Personal statements are an integral part of the university admissions process in the UK. However, there is strong evidence suggesting this process advantages some types of applicant over others.
This report by Steve Jones includes an evaluation of ‘Academic Apprentices’, a pilot 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. Each of their statements was subsequently 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.
All 44 of the students on the Academic Apprentices programme received at least one offer from a Russell Group university compared to fewer than three-quarters of students in a control group.
Less than a quarter of the 44 students’ personal statements were awarded the same grade when read 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, a 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 define 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.
1. Universities should be more transparent about how specific subject departments use and evaluate personal statements. This information should be shared widely, and effectively, with applicants, schools and teachers.
2. Sections of detailed analysis and reflection in personal statements are highly valued by academics. Schools should support applicants in providing opportunities to undertake and reflect upon academic enrichment activities.
3. Schools and colleges need to improve the quality of staff training to ensure that key messages are consistent and based on up to date guidelines.
4. Both universities and UCAS should consider whether the format of the personal statement could be improved to ensure it is a useful and fair indicator of an applicant’s potential.