These are just some examples of the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), which is studied by A Level students in state and independent schools and colleges across the UK.
Time-consuming and challenging, yet highly regarded and rewarding, the EPQ is an optional, standalone qualification that develops the independent learning and research skills demanded by universities and employers. The number of students taking up the EPQ has grown substantially since its integration into the UK curriculum in 2007; this year, around 38,000 students took the EPQ in the UK. It’s not only seen as excellent preparation for university, the EPQ is now included in offers by some universities.
The EPQ gives students the opportunity to independently research a topic of their choice – and can range from writing a 5,000-word dissertation style essay or planning an event like a charity fundraiser, staging a musical, creating a piece of art or even building a product (these must also be supported by a written report of at least 1,000 words).
It’s an opportunity for students to choose a unique topic that they can explore in depth and detail; it’s all about finding a subject that they are passionate about and showcasing their knowledge and reading beyond the curriculum. It’s similar to the IB’s Extended Essay, and it provides students with the same benefits of completing a research project ahead of studying a degree at university.
There are two key differences between the two though. Firstly, the EPQ is optional, while the Extended Essay is a compulsory part of the IB Diploma Programme. Secondly, the EPQ can be in the form of an essay or artefact (a scientific or mathematical model, sculpture or photography exhibition), whereas the EE is always a 4,000-word paper.
An EPQ is not easy (even choosing the title can be a challenge), and it requires hard work and commitment alongside studying for three A Levels. Students can expect to spend around 120 hours of work on their project – some take more time, others less. Many schools offer study skills workshops across Year 12 to help students plan their EPQ, and it can be completed at any time during Years 12-13.
While the EPQ does look great on a UCAS application it cannot replace good A Level results, and students should not take on this extra work if they’re unable to cope with it. However, students with a strong academic record and potential, as well as an ability to plan and manage their work and time, will find that this extra workload can certainly reap benefits.
Dr John Taylor, Cranleigh School’s Director of Learning, Teaching & Innovation is one of the pioneers responsible for the national development of the EPQ and is a Chief Examiner of the qualification.
Dr Taylor told WhichSchoolAdvisor.com:
“The benefits of the EPQ are manifold. An extended project, where the student chooses their own title, offers the opportunity for a deep dive into a subject about which students are curious. Around 80 hours of research and writing or creating go into each one, some supervised but much on their own.
“Previous titles at Cranleigh have ranged from a research paper ‘Do Dogs Dream?’ to creating and making a surfboard from scratch. It gives pupils the opportunity to study a subject they love and learn valuable research skills before they specialise at university. The qualification is favoured by higher education institutions for that reason, and often universities will lower grade boundaries if the applicant brings a good EPQ in addition to A Levels.”
The EPQ offers students an incredible opportunity to research their own choice of academic topic or produce a artefact – something that takes them beyond their A Level subjects. While it is definitely not for everyone, it can be a highly rewarding experience for many.
As Diana Cree, Executive Director External Relations at Lancing College explains, deciding to do an EPQ should not be taken lightly.
"It offers a wonderful opportunity for students to enrich their studies in an area of interest and, gain additional important and desirable skills. Embarking on an EPQ requires self-motivation, time management and commitment.
"The initial phase of planning, deciding the topic, scope and research plan is critical to overall success. It is important therefore to identify a topic of real interest; this could delve deeper into and enrich an existing A Level subject or be something that is completely independent and of personal interest.
Recent examples of EPQ titles at Lancing range from Ethics of Stem Cell Research to Directing the Play ‘The Children’s’ Hour’ and The Pol Pot Regime.
Ms Cree, who oversees the school's My Future programme in the Sixth Form, says that an often-overlooked benefit of the EPQ is that it "provides a 'richness' to personal statements, university interviews and potential employment opportunities".
"The discipline of carrying out an independent research project demonstrates an enthusiasm to learn, project management, resilience and self-direction; all skills that are in high demand at university and in the workplace.
Stand out from the crowd. While A Levels are one of the most well-established routes to a university degree, they have been criticised globally for being too narrow, particularly when compared to the breadth of study offered by the IB Diploma Programme. An EPQ can offer students the chance to stand out from the crowd, by showcasing their additional academic strengths or achievements.
Whether creating and testing an iPhone app or researching the development of cryptocurrencies and Bitcoin, an EPQ gives students the opportunity to explore interests, skills and subjects outside and beyond their three (or four) A Level subjects – and gain a competitive edge in applications and interviews for universities and careers.
UCAS points. An EPQ is worth half an A Level; it’s graded A* to E and can be worth anywhere up to 28 UCAS points, which can help students to secure the university place they want. (In 2022, 23.5% of students achieved a A* in their EPQ; 71% a B which is equal to 20 points).
Excellent preparation for university. As well as being an additional academic achievement, it helps students to develop the independent research, essay writing and time management skills that universities are looking for. It also demonstrates a student’s passion for their subject.
Dual offers. The EPQ has become highly regarded by many universities, and the admissions pages of Oxbridge and Russell Group universities quote support for qualification.
Cambridge tells students: “We welcome the introduction of the Extended Project and would encourage you to undertake one as it will help you develop independent study and research skills and ease the transition from school/college to higher education.”
And the University of Manchester says: “Students can refer to the Extended Project in their UCAS personal statements and at interview to demonstrate some of the qualities that universities are looking for.”
For some courses, a university (including several Russell Group universities) will make a dual offer based that includes both the normal three A Level grade offer and an alternative offer including the student’s EPQ grade. The University of Southampton was one of the first to do this; its Accounting & Finance course, for example, has entry requirements of AAB or ABB with an A in an EPQ.
The best advocates for the EPQ are the students themselves. Take a look at last year’s A Level cohort at D’Overbroecks, for example.
Sifa, a zoology student, asked ‘Humans vs Octopuses: Are Homo Sapiens Really the Most Intelligent Species?’. Psychology student Trish asked, ‘How Can Borderline Personality Disorder Be Best Explained By Psychological Approaches?’. And Sophie, who plans to pursue a career in fashion marketing, asked ‘How Are Brands Responding To The Issue Of Fast Fashion?’.
When we asked why they chose to add to the demands of A Levels with an extra qualification, their replies were;
"I wanted to challenge myself”
“I wanted to stretch myself beyond the A Level specifications”
“I wanted to develop skills like independent research.”
These D’Overbroeck students described their personal experience of completing the EPQ as satisfying, rewarding and thought-provoking.
Sophie added: “I now have so much more knowledge on a topic that I am so interested in; it has been a great talking point.”, while Trish said her EPQ had “ascertained my decision to study psychology at university, and to pursue it as my future career.”