Opinion from Andy Gardner
For many years the narrative in schools, colleges and sixth forms has been, “do well in school, get the best grades possible, work on your personal statement, study something at university (preferably a selective one) then move seamlessly into work”. To reinforce this narrative we had huge amounts of money pumped into schools through a programme called Aimhigher, and this influence still lingers today
While this narrative does still hold true for some, it is now flawed for many. Part of this flawed narrative is the amount of time being spent on the UCAS personal statement and this is what I’m concentrating on here. To corrupt Winston Churchill’s words:
“Never, has so much time been spent by so many, on words that have been read by so few”
I am making an informed guess that at least 60% of personal statements are never read by universities and their courses. I think that in all probability, it is actually a higher figure. My informed guess is based on:
- Many university schools liaison staff admitting that most of their courses do not read personal statements before making offers
- Instantaneous offers – hearing students say they have had offers from a university when we know that the school only clicked and sent their application the day before
Universities should make it clear in their prospectus and other course information that either:
- They take the personal statement seriously and it will count in their selection process
- They will look at it if necessary in clearing but otherwise will not read it
- They will not read it.
We are spending huge amounts of time and energy on something (for example 5 Business Studies choices in the 260-300 range) that may never be read.
Why does all of this matter? It matters because across the UK, hundreds of thousands of young people are getting stressed about something that may not even be looked at. It matters because thousands of Teachers and Careers Advisers are spending large amounts of time helping young people with their personal statements, either one-to-one or in groups, that may never be read. This time could be spent on their subjects or on activities that will really help get them into a career such as practising a video interview, learning about situational judgement tests, doing voluntary work or doing an EPQ.
Surely some courses still read personal statements? Yes, and this is where careers information, advice and guidance comes in. As a general rule, courses that are training for a definite career path can tend to take the personal statement very seriously, obvious ones being Medicine and Primary Teaching. Some very popular courses will include the personal statement as part of their holistic selection process and some courses where there can be a misunderstanding of the content of the course will look to check if the applicant understands what they are applying for
However, I am suggesting (through way too much anecdotal evidence) that the majority of courses, especially at less selective universities, make offers without reading the statement. Also I’m noting some resistance from more selective courses because of the feeling that personal statements are often not written by the individual involved.
I’m part of this charade as well. I help sixth formers with their personal statements and I do assemblies on general approaches to personal statements. The narrative I set out above is all consuming. I’m part of the problem, I need to change.
But is it a problem? It could be argued that getting young people to analyse what they are interested in, think about what they have done so far in their lives and where they might be going is a good thing and I think it is. What I propose is that we do not throw the baby out with the bath water. But the self-analysis should be much more general and should also work for people considering apprenticeships (including degree apprenticeships), school leaver programmes, jobs and other options as well. We have to stop fixing the market (and that’s what it is) in favour of universities over other options. A UCAS sponge that soaks up everything! The effort put into personal statements needs to be much broader and more relevant to the realities of getting in and getting on in the labour market.
You know something is not right when you hear of university staff going round schools helping young people to write personal statements, when the university they work for does not look at personal statements themselves.
I would love to be proved wrong on this issue, to hold up my hands and say I got it completely wrong and that all the work we are doing in schools to help with personal statements is all worthwhile and that they really do make a difference in getting offers, but unfortunately I think I’m probably right in a lot of cases.