An overhaul of university admissions processes – including an end to making offers based on predicted A level grades and a review of personal statements – is being urged today in a new Sutton Trust research report which shows that the brightest disadvantaged students are losing out in the current system.

The report, Rules of the Game, by Dr Gill Wyness, Senior Lecturer in Economics of Education at the UCL Institute of Education, says that the admission process itself may be responsible for the fact that the most advantaged applicants were six times more likely to get into selective universities than the most disadvantaged in 2016.

The report shows high attaining advantaged pupils tend to choose the best course for them given their abilities but almost 3,000 disadvantaged, high-achieving students – or 1,000 per year – have their grades under-predicted. By contrast, low attaining disadvantaged students are more likely to be matched to courses with similar students, while low attaining but advantaged students are far more likely to be overmatched: to attend courses with higher ability peers.

Students currently make their choices based on predicted rather than actual A-level grades. This could result in them applying to universities which are less selective than their credentials would permit.

The report also says that personal statements are a further barrier for poorer students, as those from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to be supported in preparing these essays. Their statements often have more grammatical and spelling errors as a result, and students are able to provide fewer examples of the work and life experiences valued by universities.

The report says that less advantaged students lack the right information, advice and guidance needed in the university application process and this may lead them to making “sub-optimal decisions” in their university choices. It urges that these students should have more customised careers advice and more support from teachers and coaches to navigate the application process.

The Sutton Trust is also recommending that

  • Post Qualification Admissions (PQA) – where students apply only after they have received their A level results – should be trialled and implemented.
  • Universities and UCAS should review the format of the personal statement, considering how it could be improved and there should be more transparency about how specific subject departments use and evaluate personal statements.
  • Universities should use contextual data in their admissions process to open up access to students from less privileged backgrounds and there should be greater transparency from universities when communicating how contextual data is used.
  • All pupils should receive a guaranteed level of careers advice from professional impartial advisers, supported by the Careers and Enterprise Company and the new Career Leaders announced by the government in last week’s careers strategy.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, said today:

“Access to leading universities has improved and they are working hard to attract a wider applicant pool.  However, the brightest disadvantaged students, given their grades, are under-represented at leading universities. The admission process itself may be responsible for this.

“Accordingly, the Sutton Trust is recommending we move to a post-qualification applications system.  This is where students apply only after they have received their A-level results.  This does away with predicted grades.  Having actual grades on application empowers the student.  They can pick the right course at the right university with a high degree of certainty they are making the right choice.

“Additionally, we are recommending using contextual data in admissions.  Also, the format of the personal statement should be reviewed to see how it could be improved and how it could become more transparent.”

Report author Dr Gill Wyness said:

“Greater openness and transparency is vital if disadvantaged students are to be able to play the admissions game on the same terms as their better off peers. A more consistent approach to offer making across universities would also benefit disadvantaged students.”


  1. Rules of the Game is available here.
  2. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 200 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.
  3. Gill Wyness is a Senior Lecturer at the UCL Institute of Education and a Research Associate at the Centre for Economic Performance at LSE. Her research focuses on socio-economic differences in higher education participation and outcomes. She is particularly interested in higher education finance, and the impact it has on university participation and attainment.
  4. The author reviewed evidence on all aspects of the university admissions process from the UK and the US, with a focus specifically on element of the process which could act as barriers to disadvantaged students. These included the UCAS form, course choices, predicted grades and personal statements.
  5. Admissions in Context (October 2017) found that while the university access gap between disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers has narrowed somewhat in recent years, the gap at the most selective universities remains stubbornly wide. The report called for a greater use of contextualised admissions, where universities take into account a candidate’s background when making decisions on whom to admit.
  6. Making a Statement (January 2016) identified a mismatch between what teachers and admissions tutors think make a good personal statement. The report called for universities to be more transparent about how specific subject departments use and evaluate personal statements.

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