Which is best: chess, romance or A-levels?

20th March, 2010

Dear Economist,
My son is applying to read medicine at university, and his various options require different combinations of subjects. He would like a place at UCL, with Barts as a fallback.
He feels reasonably confident of attaining an A grade in all four A-levels, but chemistry will be the trickiest. Should he ignore maths, focusing on UCL; or ignore chemistry, which would be fine for Barts?
Also, he does voluntary work in a home for the elderly which, quite honestly, he embarked upon in order to improve his application. In fact he gets a lot out of the voluntary work, including chess and philosophy with retired experts. Should we encourage him to give it up anyway? Should he also give up his musical instrument, sport, an Easter break in Paris and his girlfriend? He doesn’t want to be reductive, but he must meet one of his offers.
Family in Harpenden, Herts

Dear “Family”,

You write collectively but there is a principal agent problem here. Chess, romance and good works count in your son’s eyes, but when you boast to your friends in Harpenden, the hard currency is A grades and university places.

Your risk-management is also amateurish, setting out mechanistic strategies for selecting from an unimaginative set of options: UCL, Barts or oblivion. You talk as if you can shift effort from maths to chemistry with predictable results, but you have no idea what obstacles may lie ahead. Your son might abandon chemistry and then be undone by a tricky maths paper. Or he might find that when he misses a grade, he wins his place anyway because he’s the only applicant who stuck with the voluntary work. Or he may find that he does not care for medicine once he begins to study it. What then?

He may not want to be reductive, but you clearly do. You’re wrong.

Also published at ft.com.

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