For any student who went through the dreaded UCAS application process, the following words will trigger something of a panic: 4,000 characters (including spaces) or 47 lines of text. These characters are what sixth formers applying to university are afforded in order to ‘stand out’ from some 500,000 others going through UCAS (according to last year’s statistics). The question is: do they genuinely convey a student’s own voice and passion for their subject like they purport to?
With the heavy-handed personal statement advice given by schools, relatives and sometimes even external advisors, the phrase ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ perhaps rings true. In fact, this issue of external, paid advisors adds an additional dimension to the problems raised by personal statements.
In theory, personal statements are useful for humanising the application process
Having attended a private school myself, I have witnessed first hand the high levels of assistance which can accompany each application, and which occasionally overstep the expected and acceptable levels of support from personal tutors. Arguably, some of these university spaces would be more deserved by someone with a state school background – a student who didn’t begrudgingly churn out their personal statement, safe in the knowledge that it would be perfected by a dedicated staff member. This point seems all the more significant when it is considered that “the most advantaged applicants are six times more likely to enter a high-tariff institution compared to the most disadvantaged” (The Guardian, 2004 Schwartz Report).
When asked about this, the head teacher at a private school commented: “[the students] are paying £7,000 a term – of course we give them a lot of help, that’s what they’re paying for.” This encapsulates the problem with the personal statement system, and is perhaps indicative of wider issues too. This is also the reason why think tanks have called for the abolition of personal statements from the application process.
They may be seen to propagate some of the rife inequality in the schooling system
Personal statements are not only an amalgamation of every person who has read, revised or advised the applicant on them, but they may also be seen to propagate some of the rife inequality in the schooling system.
We tend to distort ourselves in the hopes of appearing more desirable to a particular institution. This is particularly true when students apply to more elite universities such as Oxbridge, where many students inform their decision of what course to study by looking strategically at admission statistics. Alongside this is the cultivation of false personas. One student I spoke to claimed to have read the entirety of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War in her statement, only to be called to interview and to find out out she had a week to brave all 648 pages of it. Examples like this are abundant. Perhaps this is why some universities have stated that they do not place much (if any) emphasis on personal statements. So is it truly a waste of students’ time to pour so much energy into these 47 lines, which they are told can make or break their application? Not necessarily.
Some may argue personal statements have value in challenging the applicant to genuinely engage with their subject. Few sixth formers truly understand what it means to study the same subject for a three-year period (or longer). Therefore, being forced to read about it may actually serve them well in the long run. I have witnessed a student trying to convey her passion for Classics get one page into Dante’s Divine Comedy before declaring she felt like she was in his seventh layer of hell and opting for her true passion: an Art degree. In some ways, personal statements might be more useful for students than those who read and assess them.
Personal statements might be more useful for students than those who read and assess them
In theory, personal statements are useful for humanising the application process. In practice, however, they fail to accurately reflect the applicant. If universities truly wanted to test the suitability of a candidate, perhaps following the Oxbridge interview model may be the way to go. After all, the process is very effective. To some, the combination of discussing unseen material and attending multiple interviews may seem excessively rigorous. However, the process assesses something personal statements are unable to gauge: whether the student is capable of dealing with the work environment and material which they have chosen to specialise in, at the institution they have applied to. With university dropout rates rising again this year according to reports from The Times Higher Education, this may be an idea for universities to consider implementing. This is especially pertinent in light of recent data suggesting that Oxbridge have some of the highest retention rates of any UK universities. This can be attributed at least in part to their thorough admission process, which sets them apart from other institutions.
It is not realistic or achievable to condense yourself neatly into 4,000 characters (including spaces), but for those who still have to: see it as a self serving exercise, and make sure the course and institution are right for you, instead of the other way around.