but this is understandable, once you consider the fact that the first Pre-U exam was only taken in 2008!

Like A Level, the Pre-U is designed to be taken over two years, with exams at the end. What makes the Pre-U different to other courses is the design and educational aims. The course was developed with university-style education in mind (the name 'Pre-U' is actually short for 'Pre-University'). It’s more about thinking independently and open-mindedly; thinking critically to improve problem-solving skills and specialising early to establish a deep understanding of the student’s chosen topic within the subject. The Pre-U is designed to equip students with the study skills they’ll need to be able to apply to succeed at university.

If we take a closer look at the Pre-U syllabus for Maths as an example, it becomes clearer that the course is intended to promote independence. The Maths syllabus outlines one of its aims as: “enable learners to develop a range of mathematical skills …and to apply these techniques to problem-solving in familiar and less familiar contexts”. We see that if a student is successful by the end of this course, they should be able to use what they’ve learned in different circumstances, so rather than regurgitating information, it’s more about the application.

The Maths syllabus is designed so that not only are students able to solve problems and answer exam questions on modules within the subjects, but they also leave the course with an understanding of Maths as a subject in itself. The course designers want to help learners to “develop an understanding of how different branches of mathematics are connected”, which goes beyond simply understanding individual topics. The aim to help students to “recognise how mathematical models can be refined” highlights that students are encouraged to have the confidence to tweak and even improve existing mathematical models. This confidence and independence is actually formally tested if taking the Pre-U, on a course called the Global Perspectives and Research course. This compulsory subject is an EPQ-like course where the students are required to undertake research into a topic of their choice.

The Cambridge Pre-U is graded differently to other post-16 qualifications. Like in a Master’s course, successful students achieve either a Pass, Merit or Distinction. These three awards are split into 3 sub-sections, so P3 (Pass 3) would be the lowest possible achievement, and a D1 (Distinction 1), would be the highest. Interestingly, grade D1 is actually stronger than an A Level A*, as a D1 grade is worth more UCAS points.

Depending on what you are looking for in a post-16 course, the Pre-U might be the best option for you. It is best if you would like to hone your skills in terms of research, problem-solving and independent thinking. It really gears students up for university-style learning, which is very self-driven. And of course, the extra hard work is worth those few additional UCAS points!

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