Driving aspiration, empowering confidence, and informing decisions

Tuesday 7 November 2023, Student choice

by Dave Penney, Director of Marketing, UCAS

Driving aspiration, empowering confidence, and informing decisions

A whistlestop tour of our Project Next Generation Themes Report
Dave Penney, Director of Marketing, UCAS

In October, we published a report detailing the big themes in young people’s journeys – towards the decisions that colour the rest of their lives in education and work. Built on the findings from Project Next Generation, our research with more than 1,000 13 – 17 year olds, the report highlighted six key areas where universities, colleges, and employers can do more to educate, upskill, and inspire. 

You can download the full Project Next Generation Themes Report (3.67 MB) here.

1. Don’t leave aspiration up to the imagination

At the end of secondary school, young people are at their most open-minded and alert to what the future could hold for them. They’re actively looking for inspiration – from the paths their online heroes took to stardom, to the paths of the heroes in their own homes. They’re curious about how their role models – influencers, parents, teachers – got to where they are. After all, 42% of young people tell us that somebody close to them does the job they’re interested in, and has influenced their choice to pursue it.

In particular, they’re searching for two-way conversations – as a relief to information overload. To give them a better chance of discovering the right path for them, and to rule out the wrong ones, they need the opportunity to talk with people who can guide them. Think one-on-one time with successful grads, entrepreneurs, and established career players.

2. Strike the balance between living in the moment and planning for the future

Even the most forward-thinking and determined young people are still living out the final years of a comparatively carefree childhood. They’re enjoying themselves, navigating the heady days of being a teenager, whilst trying to balance this with planning for their futures. If we forget to appeal to this integral part of their personality, and a crucial element of their development, we’re missing the opportunity to speak to them in the language they understand best.

Almost 60% of those we surveyed are sticking to what they enjoy and trusting that everything will work out. By balancing their need to enjoy themselves in the moment – utilising their passion and interest in the subjects and courses they study – with the focus on enjoying themselves in the future – in a career which gives them job satisfaction and the finances to pursue their dreams – we communicate with them realistically and honestly. 

3. Enable them to make fully-informed decisions

Exposure is empowering for young people, giving them a grounded basis for making decisions validated by their lived experiences. Whether it’s hands-on (via work experience or placements), second-hand (via engagement with mentors or role models), or from the past (through the experience of parents or family friends) – exposure gives them confidence of relevance. And they’re well aware of just how crucial it is – 97% agree they need experience before university – despite only a minority (39%) saying they have the experience they need.

By providing diverse and targeted opportunities, we can help them to narrow down their viable options and rule out those which could waste their time and energy.

4. Inspire confidence in every form

Confidence levels vary hugely in young people, both their natural confidence in their own abilities to learn/work and the confidence which allows them to make informed decisions. And with most (57%) young people only knowing a little about their post-18 choices, either flavour of confidence can be hard to come by.

We found a direct, albeit not surprising, correlation between the level of knowledge and the comfort with their level of knowledge. Young people feel they can’t make progressive steps forward when they don’t have all the facts to hand. To inspire the confidence to do so, we need to showcase the whole university experience, offer practical skills, and facilitate opportunities to engage with those who are living potential future pathways. Website resources and career guides are rarely enough to inspire the confidence required.

5. Support and reassure, to offset the pressure

Whatever their intentions (university, apprenticeship, work, gap year), independence is an integral personal trait that young people are generally unwilling to let go of. But with so much information, so much influence, and so many opinions from their advisers – pressure is an inevitable storm they must weather. Almost half of all young people feel ‘quite a bit’ of pressure from their parents to make good decisions.

To soften the potential impact of this, young people need support and reassurance as a remedy. Peer mentors, those who have trodden the paths themselves, are an excellent source of credible advice rooted in directly relevant reality. These are particularly important from Year 11 onwards, where young people look for confirmation and validation of their choices – as their choices begin to funnel them down narrower paths.

6. Give them control and ownership of their own choices

Having control over their journey means a sense of optimism, and optimism leads to happiness. But finding control, when 74% of those in Year 12 only have a general idea (or no idea at all) of what they’ll do for a living, is easier said than done. Some of the factors are inevitably out of their control – there are concerns about the job market and the economy – but attaining the grades they need and doing the research required for future planning certainly are in their grasp.

To empower a sense of control or ownership over their own path, we need to develop resources further down the inspiration funnel – which can help young people tap into the reality of life at university, on certain courses, or at work. By providing access to role models and accomplished peers, and by challenging preconceptions and misconceptions, we can begin to unfetter their lives and remove the distractions that may cause choice paralysis and information overload.

How UCAS can help engage strategically with pre-applicants

Download the full Project Next Generation Themes Report (3.67 MB), which covers each of these points in much more detail and includes a bonus Timelines chapter – showing you exactly what you need to say, do, and provide on a year-by-year basis as young people move through school. 

Find out more about our in-depth study into 13 - 17 year olds 

If you would like to understand how the findings can be applied to your university or business or to reach the next generation of students, contact your Customer Success Director to find out more or book an informal chat with our Consultancy Team: consultancyinsights@ucas.ac.uk