Bethan Marshall: Why students are right to fear the Ucas form

At this time of year, sixth form common rooms are full of anxious-looking students clutching prospectuses and the dreaded Ucas form for university entrance. It is not surprising that they are so daunted. The average teenager has 4,000 characters in which to explain their achievements to an admissions tutor in some dim and distant university.

Some young people may have been for a look at the university and its environs, but a few hours examining the facilities, and attending the odd introductory lecture, is hardly enough preparation to write one of the most important documents of their career to date, the personal statement.

Most university tutors do understand how arduous the task is. When quizzed, they give a laugh, and say: "Do not, tell me that you like mountain climbing, or that you've got your Duke of Edinburgh award. Tell me why you're passionate about the subject you're going to study."

This, however, is to little avail. Many students, perhaps the majority, apply to study more than one subject on their Ucas form. Having carefully read the prospectuses, and been on the said open days, a student might want to do English at one place, film and literature at two others and American studies with film, at a fourth and fifth. To show a love of English alone on their personal statement would be a mistake. To introduce film or American studies might be too much.

Schools and colleges must take some of the blame for young people over-emphasizing extra-curricular pursuits on the personal statement. They are keen that young people have interests that are broader than simply the academic, which can be summed up neatly in an exam certificate. They are anxious that their teenage charges be seen as the responsible citizens of the future. That is why they push them into listing their captaincy of the football team or their Young Enterprise award. Students put on fashion shows for charity, have global awareness days in the local community, and raise money for Children in Need. All this, their teachers claim, should go on the form. The question is where, and in how much detail? Too much of the personal makes the application sound anecdotal, too little makes the student sound like a drone.

And then there are the predicted grades. Most universities do not bother to read the applications of students who are expected to fall short of the requirements for the course. Teachers making the predictions would thus seem to have a considerable say in whether or not a candidate gets in.

On top of this, some schools, many of them independent, are better at getting pupils in to the top universities than others. So, if you apply from Westminster School you are far more likely to get in to the university of your choice than if you go to a comprehensive in Huddersfield.

There is something about the way the form is filled in at comprehensives – both the personal statement from the young person and the supporting comments of the teacher – that makes it stand less of a chance than applications from independent schools. But nobody seems to specify exactly why this is, or how the comprehensives could improve their performance.

Class, it seems, still plays a key role in the applications process. This finding is most worrying of all. At one school, a head of department was so demoralised by seeing hordes of excellent, A-grade students being denied interviews, let alone getting in, that he was compelled to write to the University of Warwick. He wanted to know just what it was about what he was writing, and what his candidates were writing, that made so many of his students end up on the reject pile. Who knows if they deigned to respond? Most universities no longer interview applicants on the grounds that it would disadvantage young people who are less articulate and polished in their performance than others.

There was particular concern that independent schools students might be more groomed than, for example, students from inner- city comprehensives. So, the interview was replaced by the personal statement. But it appears a bias remains. A university tutor may subconsciously choose someone like themselves, rather than the best qualified. Something is wrong when enthusiasm for the subject and A-grades are not enough. Today's students are right to be anxious about their personal statement.



The writer is senior lecturer in education at King's College, London

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Ashdown Group: Trainee / Graduate Helpdesk Analyst

£20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Data Analyst - Essex - £25,000

£23500 - £25000 per annum + Training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Data analyst/Sys...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Account Manager

£16000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Graduate Account Manager is r...

Guru Careers: Graduate Account Manager / Sales Executive

£18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Account Man...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee