Report Overview

A report by Dr Steven Jones, University of Manchester, on what students from different social backgrounds put in their UCAS statements.

Key Findings

  • The UCAS personal statement is an important non-academic indicator that many UK universities use as an integral part of their admissions processes. Up to half a million personal statements are written every year. This report is the first to consider how they are shaped by applicants’ educational background. 309 personal statements were analysed, all of which were submitted to the same department of the same Russell Group university by students with the same A-level results.
  • Academic indicators, such as A-level grades, correlate closely with students’ school type and socio-economic status. However, non-academic indicators, such as the personal statement, are often assumed to bring greater fairness to university admissions processes. This research challenges that assumption, finding that independent school applicants are more likely to submit statements that are carefully crafted, written in an academically appropriate way, and filled with high status, relevant activities. By contrast, state school applicants appear to receive less help composing their statement, often struggling to draw on suitable work and life experience.
  • There are big differences in presentation. Clear writing errors are three times more common in the personal statements of applicants from sixth form colleges as those from independent schools.
  • Independent school applicants not only list the highest number of work-related activities, they also draw on the most prestigious experiences, often involving high-level placements and professionalised work-shadowing. One 18-year-old applicant’s experience includes working “for a designer in London, as a model … on the trading floor of a London broker’s firm … with my local BBC radio station … events planning with a corporate 5 star country hotel … in the marketing team of a leading City law firm … and most recently managing a small gastro pub.” For state school applicants, work-related activity is more likely to be a Saturday job or a school visit to a business.
  • School type is therefore an accurate predictor of key features that may affect admission tutors’ decisions. In the sample, these advantages translate into improved outcomes: 70% of applicants from independent schools ended up at one of the highest ranked universities in the UK but only 50% of those from comprehensives and colleges reached a similar destination. This could be a factor in explaining the under-representation of some school types at highly selective universities.
  • “Ensure you stand out from the crowd” is UCAS’s advice to applicants when they compose their personal statement. This research suggests that even among applicants with identical A-level results, some are much better equipped to do so than others.

Recommendations

  1. UCAS should consider whether the personal statement, in its current form, is an appropriate and fair indicator of applicants’ potential.
  2. The personal statement should be restructured. Instead of inviting a ‘free response’, a limit should be placed on the number of different activities and experiences that applicants may cite.
  3. Universities should be more transparent about how they use personal statements. Young people’s educational background should be taken into account, and applicants judged according to the academic and extracurricular opportunities available to them.
  4. Schools and colleges individually or collectively should provide practical support to students to help them through the university admissions process. Good advice, information and guidance are particularly needed in state schools, and from a much earlier stage.
  5. Applicants should be asked to reflect on which attributes they would bring to a course or university, rather than simply listing their previous achievements.
  6. With concerns being raised that pre-written personal statements are now ‘for sale’ to UK applicants, universities should carefully monitor the extent to which the increase in private sector consultants distorts the HE admissions process.
  7. Opportunities for state school students to gain appropriate internships and work experience – such as those offered by the Pathways to Law and the PRIME programmes, both of which the Sutton Trust supports – should be more common. All the professions should introduce programmes provide systematic support for young people from non-privileged backgrounds to access internships and high quality work experience