Observer columnist Catherine Bennett cites our personal statements research in her column.
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the importance attached to personal statements, written to a formula, and not by the candidates alone, as part of applications to British universities. The longer it persists, the more farcical, unfair – and excruciating for students – this requirement becomes.
Every year, experts on the process refine their advice and share disdainful lists of cliches that should never be used to start a personal statement, such as: “For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated” (used 196 times in 2013), or: “Nursing is a profession I have always looked upon with” (178 times), thereby adding to the self-consciousness of students required to appeal, in around 700 fresh and original – yet thoughtful and relevant – words, to admissions tutors, some of whom admit they never glance at these exercises in supplication.
And why, anyway, the horror of cliches? They are not, most of these 600,000 or so young applicants, applying for BAs in Being Martin Amis, in a world where originality of expression is the key to worldly success. You need only read one of George Osborne’s op-ed contributions, or cast your mind back to the Labour leadership hustings, to appreciate that 17-year-olds are being held to far higher standards than middle-aged politicians.
Arriving just after the final deadline for this year’s Ucas submissions, a report for the Sutton Trust, written by Dr Steven Jones of Manchester University, may well cause consternation among candidates who have just put, for example, a declaration of commitment, carefully stripped of cliches, before proof of intellectual curiosity.
It was not unexpected, perhaps, that support with personal statements, routine in independent schools, should help students from comprehensives make more successful applications to highly selective universities. But Jones also discovered that some existing guidance may be counterproductive. “Admissions tutors,” he writes, “tend to value focused and sustained analysis of a specific topic of interest or case study rather than broad statements about a subject or attempts to make the statement more ‘personal’.”
He shows how one candidate’s expression of enthusiasm (“I am particularly interested in Victorian literature”), and explanation – “the social constraints and etiquette of the time are vividly portrayed, yet the novels of this period remain timeless” – was considered “bland” by an admissions tutor. “There is a much stronger way to put this tension.”
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