How UCAS personal statements disadvantage the poor

 

It’s bad news if you’re disadvantaged and you want to go to university. Admissions have dropped for the second year in a row leading for some to say that those from less well-off backgrounds have been put off by higher tuition fees.

Private schools consistently out-perform state schools, both in terms of grades and university admissions. Whilst universities recognise that exam grades can be affected by social factors such as family situations and the quality of the school, the UCAS personal statement has been held as a non-academic way to assess an applicant’s potential. However, research done by the Sutton Trust reveals that rather than levelling the playing field of university admissions, the opposite may in fact be true.

The research points out that those from better-off backgrounds are often given extra help to write their personal statements, by the school or by parents. A government report says: 'anecdotal evidence suggests that some staff and parents advise to the extent that the personal statement cannot be seen as the applicant’s own work'.

I applied to university as a mature student and was lucky enough to have people around me who were able and willing to help. Without that valuable input I would have really struggled. Academic Robert M. Brown says that students without help 'may feel themselves to be composing in a rhetorical void in which they must write in an unfamiliar genre for an audience that they do not know nor will likely ever meet'.

The research found that, of students with the same A-Level results, 'applicants from sixth form colleges make, on average, three times as many writing mistakes as those from independent schools'. Students from state schools are often left without the advice, help and guidance offered by the teachers and families of those from more well-off backgrounds.

UCAS encourages applicants to write about their work and life experience in their personal statement; however there is a large disparity between the types of experiences that students from different schools have access to. Those from better-off backgrounds are able to take advantage of family connections. In a personal statement from one independent school applicant, their father is described as 'an entrepreneur who has created and sold a number of successive businesses'; the applicant has 'therefore experienced the multi-faceted world of business first hand'. Another student describes visiting an uncle in Japan and 'observing his aircraft brokerage and marketing company'. Most students from state schools are not shepherded into these prestigious looking extra-curricular activities.

By contrast the experiences talked about in the personal statements of those from state schools were generally of a less high profile nature. One student writes: 'In Year 11 we were taken on a school trip to Cadbury World to analyse the aspects of the business'. 

These extra-curricular experiences may well make a difference to how well the applicants settle into the course, but by taking them into account during the application process, it feels like UCAS is giving an inbuilt advantage to those who need it least.

The types of work carried out by applicants also varied greatly depending on school type. Some of the work experience mentioned by independent school applicants were: a shadow stockbroker, a placement to shadow the Indian Ambassador to the United Nations and a placement in an accountancy firm. By contrast the examples of work experience from state school applicants tend to be low skilled work. One applicant describes being a waitress and another describes working in an Aldi and a bakery. the Sutton Trust concludes: 'Even if admission tutors are not impressed by such connections, those applicants with high-prestige, professionalised experiences are better placed to make meaningful connections with the course on which they hope to study'. 

A criticism of the UCAS personal statement is that it is a space to talk about past advantage and not a student’s future potential. Universities in the US seek to prevent this by assuring candidates that they will not be disadvantaged because of a lack of opportunities. Harvard University asks candidates, if they have not had the opportunity for extra-curricular pursuits, what they hope to explore in their free time. It seems that UCAS could learn a lot from the American approach.

Without UCAS taking the lead on this, it is left up to individual universities in how to interpret the personal statement. A spokesman for the University of Cambridge says that 'the university does not take into account non-academic factors such as extra-curricular activities or leadership potential, because we recognise that these may derive from social advantage rather than appetite or commitment'. If universities such as Cambridge are ignoring these factors, why does UCAS insist that they are included?

UCAS writes on its website: 'it is a good idea to list your hobbies and achievements, and then you can decide which ones demonstrate your strongest skills and personality'. Mary Curnock Cook, UCAS Chief Executive says that she has 'every confidence in the professionalism of admissions officers – they are highly experienced in recognising social factors in the content of personal statements. Demonstrating a strong rationale and passion for the course chosen is the number one requirement in a strong personal statement'.

The top universities are certainly aware of the problems with personal statements. A spokesman for the University of Oxford says: 'We have subject-specific aptitude tests as well as detailed subject-specific admissions interviews for shortlisted candidates – so the personal statement carries less weight in the process than it would at many other universities'.

"This is certainly different from many other universities, where having lots of extra-curricular experience is counted positively in the overall admissions process."

Something has clearly gone wrong when most of the top universities are going out of their way to avoid relying on the personal statement. If the personal statement is nothing more than an opportunity to highlight past advantage then it’s no wonder that it would be an embarrassment to base admission decisions on it.

At the moment the discretion of the universities’ admissions department is key to ensuring the fairness of applications. However, the free response structure of the personal statement lends itself to highlight existing social privilege. What is needed is a rethink of the purpose of the personal statement. The focus should be on what an applicant can bring to the university and how they can make their ambitions a reality, and not on the experiences that they have already had.     

News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
i100
Life and Style
fashion David Beckham fronts adverts for his underwear collection
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Independent Dating
and  

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

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape