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Personal statement system unfair for state pupils, finds research

07 Dec 2012

“Ensure you stand out from the crowd” is UCAS’s advice to applicants on writing personal statements. But new Sutton Trust research today suggests that even among applicants with identical A-level results, some are much better equipped to do so than others.


The research for the Trust by Dr Steven Jones, from The University of  Manchester, has uncovered a different approach to the process between students educated at state schools and colleges and those educated in the independent sector.

The Sutton Trust is urging UCAS to consider whether the personal statement, in its current form, is an appropriate and fair indicator of applicants’ potential. Steps should be taken to make the process fairer for all students.

The UCAS personal statement is an important non-academic indicator that UK universities use as an integral part of their admissions processes. Up to half a million personal statements are written every year.

The Sutton Trust research finds that independent school applicants are more likely to submit carefully crafted statements, written in an academically appropriate way, and filled with high status, relevant activities. State school applicants, by contrast, appear to receive less help composing their statement, and often struggle 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 state schools and 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 more prestigious experiences.

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 involve a Saturday job or a school visit to a business.

All this may affect admission tutors’ decisions. Even though all of the students had the same A-level grades, 70% of applicants from independent schools were admitted to a leading university but just 50% of applicants from comprehensives and sixth form colleges reached a similar destination.

The use of non-academic indicators, such as the personal statement, may be one reason why 3,000 state school applicants for 30,000 places each year fail to enter one of our 13 leading universities despite having the right grades.

Sir Peter Lampl, chair of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said today: “Our programmes, including summer schools, mentoring and work experience, give young people from low and middle income backgrounds opportunities taken for granted by their better off contemporaries.

“But this research suggests that the personal statement further disadvantages from low and middle income backgrounds. Good state schools and colleges already help their most able students apply for places in leading universities. This should become the norm, and groups of state schools and colleges should do more to arrange support for the admissions process locally.

“But admissions processes also need to change. Personal statements should be more than an excuse to highlight past advantages. Applicants should outline how they might contribute to campus life, and universities should make it clear that applicants are not penalised for lacking opportunities in the past due to family circumstances.”

The Trust recommends that the personal statement process could be made fairer by:

  • Asking students to reflect on which attributes they would bring to a course or university, rather than simply listing their previous achievements. There should also be a limit on the number of experiences described.
  • Universities taking young people’s background into account, and judging low and middle income applicants according to the academic and extracurricular opportunities available to them.
  • Schools and colleges individually or collectively providing more practical support to help students through the university admissions process, something already the norm for more privileged students.
  • UCAS changing its ‘free response’ policy to prevent the sale of pre-written ‘personal’ statements.
  • The professions introducing more programmes to provide systematic support for young people from low and middle income backgrounds to access internships and high quality work experience. Leading law firms work with the Sutton Trust to provide such opportunities through Pathways to Law and Prime.

 

Notes for editors

Dr Steven Jones analysed 309 personal statements, all of which were submitted to the same department of the same leading university by students with the same A-level results. His report is available at http://www.suttontrust.com/research.

For media enquires contact:

Mike Addelman
Press Officer
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881567
Michael.addelman@manchester.ac.uk