For students in year 12 it is probably the hardest thing they’ve had to sell: themselves. Blood, sweat, toil and – in many cases – school, parental and financial help goes into writing the Ucas personal statement. But with the cap on student numbers lifted and universities desperate to fill places, will anyone actually read them?
In the past, it was largely admissions tutors working in departments reviewing personal statements. But as applications have increased – some universities get over 45,000 applicants per year – many institutions now employ external “professional selectors” to do the job for them. As a result, although some universities do scrutinise them carefully, many statements won’t even make it through an initial paper sift, according to Paul Teulon, director of admissions at King’s College London. Others are simply looked at for an “overall sense check”.
“My instinct is that they’re probably not being read by teaching staff and I suspect they are being read less and less,” says Steven Jones, researcher in higher education at Manchester Institute of Education. As participation has gone up and many universities have become less selective, he says, the attention paid to personal statements has lessened even further. “Even the more elite universities need to fill places and beneath that level there’s a whole raft that don’t even look at them at all.”
Perhaps a reduced focus on statements would be fairer on students anyway. The 2004 Schwartz Report suggested that personal statements often were not the applicant’s own work, which might tell you more about a candidate’s socio-economic background than their ability. Ucas didn’t accept the report’s recommendation to change the process, even though figures show that the most advantaged applicants are six times more likely to enter a high-tariff institution compared to the most disadvantaged.
Lee Elliot Major, CEO of the Sutton Trust, questions the usefulness of the personal statement. There’s a whole industry built around them, he says, because there’s so much at stake. “Private tutors and former graduates prepare and write them for these young people. You have to look at the system and ask the question: is it fair? I don’t think it is. Ucas should review it.”
Clare Marchant, chief executive of Ucas, said a survey of 118 universities by Ucas in 2016 found that 89% of them used personal statements in their initial decision making.
“Writing a personal statement gives students the opportunity to use their own words to create their own stories about their ambitions and to advocate for what they want,” Marchant said.
Some departments have already changed their admissions policies. “We now use them for 50% of ratings of candidates and I anticipate that will fall in years to come,” explains Simon Atkinson, who interviews medicine, veterinary and dentistry students at the University of Bristol, and thinks that personal statements will eventually not be used in medicine at all. “They’re too unreliable, too easy to get a lot of help with writing, and too easy to write things that aren’t terribly true,” he says.
Independent schools tend to like personal statements because they advantage their own students – and these schools are powerful lobbyists in the higher education sector. But are there any reasons to keep them? The statement arguably helps to inform the overall picture of an applicant. Some students may meanwhile have extenuating reasons for under-performance, and a statement can let universities know about it.
What do universities look for in a personal statement?
In cases where a decision is not clear cut, academics say a strong personal statement can tip the balance in the applicant’s favour. Students might get lower grade offers based on how good their personal statement is. But how often does this actually happen? There is little transparency or consistency in the way they are read. Even within universities, it differs between departments.
As for students submitting applications next week (15 January), best not worry about who’s reading it – just make sure you send it off on time and follow our dos and don’ts.
Finance your business idea through crowdfunding, a wide-reaching digital platform
We’re serious about supporting students and staff to use crowdfunding to fund projects and develop business ideas. We support students to understand crowdfunding processes and get advice on creating campaigns.
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What is crowdfunding?
Crowdfunding uses digital platforms, like Kickstarter and Crowdcube, which allow individuals and groups to ask for donations towards projects and activities. Donations can come from a wide community of supporters within your own personal networks and from people who don’t know you, but love your campaign. It allows people with great ideas to raise the funds they need to make their idea a reality.
Millions of pounds have been raised through crowdfunding in the UK so it’s a powerful force, changing the world and how we engage with communities.
Crowdfunding is about you, your idea and the power of the crowd. We’re here to support you through the process - follow these simple instructions for crowdfunding success:
Why use crowdfunding?
- It’s a great way to raise money for a project or idea you want to take to the next stage.
- It encourages people to be enterprising and source alternative forms of funding.
- It’s an excellent opportunity to expose your work and campaign to a wider audience, creating interest and generating donations.
- It works well for students as they are part of a large community of people (friends, family, staff, alumni) who want to see their projects succeed.
How LSBU can help
Any LSBU student or group of students, club or society within the University can use any crowdfunding platform to create their campaign.
Once it’s created, contact Student Enterprise. It can then be featured online and promoted to students, staff and alumni.
Supporting your success
The Student Enterprise team offer 1-2-1 appointments or workshops for groups of students who want to crowdfund. They cover an introduction to crowdfunding, planning a campaign, creating a campaign and marketing a campaign. Please contact Student Enterprise to find out more.
Download Student Enterprise's Crowdfunding Guide (PDF File 240 KB) for helpful advice, tips and instructions.
Pick up some more useful tips at Crowdfunder.co.uk.
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