Personal Statement Charade

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.

Comments 5

  1. Just came across this article from Andy. I agree with all of Andy’s points and of course he is right to point out the benefits of a student self-analysing why they are selecting a particular course and university. However, why do we have to pretend to students and their families that the personal statement is a major part of selection for most students? The vast majority of courses at the vast majority of universities (including most in the Russell Group) are recruiting not selecting. For most courses if a student can evidence they can get the grades they will receive offers. The percentage offer rate has probably never been higher.
    Do we like to think we hold the key to offers? Is it because we are seen as experts on giving advice on Personal Statements that we do not want to let the students into our secret that it is no longer crucial for most applicants? Of course competition for courses can change (remember 2011 entry?) and the importance of Personal Statements could return but in the short term I doubt it.

  2. One of the challenges is the different recruitment practices, even between Medicine courses. For Bristol for 2017 applications the personal statement carried 70% weighting. For others it’s not given any consideration, or maybe only for talking points at interview. I’m certainly hearing that universities distrust personal statements, as they’ve got no idea who they are written by, and so are relying more heavily on other aspects of applications, like GCSE results.

    I think personal statements have real value in students reflecting on their choices and perhaps writing it brings about a greater commitment to the course, or a realisation that it’s not the right move. As long as some universities use it, and those universities are among a student’s choices, we’re going to be carrying on helping students to write them. I quite enjoy it for the other benefits it brings, but obviously we would spend our time elsewhere if universities phased them out. But then the application process really does become very clinical.

    1. Post

      Absolutely Helen
      The refection element of the personal statement has a real value. This reflection will be really useful whatever they are applying for, and especially if they are applying for an apprenticeship where they may have to get through a strengths based video interview.
      Writing a one sided document about yourself will always be a great piece of Careers Ed.

  3. I always thought that Medicine would be the last bastion of support for the ‘perfect personal statement ‘ however attending a training event recently where a leading Medical School admitted they had stopped reading them and they didn’t figure in selection for interview was a shock. They also mentioned increasing reliance on UKCAT as it has now shown it’s worth and the use of GCSE’s . I think that using GCSE’s plays into the hands of the independent sector as any independent school worth its salt can ensure that quite average students get spectacular GCSE results , however it is much more difficult to do this with A levels. One good point that the medical schools made in support of the personal statement was that it is an opportunity for students themselves to work out why they wanted to apply for medicine and why they are suited to it.

    1. Post

      Very interesting Eirlys! Medicine does seem like the last bastion of the Personal statement.

      Have heard some comments from some selective Humanities degrees admissions staff that they don’t trust who has written the statement so they rely on other issues such as grades and school/college they have been too.

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