Students are losing out as teachers’ and university tutors’ ideas about what makes a good personal statement are a “world apart”
Teachers’ views on what makes a good personal statement can be very different from those of Russell Group university admissions tutors, meaning many young people may not be receiving the advice and guidance they need, according to Making a statement, a new research brief published today by the Sutton Trust.
Today’s report by Dr Steven Jones of the University of Manchester includes an evaluation of ‘Academic Apprentices’, a programme run for the Sutton Trust by the HE Access Network that helps students from low-income backgrounds with their personal statements by getting them to engage in tailored wider reading and academic activities beyond the A-level syllabus.
Previous Sutton Trust research by Dr Jones suggested that the persistent access gap in higher education, where applicants from state schools with the same grades as their privately-educated peers are a third less likely to gain an offer from a leading university, may be related to personal statements. His 2012 research found that differences in the quality of personal statements reflected inferior support rather than academic ability and that an applicant’s school type was a key predictor of quality.
Today’s report is about state-educated students who received professional help with their personal statement as part of the ‘Academic Apprentices’ programme. All 27 of the students received at least one offer from a Russell Group university compared to fewer than three-quarters of students in a control group. To understand why the intervention made such a difference to these students’ chances of success, each of their statements was read by a schoolteacher and a Russell Group admissions tutor who graded them according to whether they felt it would increase or decrease the likelihood that the applicant would be offered a place.
Less than a quarter of the 44 students’ personal statements were awarded the same grade by both teacher and admissions tutor: 20 statements were one grade different, 13 statements were two grades different and one statement was three grades different.
Commenting on the same extract from one student’s personal statement, the teacher thought it “showed clear enthusiasm for Law” whilst the admissions tutor found it have an “empty opening statement” and noted that its “weak attempt to definite Law wastes space and provides no useful information about the applicant”.
The comparison suggests that the advice and guidance that some young people receive at school when composing their personal statement may not reflect the content and style expected by admissions tutors. Those from more advantaged educational backgrounds are more likely to receive higher quality support and to be able to draw on more relevant forms of social and cultural capital.
To level the playing field, the research brief is recommending that:
- Universities should be more transparent about how specific departments use and evaluate personal statements. This should include publishing criteria for evaluating personal statements. Such information should be shared widely, and effectively, with applicants, schools and parents.
- This research shows that sections of detailed analysis and reflection are highly valued by academics. Schools should support applicants in providing a process to undertake and reflect upon academic enrichment activities.
- Schools and colleges need to improve the quality of staff training to ensure that key messages – such as the need to emphasize academic suitability – are consistent and based on up to date guidelines.
- Both universities and UCAS should consider whether the current free form personal statement format could be improved to ensure it is a useful and fair indicator of an applicant’s potential.
Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said today: “Today’s research shows how important it is that students get good advice about their personal statements, which are a key part of the application process to universities. The views of teachers and admissions tutors can be a world apart, so it is vital we ensure teachers, students and parents are well informed about what universities want in the statements.”
Dr Steven Jones, author of the research brief, said today: “The advice and guidance that some young people receive at school when composing their personal statement may not reflect the content and style expected by admissions tutors at the UK’s most selective universities. Interventions such as the Academic Apprenticeship suggest that it is possible to level the playing field for personal statements but that applicants need to be given a structured programme of advice that emphasises academic suitability.”
NOTES TO EDITORS
1. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 160 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions.
2. The HE Access Network (HEAN) is a not-for-profit organisation that designs and delivers programmes proven to improve university offer rates and close the Access Gap. They create programmes for students, teachers and mentors which focus on ensuring that pupils across the country can make outstanding applications.
3. In 2013, HEAN piloted an intervention aimed specifically at young people from less advantaged backgrounds. The Academic Apprenticeship took a new approach to the personal statement which sought to provide students, all of whom had attended a Sutton Trust Summer School, with a set of structured activities enabling them to analyse wider reading and academic activities related to their course. Instead of listing wider reading texts or simply naming other enrichment activities, Academic Apprentices were encouraged to scrutinise academic materials and course-related activities in greater depth. Through a set of subject-specific pathways, the Academic Apprenticeship advised students to create personal statements that focused on showcasing their academic suitability for a course, particularly by offering detailed analysis of a topic that went beyond the A-level syllabus. In the case of vocational subjects such as medicine, applicants were encouraged to scrutinise a work experience placement in depth.
4. All of the students (100%) in the Academic Apprentices study group received at least one offer from a Russell Group University, compared to 73% of students in a control group (even though the control group students attended schools with higher progression rates to HE). 60% of students in the study group went on be accepted by a Russell Group university compared to 40% in the control group. 92% of students who took part in the scheme said that the Academic Apprenticeship led them to think about their chosen course differently.
5. For this study, led by Dr Steven Jones, Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester, we had each statement from the 44 students was read by a schoolteacher and by a Russell Group admissions tutor who has responsibility for recruiting in the candidate’s discipline. Both were asked to grade the statement according to whether they felt it would increase or decrease the likelihood of the applicant being offered a place. Some personal statements were authored by young people who were Academic Apprentices; others by young people who had not received the intervention.
6. Dr Steven Jones and the Sutton Trust’s 2012 research report The Personal Statement is available online here.
7. Comparisons of differing feedback from teachers and tutors:
|Extract form Personal Statement||Comments from Teacher||Comments from Admissions Tutor|
|“Captivated by the all-encompassing importance of the law in society, I am amazed at the way crime is moderated, precedents are set and how they construct the nature of the world around us.”||“Shows clear enthusiasm for Law and links this to understanding of its role in society.”This Personal statement slightly increases the likelihood that the applicant would be offered a place.||“This is an empty opening statement with no examples cited to back it up. The weak attempt to define Law wastes space and provides no useful details about the applicant.”This Personal Statement slightly decreases the likelihood that the applicant would be offered a place|
|“Having reflected on Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century legal and social reforms, I questioned the principle of utility, as laws governed by this principle fail to fulfil one of the prime aims of the law; namely to defend the defenceless and in many cases the defenceless is the minority. This is typified by the Tony Nicklinson case, whereby he fought for his right to die, resulting in the High Court’s majority ruling against his wish for assisted suicide is evidence of Bentham’s ethics in practice.”||“Positive: citation of case; shows evidence of wider reading.”This Personal Statement strongly increases the likelihood that the applicant would be offered a place
|“I’m not really sure this is a sustainable claim – unclear how the case could be said to be based on utilitarian ethics.”This Personal Statement slightly decreases the likelihood that the applicant would be offered a place
|Whilst shadowing in GI surgery, I observed a necrotic pancreatitis patient in severe septic shock who required a pancreatectomy. Communication skills were crucial when conversing with relatives as the doctor had to pitch an explanation of the treatment suitably with regard to the 50% survival prognosis and the implication of diabetes. During the operation, a pseudocyst ruptured excreting 4000ml of pus; effective cooperation was paramount as the surgeon delegated roles to ensure minimal invasive damage was caused. Encountering both clinical and social challenges of the treatment prompted me to research alternatives including autologous pancreatic islet cell transplantation. Although APICT data boasts 69% of patients gain insulin independence, NICE predominantly recommends the “enforcement of life change programmes”, from this I realised the crucial role of primary care services in promoting healthy lifestyles to prevent the onset of disease.||“Too much medical information. The section is too long and impersonal.”
This Personal Statement slightly decreases the likelihood that the applicant would be offered a place.
|“Excellent analysis of a complex case. The student actually shows their understanding of communication skills rather than simply stating how important they are. The reflection at the end shows their maturity.”This Personal Statement strongly increases the likelihood that the applicant would be offered a place.|
|“I researched psychoanalytic studies and was surprised at Ion Collas’ claim that ‘bovarysme’ is usually beneficial, while in Emma’s case it is morbid’.”||“More theory than analysis … Lots of opinion and theorising.”This Personal Statement neither increases nor decreases the likelihood that the applicant would be offered a place.
|“Excellent evidence of intellectual curiosity… Good account of how the applicant responded to being stretched.”This Personal Statement strongly increases the likelihood that the applicant would be offered a place.|