Top grades are just the beginning…
Will top grades guarantee a place at a top university? Well, they should take you a long way towards getting into a good university, but if you’re aiming at Oxbridge or the Ivy League… you may still need to up your game.
Let me introduce the notion of necessary conditions and sufficient conditions. (If you’ve already come across this, great; if not, basically, necessary conditions are circumstances which are a prerequisite, but not in themselves enough to guarantee a certain result; sufficient conditions, when met, are indeed sufficient to guarantee a certain result.) So in this case top grades will nearly always be a necessary condition – unless you are perhaps quite exceptional in some unusual way, you will have to demonstrate your academic abilities through exam results; it’s a given. But if exam success is pretty much a necessary condition for entry to a top university, it’s definitely not a sufficient condition – it doesn’t guarantee you a place. The sufficient condition is convincing whoever assesses your application that you are pretty special, something over and beyond your exam results, such that you will be offered a place.
Any why, you might ask, is the notion of necessary and sufficient conditions introduced here? Perhaps because it’s this kind of understanding, the sort of thing you may not have learnt in your exam classes, which can help to set you apart. And while the terminology may impress, what is likely to impress even more is your demonstrating an ability to think with greater precision and clarity – to think critically.
What is it exactly? Well, while there may be some overlap, it is different from the theory of knowledge. Whereas that deals primarily with what we know and how we know it, critical thinking deals with the application of knowledge in argumentation. It’s all about making a good argument – and pulling apart poor arguments. It may also be compared with logic, but whereas logic can appear rather abstract, critical thinking relates very much to real-world situations; you could say that it’s the application of key logical principles to the here and now.
The basis of critical thinking is the argument. An argument seeks to persuade us of a certain point of view (the conclusion) on the basis of at least one reason justifying that conclusion; a whole series of reasons may be said to constitute evidence.
We all make arguments every day. Many of them are pretty banal:
‘Look at those dark clouds! Don’t you think it’s going to rain?’
Now a logician might say that a command and a question don’t constitute a proper argument. But in critical thinking we try to extract an argument from the many forms in which people express themselves in everyday language. And so we can interpret the speaker’s argument as being: conclusion: it’s (probably) going to rain; reason: there are dark clouds looming.
Now just imagine the fun you can have when you move from trivial matters such as this to the big questions of the day. Look at what politicians say. Dive behind the rhetoric and try to identify the argument being made. What is the conclusion, and what reasons are adduced for our accepting that conclusion? You may sometimes struggle to identify a coherent argument at all, never mind whether you accept it! But, with a degree of charity (which is actually part and parcel of critical thinking), in most cases an argument can be extracted from what can sometimes be a mass of verbiage.
This leads on to the next key component of critical thinking. OK, you’ve identified an argument, but is it a good argument? In other words, do the reasons justify the conclusion? Now we are looking here not necessarily for logical certainty (life is seldom so straightforward!), but rather at probabilities, so not necessarily for clinching arguments, but for stronger or weaker arguments.
To develop your skills in critical thinking, you sometimes need to put aside your own opinions. Arguments may be pretty strong, even if you don’t agree with the conclusion. So why don’t you agree with the conclusion? Well, the reasoning may be faultless, but perhaps you disagree with some of the premises. Premises are facts, or alleged facts, which are taken for granted in an argument – they form the basis of the reasons adduced.
Let’s see these points illustrated. Suppose an argument runs, ‘Most of the cows in England are green, and Bluebell is a cow in England, so Bluebell is probably green’. The reasoning, simple though it is, seems to be OK, but the trouble is that one of the premises is manifestly false. Silly? All right, what about this: ‘Most of the people in this community support terrorists. Mr X is very much part of this community. In all probability, he’s a supporter of terrorism.’ Hmm… This is the kind of real-world issue which you get onto pretty quickly when you study critical thinking.
OK, so let’s assume you’ve honed your critical thinking skills. How will this achievement be reflected? Well, critical thinking underpins all areas of academic endeavour, so it should help you with your argumentation in any of your chosen fields. Your skills may be manifest in your writing, but also in any presentation you might give, or possibly in an interview. Most important of all, though, is perhaps what underlies your demonstration of skill: the fact that you are thinking on a higher level.
Maybe it’s worth looking into critical thinking in more depth! KE Foundation offers academic summer programmes which may be able to help. Essentially the same programmes are offered in the UK, the USA and Canada. Critical thinking is actually just one of a number of options available, though it happens to be the most popular. However, in addition, you will take an introductory course in a subject area which you may be interested in studying at university level: the choice there is between: business and entrepreneurship; creative arts; engineering and technology; law, society and international relations; medical sciences and psychology. And then, alongside the actual course, you take part in study visits to some of the top universities in the country chosen, with presentations and tours.
As you can see, these programmes are not focused specifically on IB, or indeed on any other examination system. Instead, they look beyond these exams, at the skills and knowledge which will be relevant to you at university level – and at linking these to a demonstration throughout the application process of your potential as a top student.