Expert mentoring increases offers to higher-tariff universities for POLAR quintile 1 students


Our Monitoring, Evaluation and Research Coordinator Fionna McLauchlan has been looking at where students on our pilot mentoring programme ended up after their A-levels, and has some interesting insight on how expert mentors can improve outcomes for disadvantaged students.

In 2017 we started a pilot mentoring programme where expert mentors, our Progression Specialists, provided 1-to-1 support to students from POLAR quintile 1 postcodes (areas with the lowest progression to Higher Education) across 12 schools in East Anglia, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Mentees met with their mentors for up to five sessions to discuss and put into action their plans for what they want to do after school or college.


Using data provided by UCAS STROBE, an evaluation of our first cohort of more than 150 mentees found that, when compared to a matched comparison group, 88% of our mentees who applied to higher-tariff universities got offers, compared to 74% from the comparison group, a finding which is statistically significant.

We’re delighted by these results, as we know the challenge to close the gap in entry rates to higher tariff institutions for students from low progression areas remains persistent.

To understand how we achieved these outcomes, we triangulated our STROBE results with qualitative data from feedback surveys and mentoring logs (the reports our Progression Specialists make after each mentoring session). This led us to four key insights into how expert mentoring can lead to increased offers to higher-tariff institutions for students from POLAR quintile 1 postcodes:

1. Expert mentors support students from low-progression areas to produce high-quality applications

We know from research carried out for our Academic Apprenticeship programme that students’ personal statements can lack the subject-focused content necessary for competitive courses and institutions.

Expert mentors provide the knowledge that students might be missing, helping them fully demonstrate their potential through high-quality, subject-focused applications.

He feels that he is struggling with his personal statement, and shared about half a page of text, which was rather unfocused and vague.  He was surprised that the personal statement needed to be so closely aligned to his chosen degree.
— Mentor based in Nottinghamshire.

2. Expert mentoring raises student expectations

The data also told us that our mentees were accepting fewer offers from lower-tariff universities than the comparison group: 40% compared with 54%, which is another statistically significant result.

Combined with evidence from our mentoring logs, we think this demonstrates that expert mentoring encourages students from low-progression areas to be ambitious with their university choices – to take the risk of applying for a selective institution alongside a realistic insurance choice.

She did very well in the end of Y12 exams, gaining AAA. In the light of these results and subsequent discussions with myself and her teaching staff, she has decided to apply for a university course based on animal science rather than veterinary nursing.
— Mentor based in Nottinghamshire.

3. Expert mentors can guide students to make pragmatic and realistic plans for the future

We spoke about him evaluating his academic and personal strengths and weaknesses, in order to focus on subject areas that might appeal to his strengths, and eliminate those that he would not consider or be comfortable studying.
— Mentor based in Derbyshire

As well as raising expectations, expert mentors help students pick courses that they are well-suited to, with admissions criteria that are ambitious but achievable.

We think that supporting students with their course choices is an important step in improving both university access and retention, particularly to higher-tariff institutions.

Students need to find courses and institutions where they’ll thrive, and our evaluation results suggest that expert mentoring is a successful intervention to support this.

4. Students value the mentee-mentor relationship

Our feedback overwhelmingly highlighted that students from low-progression areas value having a trusted and knowledgeable person to turn to for advice and guidance about their future. We think that this mentoring relationship is key to supporting students to be confident and ambitious with their plans for university.

My mentor was very friendly and easy to talk to, as well as being very relatable and knowledgeable, which led to her persuading me about university.
— Student based in Suffolk.  

Recent research by the OfS has shown that students are most likely to consult people that they’re close to, like parents or teachers, about progression. So, an expert mentor can play a key role here in building a rapport with a student to share knowledge and expertise about university access.  

Could expert mentoring be a key intervention for supporting disadvantaged students to access selective institutions?

Our evidence says yes!

We think that it’s a combination of these four aspects that has led to these promising results. Expert mentoring undoubtedly helps students produce excellent applications by imparting reliable information, advice and guidance through a friendly, trusted relationship.

It’s the relationship that’s key. By getting to know a student, a mentor can encourage them to be realistic but bold in their plans: facilitating discussions that they may previously not have had or providing the consistent encouragement that can start to chip away at ingrained beliefs about who university is for, and/or who gets to access it.

We’re encouraged by the evaluation of our pilot mentees and we look forward to seeing the results of our next cohort, whose outcomes we can evaluate in the autumn.

This information has been derived from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service STROBE analytical data service, and is used under license.