The path to university is not all about your grades, as your school’s college counsellor should advise you. Yes, universities will want to see your grades (passes as well as fails) from the start of Grade 9 (US) and Year 10 (UK) and these will all appear on your school transcript, but universities are interested in the whole student. They will want to see all the extracurricular activities you have taken part in for your last four years of school, including community service, volunteer work, clubs you have joined, internships, work shadowing and any leadership training opportunities.
Having said that, the vast majority of universities will have minimum academic entry requirements, and these vary according to the university and course. The good news is that regardless of which country you studied in, and whether you took A Levels, the IB, SATs, APs or some other High School Diploma, universities understand the various scoring systems and will consider you if you have the grades they want. Please read on for a list of the various entry exams to university.
Caymanian students with the right grades can apply for a Cayman Islands Government and/or private scholarship to pay for some (and sometimes all) of the costs associated with going to university.
North America - SAT & ACT Entrance Exams
Most American colleges and universities require students to take one of two standardised aptitude tests: the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) or the ACT (American College Test). SATs are geared more towards testing critical thinking and problem solving skills, while the ACT tests what you have learned in High School. These tests are an easy way for colleges to compare all applications, and admissions officers will review your SAT or ACT scores alongside your High School GPA, recommendation letters from your teachers, your own personal statement – which should list, amongst other things, your extracurricular activities, work experience and charity work – and any other details including the subjects you took in high school.
Most high school students are encouraged to take the SAT twice: the first time in May of Grade 11/Year 12 (their second to last year of High School) and the second time either in August or early October of Grade 12/Year 13. This gives enough time to study over the summer holidays and take the test again before early university applications are due on October 15th of Year 13 (UK system) and Grade 12 (US system).
Many students now also take the PSAT/NMSQT (Practice SAT/National Merit Scholarship Program) in October of Grade 11/Year 12 before they take the SAT. This test measures knowledge and skills in reading, writing and maths and the scores range from 320 to 1520. Tests are taken within school, not online. By taking the PSAT/NMSQT early, students may meet the requirements to enter the National Merit® Scholarship Program, an academic competition for recognition and scholarships.
Students in Cayman can take the SAT at Cayman International School, even if this is not the school they are enrolled at. The test is offered in August, October, November, December, March, May and June, although you need to be registered 5 weeks in advance. The test is three hours long and includes a Maths portion and an Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section. You can also take an optional essay section, which is reported separately and takes an additional 50 minutes. Each section of the SAT is scored on a 200 to 800 point scale. The highest possible score is 1,600, but 1,200 is considered to be a very solid score.
In 2021, 1.5 million students took the SAT exam (down from 2.2 million in 2020) and 1.3 million students took the ACT exam (down from 1.6 million). It is unclear how many students took both, but experts say it is now common practice for students to tackle both exams. The ACT exam includes four sections: English, reading, maths and science and it also includes an optional 40 minute writing test. Each section of the ACT is scored on a scale from 1-36. Your final score is the average of your four-section scores. The maximum score you can receive is 36 and the average score is 21. The average SAT score for the class of 2021 is up slightly at 1,060 compared to 1,051 for the class of 2020. Note: You can take free full-length practice tests online for both the SAT and ACT. Also note, lots of schools do not ask for the ACT from international candidates.
UK - A Levels
In the British school system, A Levels are the 2-year Advanced Level qualifications which students take after they have completed their GCSEs and they are what universities use to gauge the academic level of a potential student. It is worth noting that UK universities will not consider a candidate for entry unless they have passed GCSE Maths and English Language with a minimum grade 4 or C. Students usually take 3 to 4 subjects and are graded A* to U (A* to E are a pass). Please note that students in Cayman still take AS Levels in Year 12 but these have been phased out in the UK. Taking these exams halfway through the A Level course gives Cayman students an advantage, as their AS Level results give both the school and the university a benchmark to predict how the student will do at A Level in Year 13. AS Levels also contribute 40% of the marks of a full A Level. Students then have the chance of retaking their AS Levels in January of Year 13 if needed.
Some US and Canadian universities offer students credits for their first year if they have taken certain subjects at A Level, and these credits are applied when you get to the university. You often have a choice of whether you want to apply the credits at the beginning of the course, and skip a few courses, or apply the credits at the end and completely blow your final result out of the water! The policy varies from university to university, so make sure to investigate what they offer.
The benefit of delaying taking the credits is that you will ace your first year's worth of courses (some of it might seem very easy after A Levels). This will potentially put you on the Dean’s List and line you up to get a scholarship or get access to better courses. Your university counsellor will advise you on your options.
If the university does not want to give you credit for your A Level course, it is often because they don’t understand the depth of the course you took. In such cases, your Cayman school is always very willing to send the US or Canadian university the syllabus of the course you took. Once they see this, they will be far more likely to understand the depth and breadth of your A Level and be willing to give you credit for it.
Advanced Placements (AP)
Advanced Placement is a programme that allows students to take college-level courses whilst still in High School. About 40 courses are offered and these are scored 1 to 5 (5 being the highest). Students who score 3, 4 or 5, can request college credits for the class. Many colleges accept AP classes as additional points towards your GPA. For highly selective schools, such as Ivy League schools, it’s common for accepted applicants to have taken between 7 and 12 AP classes throughout high school. The average student will take about 5 AP courses.
International Baccalaureate (IB)
The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme is accepted by universities around the world and is highly regarded. It is a rigorous programme that focuses not only on academic performance, but also on students’ personal, ethical and emotional development. The programme is studied in Grades 11 and 12 and prepares students very well for the challenges of university.
The curriculum is made up of three core components a) Theory of Knowledge (TOK); b) Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS) and c) the Extended Essay – plus six subject groups. Students must participate in all three core subjects and also choose one course from each of the six subject groups. The six subject groups are: Language and Literature, Language Acquisition, Individuals and Societies, Sciences, Maths and the Arts. Three or four of these are taken at Higher Level, and the rest at Standard Level.
Students sit exams for the Diploma Programme in May. They are graded from 1 to 7 (7 being the highest) for each of their six subjects. Additionally, the Theory of Knowledge and Extended Essay are also graded, and together can add up to an additional three points. The maximum score one can therefore achieve is 45. The pass rate is 24, and anything over 34 is considered very solid. When you start researching the subject you want to study, you will see what IB scores universities want. For example, if someone wants to read medicine at university, they need to get an IB score in the 40s. Architecture would be in the high 30s.
Because admission to US universities is decided in December or January and the IB examinations do not take place until the following May, places for IB students are often based on their predicted scores. The advanced nature of the IB curriculum is such that some US universities will allow IB students to go directly into the second year, thus shortening their degree course significantly. The IB High School programme is offered at CIS.
Entry to a UK University
About 75% of students who go through the British system in Cayman (Cayman Prep and St. Ignatius) go on to UK universities. The remainder go to US or Canadian universities, and a small percentage go to a local Cayman university.
The main reasons these students go to the UK is the courses are shorter, the reputation of UK universities is highly prized and the cost*: anyone resident in the Cayman Islands for three years prior to applying to a UK university is eligible for ‘home fees’, which means that the tuition fees are a fixed £9,250 per year. For more information on the rules around home fees see www.ukcisa.org.uk. If you want to go to a UK university but don't qualify for home fees, then overseas student fees range from £15,500-£35,000 per year depending on the subject you choose to study. With board and lodging, food, flights, books and extras on top, the all-inclusive cost of going to a UK university is in the region of £20,000/US$28,000 per year. The US equivalent is US$30,000-$80,000 per year for tuition alone. Cayman Government scholarship funding for Caymanian students wanting to attend UK universities has been raised to CI$30,000 per year as of the 2022/23 academic year.
In contrast to US universities, where courses run for four years and start with a liberal programme covering many subjects, UK degree courses specialise right from the beginning and usually run for only three years, unless you are doing Medicine, Veterinary Science, Dentistry or studying a foreign language. Some UK universities offer a four-year course, like universities in Scotland do, which lead directly to a Master’s Degree. They are often referred to as ‘Integrated Masters’.
There is also a lot of movement between countries now as many North American universities have partnerships with UK universities and offer a ‘Study Abroad’ term or year. This is a nice compromise for those students who really don’t know which country they want to study in!
*As part of the 2022/23 Cayman scholarship process students who apply for funding to take A Levels either in Cayman or overseas are now required to sign a declaration that they intend to study at a tertiary institution in a Commonwealth country (e.g. the UK, Canada, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados). Pursuing further studies outside of the Commonwealth may limit their ability to obtain subsequent scholarship funding.
There is only one way to apply to a UK university and that is through UCAS. This centralised provider gathers all the student’s information and university choices, and then disseminates it to the universities your child has chosen. The cost of the UCAS application is £26.50. Students register with UCAS in June of Year 12. Over the summer holidays students and their families research what courses are available at which universities and begin to home in on the course that will fit best. The UCAS website also has a ‘Student Budget Planner’ which helps parents and students see how much it will cost to live at each university. It’s a very useful tool for the majority of students who will be living on a very tight budget.
For most courses you can apply to up to five universities. If you want to read Medicine, Dentistry or Veterinary Science, however, you can only apply to four. You cannot apply to five universities for two or three different subjects though. Incidentally, if you want to apply to Oxbridge, you have to choose to apply for either Oxford or Cambridge – you cannot choose both. The UCAS application should include the student’s residency paperwork, a reference from school, choice of five universities, transcripts of all their grades (passes, as well as fails) from GCSE, CXC and AS Levels, their work experience record and their personal statement. The personal statement is a crucial part of the application and can take between 10 and 12 hours to complete a first draft. Cayman schools will check the statement, offer advice on what it should contain and edit it so that it is grammatically correct. Crucially, universities will be expecting to read your motivation for wishing to study your chosen subject and will want to see what you have done to further your knowledge and passion for the subject beyond the narrow confines of your school’s curriculum. This is where extensive outside reading and subject-related work experience will be highly beneficial.
For those students that have done SATs, APs or the IB, UK ENIC is the UK’s national agency for the recognition and comparison of international qualifications. The deadline for UCAS applications is October 15th for Oxbridge and January 15th for all other universities. It is very important that Cayman students do not leave their application until the deadline of January 15 – the reason being that many universities come back with the ‘you have been assessed as an overseas student for fees purposes’, which will then trigger a fee appeal.
If this happens, Cayman schools will speak on the student’s behalf and explain to the university that under this guideline and this law the student does qualify for home fees. Students can also send a short email explaining. Although there have been a few close calls, schools in Cayman have never lost a fee appeal. However, if you leave the application until January and there is a problem, then places may have already been offered and accepted by other students. For more information about home or overseas fees visit www.ukcisa.org.uk and read the guidelines very carefully.
The 'Gap' Year
According to the Gap Year Association, taking a break before or after university has numerous benefits for the student. There are reams of anecdotal and qualitative data on the positive reasons for taking a gap year and these include such things as increased maturity, greater ownership of the student's education, increased self-awareness, greater global awareness, fluency in a foreign language and, of course, the self-confidence earned from successfully completing a gap year. Universities have reported that students who have taken a Gap Year engage more in campus life and are statistically more likely to graduate on time.
Students have reported that their year away helped them socially and gave them something interesting to say in conversations, in essays and in job applications. They felt that their year away helped confirm their choice of career and academic major, and added to their employability.
If you are planning on taking a gap year, make sure that you have a good gap year plan and that whatever you do is worthwhile, has value and will feed into your course. There are lots of fabulous gap year websites which can give you an idea of great things to do on your year off.
The British schools we spoke to in Grand Cayman were all very much in favour of students taking a gap year. The schools stressed that they would always be available to help past students with their applications, and they keep all their references on file.
Gap years are also becoming increasingly popular in the US and colleges such as Harvard particularly encourage this practice.
In an ideal world, students get their UCAS applications in early, and by Christmas they know what their offers are and what grades they need to get in their exams that summer. The sooner you apply, the sooner you will start receiving offers. If you apply later, many of the popular courses and universities will already have made all their offers. It also helps when you are applying for a government scholarship – which is unbelievably hard in terms of paperwork and what you need to gather – to know what courses and universities you are aiming for.
Once applications have been assessed, universities either offer an unconditional place, a conditional place based on grades they want you to get, or they turn you down. Offers are always based on three A Level subjects; it will never be offered on four A Levels. A high-achieving student might take four A Levels though, as it will give them more UCAS Tariff Points, which, if applied by the university, will give the student greater flexibility over the grade combination needed to meet the university’s requirements.
Students planning to study Medicine, Veterinary Medicine, Dentistry or Biomedical Science at undergraduate level are also required to take either the Biomedical Admissions Test (BMAT) or the UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT).
Once the student has received their offers, they have to confirm which one they will firmly accept, but are allowed to choose a second offer as an ‘insurance’ policy in case they do not get the grades required for their first choice. They then contact both the universities and discuss everything, including accommodation. At this point the only thing they don’t do is book their flight. Results then come out around August 20th, and university begins in late September or early October.
Schools in Cayman are very clear on the fact that UK universities do not give students coming from overseas any advantage over UK resident students. The universities all know the qualification options (IB, APs, SATs) and there is a level that they want students to be at. Similarly, applying as an international student using a non-British passport can prove problematic when trying to attain a student visa, as this will likely be denied if in fact you hold a British Passport.
Students taking a gap year can apply a year later when they already have their results. Alternatively, and preferably, students can apply and request entry after their gap year. If a student is planning a gap year, they must ensure that they share their plans for the gap year in their personal statement. There is an advantage to applying after you have received your results, as universities can tell the students right away “yes” or “no” based on their results. Cayman schools keep all the students’ references on file, along with their grades, and welcome past students back so they can work on their application.
Entry to US Universities
As is the case in the UK, the US has a similar central portal called the Common App, which lists more than 800 colleges and universities. There is also the 'Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success', which is a group of US colleges and universities (about 140 in total) who have united in their mission to support lower-income, under-resourced, and/or first-generation university students. They make sure that these students have access to financial aid and that the access to higher education is made clearer and easier. See www.coalitionforcollegeaccess.org for more information. Students interested in going to an American university create a profile in these portals, input a personal statement and then their current school fills in its part, which includes their GPA, curriculum, a transcript of their grades and subjects from Years 7 to 13, and teacher recommendations/references.
American universities accept students from all over the world, so they have to understand the different grading systems between A Levels, Advanced Placements, the International Baccalaureate (IB) and of course their own SAT and ACT tests. Cambridge University in England has done a lot of work lobbying Ivy League universities so that they understand the A Level system and what the various grades are worth. To work out your own GPA, go to www.cambridgeinternational.org, click on the ‘Programmes and Qualifications’ link and then the ‘Recognition and Acceptance’ section.
Entry to Canadian Universities
Ontario has the vast majority of the universities in Canada, and, similar to UCAS and the Common App, Ontario has the ‘Ontario Universities Application Centre' (OUAC) where you will input your application, list your chosen course and universities, and upload your grades, personal statement and references amongst other things. For all other universities, including McGill in Quebec, you will have to apply to the schools directly. As an overseas student, you will need to allow CA$20,000-$30,000 for tuition fees and an additional CA$15,000 per year for housing, food and other living expenses. This is a total of between CI$23,300 and $30,000 per year, so Canada is a good option for Cayman students.
Canadian universities understand the British GCSE and A Level system, as well as the IB. It is worth looking at the admissions requirements for each Canadian university which you are interested in. For example, the University of Toronto requires a minimum predicted IB score of 27, and higher for more competitive subjects. If you have gone through the British system, they require at least five IGCSE/GCSE subjects and four AS Levels or three A Levels. They do not generally accept people who have taken BTEC courses unless the BTEC includes sufficient academic content. For those that have gone through the US system in high school, a Canadian university will want to know your GPA and will look at your results in Grades 11 and 12. They do not require SAT or ACT test scores, although they may request them if your GPA is lower than they want. Knowing this information in advance is very helpful as it will help you know what you have to aim towards in your exams. Many universities in Canada also stipulate that Maths is studied at A Level, so make sure to check before you choose your A Levels.